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The Right Way to Cook Beans and other Legumes

Beans and Legumes

I don't like the word Legumes. It's just not an appealing word. It also sounds a little pretentious. But for simplicity sake, I am going to use THE word, because all beans are legumes, but all legumes are not beans.

The Right Way to Cook Beans and Other Legumes

Legumes are seeds and need to be activated, just like a seed that one would plant in soil and water. Hence, the practice of soaking legumes. Your mother or grandmother may know what I'm talking about, but our modern convenience based culture rarely takes time to prepare something properly. Canned beans have are not prepared properly and beans have a bad reputation because of it. Cooking briefly in boiling water, or pressure cooking, is not long enough to activate these beneficial properties. Legumes are a simple food, they don't take a lot of hands on time to prepare, but they do take time to break down to become more nutritious, digestible and gentle on the digestive system. Sprouting, soaking and fermenting activates, or unlocks the nutritional potential of legumes, and reduces, or eliminates other adverse affects.

There is a popular trend that has caught on like wild fire amongst traditional food bloggers. I'm not sure where the idea originated, but here it is: soak legumes in an acidic water. My best guess is someone along the way decided that if it was good to soak grains in an acidic medium, then soaking legumes in an acidic water must be good too, right? Wrong! But it was too late. Everyone else decided this sounded perfectly logical, which it does, and it passed from blog to blog to blog. The problem is this: it just doesn't work well. I can't imagine that any of these bloggers have ever had a decent pot of beans. To which I say, I'm so sorry! There is a better way! Acid can inhibit a legume from cooking properly. Experienced legume cooks know that you should never add something like tomatoes at the beginning of a legume's cooking time. If you do, your legume has a good chance of never becoming fully tender. It might work out some of the time, but you are taking a high risk of having to dump the whole batch, or tolerate less than desirable legumes, which I suppose legions of traditional food bloggers are doing.

So, what's the solution? A salt soak! If you've ever soaked nuts, you know that it is typically recommended to soak them in a salt water solution. This works best for legumes as well. I'll admit, it's a bit of a paradox. If you add salt when you begin to cook legumes, it can have the same affect as adding acid while soaking or cooking- they may never become fully tender. Interestingly, if you soak legumes first in a salt water solution, it does not have the same effect. In fact, when you soak legumes in a salt water solution, it allows them to properly hydrate. This means you are less likely to have legumes that "blow out," or split. They will hydrate into well formed, soft, creamy, wonderfully textured legumes. Also, if and ONLY IF, you have done a salt water soak, you are then able to add salt at the beginning of the legume cook time. This process produces legumes that are infused with flavor inside and outside. Hopefully you were able to follow what I just described, if not, trust me.

Having made legumes for years and having tested lots of cooking methods, I promise this method will give you the best quality legumes possible. I teach a weekly class and recently taught this method to my students. I am happy to report that the people in my class have also found success with it. In fact, one lady reported that her teenage son said that she "was rockin' the beans." Now if a teenage boy notices a difference in beans, they must be good. Most importantly, they are considerably more nutritious and easier to digest.

Directions for Soaking and Cooking Legumes

How Much to Prepare

I like to soak and cook enough legumes to cover two meals. The measurements below can help you figure out how many legumes to soak, cook and substitute for the canned version.

1/2 cup of dry legumes = 1 (15 oz.) can of beans, after dry beans have been cooked.

1 1/2 cups of cooked legumes = 1 (15 oz.) can of beans. This amount fits nicely in a pint jar with a little bean broth.

Soaking Legumes

  • 1 Cup of Legumes

  • 3 Cups of Water

  • 1 tsp. Healthy Salt

1. Sort through legumes and discard debris. Most legumes today are pretty clean and I generally find this unnecessary.

2. Place legumes in a container 3x the volume of the legumes. The legumes will expand quite a bit, so you want to give them enough room. No need to rinse and clean them, you'll do that after the soak.

3. I often soak 1 cup of beans in a quart mason jar with a lid placed loosely on the top.

4. Add water and salt.

5. Stir to incorporate salt and soak for 12-24 hours. The bigger the legume, the longer the soak, although for simplicity sake, I usually soak all my beans and legumes for 24 hours.

5. The legumes may still be a bit wrinkly after soaking. Never fear; they will continue to hydrate and fill out as they cook.

6. After 12-24 hours, place an airtight lid on the container and store it in the fridge, soaking water and all, for up to a week, or until you're ready to cook them.


Soaking your legumes in a salt water solution and then doing a low, slow cook equals legumes that cause less of the distress that has given them such a bad rap. It also gives them time to expand, which results in less splitting and more evenly cooked creamy-licious legumes. A low and slow cook also allows the legumes to properly break down, making them more digestible and nutritious.

Some people suggest that scum is impurities rising to the surface, when cooking legumes. This is incorrect. Rather, it's the result of legumes being cooked at too high of a temperature. Legumes take time to break down and become digestible; cooking low and slow is best. For this reason, I do not recommend pressure cooking any type of legume. I have a mini slow cooker that fits 1 cup of soaked legumes and water perfectly.

Cooking Legumes

  • 1 Cup of Legumes

  • 3 Cups of Water

  • 1 tsp. Healthy Salt

1. After soaking, drain the water and rinse legumes well in a colander. If you don't rinse well, they'll be too salty when cooked with fresh water and salt.

2. Draining, rinsing and adding fresh water and salt is entirely up to you. However, it's thought that a high percentage of the oligosaccharides are to be found in the soaking liquid. Oligosaccharides are primarily responsible for, well, flatulence. I hate to waste water and salt, but for the sake of those around you, perhaps it's best.

3. Place rinsed legumes in a cooking vessel. The slow cooker is my preferred method for cooking beans. I usually cook lentils and smaller legumes on the stove top. See directions for lentils and smaller legumes here.

4. Add salt and fresh water.

5. You can add onion, garlic and any other seasonings desired at this time. Just avoid tomatoes and other acidic ingredients, such as vinegar, whey, wine, lemon juice, and molasses. Acidic ingredients can be added after cooking, but they can prevent legumes from becoming fully soft when added while cooking.

6. Slow Cooker: Cook larger legumes such as black beans, pinto beans etc. on low for approximately 8 hours. Cooking time will vary with legume type, as well as the age of the legume.

7. Stove Top: Heat stove to high heat. When the water just begins to boil, turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes - 3 hours, or until they have achieved the texture desired. Lentils, split peas and smaller legumes will not need to cook as long. Soaked lentils for example, cook in about 25-30 minutes. See the directions here for lentils. Larger beans will take from 1-3 hours, depending on the type of legume.

8. Drain, if desired and enjoy. You can store the legumes in a container with some of the broth. The legumes broth is nice to have on hand to give body to hummus, bean dips, "refried" beans, soups and sauces.

9. Legumes store well in the fridge for about a week. After that, they may be stored in the freezer.

Easy and Convenient

Most people turn to canned beans because they are convenient. It is convenient to open a can of beans, but even if you buy organic beans in a BPA-free can, or some type of container that you feel comfortable with (we won't get into that quagmire in this post) they are not prepared properly. You will not reap the nutritional benefits of legumes and you will likely feel the after-affects of legumes that have not been properly prepared.

That being said, no one wants to soak and cook legumes everyday. It just isn't realistic. We only have so much time available in the kitchen and we need to use it efficiently.

Solution #1: Begin soaking 2-3 types of legumes, in separate containers during your 1 hour weekly food preparation, like described above. After 24 hours, place a lid on the soaking containers and store the legumes, soaking liquid and all, in the fridge until you need them, making sure to allow for a low, slow cooking time. Drain and rinse legumes well before cooking. Place beans in a slow cooker in the morning and they'll be ready for dinner, or place beans in a slow cooker at night and they'll be ready to pack warm in a thermos for lunch.

Solution #2: Make 1 large batch each week when you do your food preparation, then freeze legumes in portions. The next week, do a different type of legume and the next week, a different type etc. Keep rotating through the type of legumes that you enjoy and you'll have a variety available in your freezer to use as you need.

Freeze and Thaw

  • When I have extra legumes, I like to freeze them in pint jars with some of the legume broth. The liquid adds nice body to soups, sauces, hummus and dips. Don't overfill the jar, or you risk breaking it. The beans won't expand much, but the liquid does, so keep liquid to about 1/4-1/3 of the way full in the jar.

  • Thawing will take about 2 days in your fridge, depending on the fridge temperature.

  • Quicker thawing: Place the jar of legumes in a small container in the sink. The container should be slightly shorter than the jar of legumes. Fill the container with cold water. With running water, gradually increase the temperature of the water running into the container, allowing it to spill out over the sides into the sink. The gradual temperature change will keep the glass from breaking, but also allows you to more quickly thaw your legumes. You can do this until the temperature of the water has reached the hottest temperature. Let the jar of legumes sit for a bit until they are thawed. Add more hot water as the temperature cools, if needed.

  • Of course, I don't like to waste water, so this is not ideal, but it works in a pinch when you don't have any legumes on hand.


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