Think Salt is the Enemy of Perfect Beans? Think Again.

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

I don’t want to start any bean wars here, but we might be doing it all wrong. Like a great many of you, I was taught never ever to add salt to beans until the end of cooking or else risk hard, crunchy beans that take forever to become edible. But I recently took a chance on a bean-salting tip I picked up from Cook’s Illustrated. The results? They’ve been very surprising.

Far from causing beans to stay tough, the editors at Cook’s Illustrated explain in their recent book The Science of Good Cooking that a combination of brining and salting are key to helping beans cook more quickly and more evenly. First, they suggest brining the beans overnight by adding a salt to their soaking water. Then add a little salt (emphasis on “little”) to the beans at the very beginning of cooking to keep things going.

This two-punch combo of salt action works to break apart the calcium and magnesium ions in the outer skin — the ions responsible for tough skins. This makes the skin softer and more permeable, allowing water to penetrate more easily into the bean itself. This in turn speeds up cooking times and helps cook the beans evenly. I double checked this theory in On Food and Cooking by food scientist Harold McGee, and found that he had the same recommendation for cooking beans from scratch.

I’ve put this theory to practice in my last several batches of beans. I brine the beans overnight in a solution of 1 1/2 tablespoons of kosher salt dissolved in 8 cups of water, which is enough to cover the beans by an inch or two. When ready to cook, I drain and rinse the beans, cover them with fresh water, and add a teaspoon of salt. (If I am cooking the beans with something else salty, like bacon or a parmesan rind, I reduce the salt to 1/2 teaspoon.)

I’ve been exceedingly pleased with the results. I often feel that my batches of beans are hit or miss — some get creamy, some always stay a little al dente; some stay intact, and some burst out of their skins. With this brining and salting technique, I have gotten much better and more consistent results: creamier beans that stay intact and don’t seem to take forever to cook. It’s not perfect — I’ll still get some blow-out beans and some beans mysteriously take longer to cook than others — but overall, I give this salting technique a thumbs up.

Oh, by the way, are you wondering what does make beans stay tough and take longer to cook? The culprits are usually either cooking them in hard water, cooking them with acidic ingredients (like tomatoes), or old beans that are past their prime.

Have any of you tried this technique? What do you think?

(Image: Emma Christensen)