I can still remember the first time I made a pot of home-cooked beans. Up until then my only experience of beans was straight from a can. Cooking dried beans felt exotic and old-fashioned, fancy and cowboy all at once. I took my first bite of a simple batch of Good Mother Stallard beans from Rancho Gordo and almost yelled out loud — they surprised me so much. Deeply rich and meaty, swimming in a broth that came just from the beans — no garlic and onions — it seemed like kitchen witchery that transformed dry beans and water into such flavor.
Beans have become a regular staple in my kitchen since then, no less magical for their familiarity. But I did discover an even more magical way to cook them: in the oven. Let me explain why this is my favorite method of all.
What's the Best Way to Cook Beans?
There are plenty of good ways to cook beans: On the stove, in the slow cooker, and in the pressure cooker.
All have their advantages and disadvantages. But I was prompted to choose my favorite when a reader, Jeff, emailed a few years ago and said he was ready to take the plunge into cooking dried beans.
Here's the gist of his question — maybe you've wondered something similar?
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?
To soak, not to soak; does salt make the beans tough? How long do I cook? For such a simple, homey food, beans can feel a little complicated. So I decided to share the most hands-off, trouble-free way to cook beans that I know.
Why I Cook Beans in the Oven
After cooking quite a few pots of beans on the stove, I came across a great article from the great Russ Parsons at The Los Angeles Times. He bakes his dried beans in a covered pot at a low temperature, and he swears that you don't need to soak when using this method. 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!
I love the oven method because I find it the quickest (after the pressure cooker) and also the least likely to crack the beans. They cook evenly and without any hands-on time. When cooking on the stove it can be tricky to keep a low simmer, and I often find that I have to top up the pot with water. Not so in the oven; just leave them be while you eat dinner and watch your favorite TV show, or while you're lazing about the house on a Saturday. Last but not least, I find the flavor best when cooked in the oven. The spices and seasonings really permeate the beans, and I find their flavor blooms better than on the stove.
Choosing Beans (and a Pot)
The best results will be from great heirloom beans, like the ones from Rancho Gordo and other growers who are preserving terrific heirloom varieties with tons of flavor.
Also, the traditional clay pot, like these wonderful pots from La Chamba will help your beans cook nicely and give them an earthy, smoky flavor. But you can also use any oven-safe pot with a lid. Just make sure you give the beans plenty of space to expand; they'll grow as they cook to about three times their original volume.
To Soak, or Not to Soak
When I first shared this method, I was pretty hooked on the idea of not soaking beans. I often want beans just an hour or two before dinner, and completely forget about the soaking step.
However, these days I still soak, when I remember to do it, because I find that the beans do cook a bit faster and more evenly.
Here are some of the pros and cons of soaking your beans before cooking them:
- Pros: They cook faster and more evenly, especially when you're dealing with larger beans or beans that have been in the cupboard for a long time. Certain beans, like chickpeas, really must be soaked or they'll never soften. Also, soaking — it's not that hard. Just dump them in a bowl with some water and go to bed. (Easier said than done for me, but still.)
- Cons: You have to dump them in a bowl and cover them with water before going to bed. Most beans will cook just fine without soaking (again, large beans, old beans, and chickpeas are an exception here). Also, some cooks argue that the soaking leaches out some of the flavor and makes the beans flabby.
I've cooked plenty of beans with soaking, not soaking, and with the quick-soak method. But as long as they're cooked in the gentle, even heat of the oven they've always turned out beautifully.
So this is the method I use. It takes a lot longer to explain than to actually do it!
Using Beans in Recipes
- Substituting freshly-cooked beans for canned beans: Substitute based on volume. A 15-ounce can of beans will give you slightly less than 2 cups of beans, so substitute 1 3/4 cups of freshly cooked beans for 1 can.
- How much 1 pound of beans makes: One pound of dried beans will yield roughly the amount of 3 (15-ounce) cans of beans, or about 5 cups.
- Using beans in soups: Cook the beans slightly less, leaving them a little al dente in the center, before adding them to a soup that will be simmered.
Soak the beans: Eight hours or the night before you want to cook the beans, pour them into a bowl and cover them with an ample quantity of water. Stir in 1 heaping tablespoon salt. Let the beans sit all night at room temperature, then pour off the water in the morning and proceed to cooking. Note on soaking: As I discuss above, this method works really well even if you don't soak your beans. I do try to remember to soak as I find they cook faster and more evenly — especially when dealing with enormous beans like these Chestnut beauties. But you can also skip soaking, or do a fast soak as detailed in the Recipe Notes.
How To Cook Beans in the Oven
Makes 4 to 6 cups cooked beans
What You Need
1 pound dried beans
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Garlic cloves, optional
Bay leaf, optional
Other herbs, dried or fresh, optional
3-quart or larger oven-safe pot with a lid, such as a Dutch oven
- Soak the beans: Eight hours or the night before you want to cook the beans, pour them into a bowl and cover them with an ample quantity of water. Stir in 1 heaping tablespoon salt. Let the beans sit all night at room temperature, then pour off the water in the morning and proceed to cooking. Note on soaking: As I discuss above, this method still works really well even if you don't soak your beans. I do try to remember to soak as I find they cook faster and more evenly — especially when dealing with enormous beans like these Chestnut beauties. But you can also skip soaking, or do a fast soak as detailed in the Recipe Notes.
- Heat the oven to 325°F and put beans in an oven-safe pot: Heat the oven to 325°F. Drain the beans and put them in an oven-safe pot that holds at least 3 quarts. I like using this Dutch oven, but a clay pot is also very good.
- Stir in salt and pepper: Add 1 teaspoon salt and a generous quantity of black pepper to the beans.
- Add smashed garlic cloves, a bay leaf, and other herbs, if desired: These aromatics are optional; good beans have plenty of flavor on their own! But I often like to add a few smashed cloves of garlic and some red pepper flakes, or a sprig of rosemary.
- Cover with water: Cover the beans with water. There should be at least 1 inch of water above the beans. Bring the pot to a boil on the stove. (Note: If cooking red kidney beans or white cannellini beans, boil for a full 15 minutes. Both contain levels of a toxin present when eaten raw or undercooked, and if you want to be on the safe side, boil them before putting them in the oven to ensure this is completely gone.)
- Bake for 75 minutes, then check: Cover the beans. Put in the oven and cook for 75 minutes. Taste the beans to see if they are soft and cooked through. Small beans, such as little pintos, will often be done at this point, especially if they soaked all night. If they are still mealy or crunchy inside, put them back in the oven and continue checking in 15 to 20 minute intervals until done. This will usually take no more than 90 minutes, but allow more time if your beans are large, or if they weren't soaked. Taste and season with additional salt if desired.
Note: Smaller beans will cook faster. Very large beans, like the ones I show here, can take significantly longer. These were not soaked, and took about 3 hours to cook completely. Beans often also soften more in the refrigerator overnight.
On Soaking, Salting & Digestion
- Fast-Soaking Beans: If you don't soak overnight, you can do a quick-soak by bringing the beans to a boil, covered with water, then taking them off the heat. Let soak for 1 hour, then pour off the water. Proceed as directed above. Read more on this method: How To Quick-Soak Dried Beans in Just One Hour
- Salting Beans: Many cooks believe that salting beans at the beginning of cooking makes them tough. We've seen through some good work by Cook's Illustrated that this isn't the case, and actually, it's beneficial to soak your beans in briny salted water, which helps season the beans and also starts the process of softening them. We usually soak in salted water overnight, then add a little more salt while cooking the beans. Read more about this: Think Salt is the Enemy of Perfect Beans? Think Again.
- Digestion: Most people have a little, well, digestive trouble after eating beans. We've tried a lot of different ways to minimize this (soaking, no soaking, salt, herbs) and results really vary amongst cooks and eaters. Check out the comments below for some great suggestions for minimizing gassiness, including kombu (dried seaweed), dried epazote (an herb), and meat tenderizer.
Storing & Sourcing Beans
- Storing Cooked Beans: Cooked beans can be stored in the refrigerator for about 3 days. You can also freeze them in tightly sealed containers or bags for several months.
- Buy Great Beans! Once you get into cooking good beans, you'll never look back. The beans I cooked here are Chestnut Limas from Community Grains. My favorite place to shop for heirloom beans with a lot of flavor is Rancho Gordo.
Updated from post originally published December 2009.
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(Image credits: Faith Durand)