How To Cook Beans: A Fast, Foolproof, No-Soak Method

Yesterday we told you about a great source for beautiful clay pots, and some of you wondered what you would cook in such pots. Well, dry heirlooms beans are one wonderful thing to cook in a clay pot, and as you know, we are huge fans of beans. They're complex and delicious, filling and inexpensive. But then, some of you also frequently email us and ask us how to cook them! Here's one such email, from reader Jeff in Columbus, and a description of the absolutely dead easy, foolproof way we've been cooking our beans lately.

Jeff writes:

You've finally convinced me to make the switch to dried beans, and I'm excited to say that I picked up some garbanzo and black beans at the North Market this weekend. I chose those beans so I could start with something I know and incorporate them into successful recipes I've made with canned beans. But I'm not sure what to do next.

How do I turn a bag of dried beans into a yummier equivalent of a can of beans? Soak or cook or both? Just parboil? What about salt and aromatics while cooking?

I plan two recipes. One is to use the dried garbanzo beans in an already-amazing hummus, so no cooking of the canned beans is required. The other is a black bean and roasted red pepper soup that involves bringing the canned black beans with other ingredients to a boil, then reducing and cooking covered for 30 minutes.

Is the next step different for the two recipes? Also, if a recipe calls for "x cans of beans," do I substitute based on volume or weight? My cans of TJ's organic black beans list both net weight (15 oz.) and "DR weight" (10 oz.). If I'm going by weight, what dry weight is about a can's worth? And, after cooking/soaking/parboiling, what is equivalent for a can?

Wow! You covered all the good questions there, Jeff! First of all, let's talk about how to cook beans, and let me fulfill the promise of the title of this post.

The answer to how to cook beans just needs two words: Your oven.

Yes, the oven is a secret weapon when it comes to cooking beans. I am just finishing my first cookbook, a collection of fresher, faster casseroles, and I played around with beans quite a bit during recipe development. One technique I came across was from Russ Parsons of the LA Times, who bakes his dried beans. I gave it a try and was blown away. It gave soft, creamy beans that weren't split apart or turned into mush. It also cooked the beans in less than 2 hours, without a pre-soak! Amazing! Here's how to do it:

How to cook dry beans in the oven:
Heat the oven to 325°. Put 1 pound of beans in a 3-quart (or larger) Dutch oven or pot with a tight-fitting lid. A clay pot is ideal. Add 2 teaspoons of salt. Add enough water to cover the beans by about 1 inch. Put on the lid and bake for 75 minutes. Check the beans and stir them. If they are tender, take them out of the oven. If they aren't done, put them back in for 15 minute intervals until they are, adding a cup of hot water if they seem to be drying out. This will take at most 2 hours, but will probably take less than 90 minutes.

You can add aromatics like a bay leaf, chipotle pepper, or a few cloves of garlic, but do remember that fresh heirloom dried beans have enormous flavor all on their own. They are not the bland mush of canned beans.

More bean basics:
Canned vs. freshly-cooked beans: I always substitute based on volume. So, since a 15-ounce can of beans will give you slightly less than 2 cups of beans, then I substitute about 1 3/4 cups of freshly cooked beans for a can.
Canned vs. freshly-cooked bean equivalents: 1 pound of beans will give you roughly the same amount as 3 15-ounce cans of beans, or about 5 cups.
Using beans in soups: I would personally cook the beans slightly less, leaving them a little al dente in the center, before adding them to a long-simmered soup.

Readers, do you have other tips for Jeff, and have you ever tried this method of baking beans in the oven? If you haven't, give it a try! It works!

Related: Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo

(Image: Faith Durand)