How to Cook Beans

Ancient philosophers undoubtedly had pressing questions. Yet, I think we can all agree that “how to cook beans” is a very important question of our times. Why? Because there are SO many human health and environmental benefits of beans, and being able to cook your own beans opens up worlds of opportunity! Also note that I’m using the word “bean” here, but this information pretty much applies to pulses in general.

Nothing quite like a delicious pot of home cooked beans!

What Are Benefits of Dry Beans?

Recently, I have had very educated people tell me they didn’t even know beans could be purchased dry, they thought beans only came in cans. At first, I was shocked. But the reality is canned beans are so prevalent in the United States, I can truly understand how some people – especially people whose job does not relate to obsessing about beans 24/7 – may think this.

Before we get to how to cook dry beans (scroll down if the excitement is too much and you just can’t wait) I want to mention a few of the benefits of dry beans and why it is so worth it to cook with dry beans. I also want to say something important here: this article is not anti-canned beans. I think canned beans also have their place. For example, they are incredibly convenient. Keeping a stash in your pantry means you can have a healthy and easy meal on the table quickly. In fact, canned beans are often my breakfast of choice when traveling. I buy a can of beans – whichever ones seem to be popular among locals and/or the most unique can of beans I can find – and have that as a healthy and affordable breakfast. I also know some great canned bean companies that use very clean ingredients and prioritize sustainable practices. However, there are some undeniable benefits to dry beans, including:

You Have More Control with Dry Beans

You can choose what seasonings you add to them, how you want to cook them (electric pressure cooker, stovetop, etc.), and the ending texture you want (softer, firmer, etc.).

Plus – and this is huge in my opinion – you can control where you source your beans and support farmers, businesses, and organizations you believe in. You can buy beans from local farmers and/or bean processors, whereas I have yet to find a farmer that sells canned beans. That being said, farmers are some of the most amazing people ever, so I’m sure there are some of them out there who manage to somehow do this in addition to everything else on their plates.

Pinto planting - early June 2022
Planting pinto beans at a local farm

Dry Beans Are More Affordable

This is, of course, an “it depends” statement. Yes, I know there are expensive heirloom beans out there – and they can definitely be worth their price tag! There are also expensive canned beans. But for our purposes, let’s just compare what I’ll call “regular” beans, or the ones you’ll find on most supermarket shelves. Check out the math below to see what I mean.

Bean Math: Dry Beans Versus Canned Beans

A 1-lb bag of dry beans often costs less than $2 where I live (a 1-lb bag of pintos is around $1.69), and a 15-oz. can costs between $0.79 and $1. A 1-lb bag of beans cooks up into about 4 can’s worth of beans. Soooo…. let’s round to make it easy: dry beans are about two to three times cheaper than canned beans. Note that if you buy larger bags of beans, the per-pound price of dry beans decreases even more. For example, I get 10-lb or 25-lb bags of some of my favorite beans, and they are often closer to $1 or less per pound. Alternatively, start doing a PhD in dry beans and receive a lifetime supply of dry beans for free because farmers, processors, and bean companies are so generous (no, no one is paying me to say that).

Or, go for that 50-lb bag of dry beans – it will probably be less than $1 per pound, and you can gift beans to all your friends and family and be their favorite person. How does that expression go again?? 50 pounds of beans: $35. Money saved: $0.99 saved per pound. Instantly becoming everyone’s favorite person because you give away delicious beans: priceless. Yep, I think that was it.

Here are the numbers for dry versus canned beans, broken down:

  • 1-lb of dry beans ~ 2 cups
  • Each cup of dry beans cooks up into about 2.5-3 cups of cooked beans
  • This means 1-lb of dry beans cooks up into about 5-6 cups of cooked beans
  • A 15-oz. can generally has about 1.5 cups (or a little less) of cooked beans. You need 4 cans to get the same amount of beans you’ll get from a 1-lb bag. And it’s easier to store 1-lb of dry beans than 4 cans.

More Variety in Dry Beans

Generally speaking, there is way more variety available if you shop dry beans. Most heirloom beans and other pulses are not available canned, although I have recently seen some on the shelves.

Heirloom beans and other pulses

Bean Broth!!

IMPORTANT PSA: Save the bean cooking liquid – also called “aquafaba” or “potlikker” – because it will become your new favorite ingredient (if it isn’t already). You can use it instead of vegetable broth in recipes, you can cook rice or other grains in it, or you can straight up drink it because it is delicious. I just finished off a warm mug of bean broth while writing this. Or, get creative and save the cooking liquid and use it as a substitute for egg whites. That’s right, you can whip up aquafaba like you would egg whites. There is no end to the magic of beans!

Save your bean broth!!

How to Cook Beans

Alrighty, let’s talk about how to cook beans! I get asked this question a lot, so I recruited my husband to help make this video. I hope it is helpful and that watching our struggle to film this (example: camera lens fogging up) brings a smile!

For this video, I used 1-lb of dry pinto beans, which is about 2 cups of beans. I’m showing the method of cooking beans on the stovetop, which I find incredibly cathartic. I love to cook beans in slow cookers (like a Crockpot) and will share more info on that soon. I’ll also do one on cooking in an electric pressure cooker…one day.

Yes, part of my PhD work is on cooking beans. (And yes, that also means I get waaaay more than my fair share of farting jokes.) BUT. That does not mean this is the only method you can use to successfully cook beans!! Most likely, you and I live at different elevations and have different beans, preferred cooking methods, and/or ideal levels of seasoning. So, I have complete faith in you to modify and dial in the bean cooking method that is perfect for you.

How to Cook Beans Video

In words, here is what the video on how to cook dry beans on the stovetop shows:

The Steps of How to Cook Beans

  1. Sort through your dry beans. This means removing visibly damaged beans, natural debris like straw, and small pebbles. Rocks are not good for dental health, I’ve been told.
  2. Rinse the beans. Rinse well to remove any dust, and then decide if you are going to soak or not. Soaking reduces cooking time (thereby also saving energy) and can help prevent beans from bursting open when you cook them. Plus, soaking beans and discarding the soaking water may help reduce some of the compounds in beans associated with causing flatulence. That being said! Those same compounds may also be good for gut health. Alas, as are most things in life, cooking beans is not black and white. The ultimate decision making power on how to cook your dry beans is in your hands.
  3. Soak, adding salt to the soaking water. If you’re soaking your beans, go ahead and add them to a large container, covering the beans by several inches of fresh water. Dry beans will expand a lot (about 2-3 times), and you want them to stay submerged. Depending on the pot you are using, that will be something like 8 cups of water for 2 cups of dry beans. If you do not have a salt-restricted diet, add about 1 tablespoon of salt and stir to dissolve. Soak overnight, or for about 12 hours. If you only have a few hours to soak, that can still help. Note that fresher beans will generally absorb water faster.
    • Many people do not soak lentils or dry peas, and some people flat out prefer to never soak beans. You decide what works for you! If you have never tried soaking before, I would recommend giving it a shot (with a bean like a pinto bean) so you can compare the methods and see what you prefer. It’s a fun home cooking experiment to watch the beans expand while soaking and then taste test beans cooked with and without soaking!
    • Salt does NOT prevent beans from softening – that is a myth, and you do NOT have to wait until the end to add salt. If you want more information about soaking beans and adding salt to the soaking water, check out this post, Tips to Shorten Bean Cooking Time.
  4. Discard soaking water, rinse, and add fresh water and salt. When you are done soaking your beans, you should notice that they are visibly larger and plumper. Discard the soaking water (especially if you added a full 1 Tbs of salt), rinse the beans, and add fresh water to cover by a few inches. Add in about 1/2 tsp of salt. If this is your first time adding salt, you can start with less, taste them after they have softened, and add more in the future if needed.
    • If you did not soak your beans, you will likely need more water and more salt to cook them, because they have not yet had the chance to soak up and liquid or seasoning.
  5. Boil and simmer until perfection. Bring the beans to a boil. Placing the lid on the pot will help the beans boil faster, but make sure to keep an eye on them so they do not boil/bubble over. After beans have reached a boil, you can reduce the temperature to more of a simmer. Or, if you are in a hurry, you can keep it on a higher temperature, although you may end up with more beans with split skins. Keep an eye on things to make sure the beans are always covered by water. If the water level is getting low, top it off with fresh water. Note that people recommend adding warm/hot water. I’m going to be really honest here – I sometimes just do room temp water. At least in my experience, it doesn’t seem to really impact things all that much or prevent the beans from softening. So, I guess what I’m saying is: if you can easily add warm water, great. If that’s not feasible, I wouldn’t stress too much about it.
  6. Test for doneness. Depending on the type of beans and factors such as the age of the bean, whether you added salt, and your elevation, beans take varying lengths of time to cook. You can poke them with a fork, and when it seems like they are starting to get soft, taste test a few to see if they are your desired texture, and if you need more salt. If they are still a bit uncooked in the center or you want softer beans, continue simmering. A very general ballpark is anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. I know, that is a wide range. Think of that as part of the fun! For a frame of reference: I soak my beans using salt and live at around 5,000 feet elevation, and it takes me about 1 hour to cook beans.
  7. Enjoy and store. Once the beans are cooked just to your liking, I suggest you immediately enjoy a bowl. After that, divide the remaining beans into containers and store in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. Keep that bean broth!! Like I mentioned above and point out in the video, bean broth is GOLD. Use it in other recipes or enjoy a glass on the spot.
  8. Freeze extra beans (optional). The good news is that beans also freeze very well! If you don’t think you’ll eat your beans within the next few days, go right ahead and cool and then freeze ’em. You can freeze cooked beans with or without the broth, depending on how you plan to use them. I love to have frozen beans on-hand so that if I have to be out of town for a few days, I know I have beans waiting for me when I get back.
Sorting dry beans - how to cook beans
Example of things to look for and remove when sorting beans
Soaking pinto beans - how to cook beans
Soaking dry pinto beans
Soaking pinto beans - dry versus soaked bean - how to cook beans
Check out how much beans swell after soaking! Dry pinto bean on top, after soaking on the bottom.

How to Cook Beans in Less Time

Want tips on how to shorten bean cooking time? Check out the post I just mentioned, Tips to Shorten Bean Cooking Time. Here are a few pointers (and check that post for more details):

  • Soak your beans
  • Add salt to the soaking and/or cooking water
  • Don’t use super hard water to soak and cook
  • Wait to add acidic ingredients until near the end, after the beans have softened
  • Use fresher beans – beans dry out as they age and it takes them longer to absorb water

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