I recently published a paper, The Effects of Elevation and Soaking Conditions on Dry Bean Cooking Time, about bean research and how to cook beans faster. My colleagues and I chose to publish this in Legume Science. (I know, awesome that there is a journal dedicated to the science of legumes, right??)
Here, I want to share some of the findings about how you can cook beans faster!
Background and Inspiration for this Bean Cooking Research
“Beans take too long to cook.” I hear this a lot. (Maybe you do, too?) Naturally, this motivated me to look into ways to shorten the cooking time of beans.
My research at Colorado State University (CSU) focuses on how to help people increase bean intake, so that we can all reap the many environmental and human health benefits associated with this incredible food. Research shows that one of the main barriers to eating more beans is long cooking times. Plus, cooking with dry beans can be confusing or feel overwhelming for consumers wanting to try it for the first time. For this research, I partnered with Dr. Carlos Urrea of University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Dr. Karen Cichy and Madalyn Scanlan in Michigan to investigate simple, accessible tips that will help beans cook more quickly. If people have a positive experience cooking dry beans – and are able to cook them quickly – they are more likely to continue doing so. Because once people realize how amazing beans are, there is no going back!
What Type of Bean Did We Use?
To help control for some of the variables that can influence cooking time, we used pinto beans grown in the same location, under the same conditions (in this case, irrigation). We also used the same cultivar of pinto beans, because different cultivars can cook differently. So, Monterrey pinto beans for this experiment it was! For those of you who are wondering where you can see on a bag of beans you buy in the store what type of cultivar it is, that isn’t really an option. But, for now, just know that, like there are many cultivars of tomatoes, each type of bean also has multiple cultivars. I mentioned this is my post about Beany Conversation Starters.
Essentially, different cultivars are better suited for different growing conditions and help ensure we have genetic variety. Bean breeders are constantly using traditional breeding methods to try to make sure that we have beans that produce good yields and also are resistant or tolerant of challenges such as dry or wet climate, diseases, and more.
How Did We Measure Cooking Time?
A Mattson cooker was utilized to measure cooking time. This video demonstrates how a Mattson cooker works to standardize data collection. Below, you can also see images of the machine and the data collection program that records the individual drop time of each pin. (If you watch the video, the photos will probably make more sense.)
What Factors Did We Evaluate?
For this study, I wanted to focus on two main things: elevation and cooking condition.
Elevation and Bean Cooking Time
Elevation is one factor that can greatly impact cooking time, with dry beans taking longer to cook as elevation increases. One of the main previous studies on beans and elevation was conducted by Bressani and Chon in 1996. Sure enough, they found that beans cooked at sea level cooked a lot faster than those cooked at over 2,000 meters.
For this study, we tested four different elevations, as shown in Table 1. The elevations ranged from slightly above sea level, in Michigan, to over 3,000 meters/10,000 feet, in Leadville, Colorado. As you can see, water boils at lower temperatures as elevation increases.
Prefer feet over meters? I’ve got you covered:
- 263 m = 863 ft
- 1,200 m = 3,937 ft
- 1,569 m = 5,148 ft
- 3,125 m = 10,253 ft
Cooking Condition and Bean Cooking Time
Seven different cooking conditions were examined. A cooking condition represented the combination of the soaking method and the salt added to the soaking water. The two soaking methods used were (1.) a traditional overnight soak; and (2.) a quick soak (i.e., boil the beans for a few minutes, let them sit for 1 hour, and then proceed as if you had done an overnight soak). To the soaking water, one of the following was added: (1.) water only; (2.) a 1% solution of sodium chloride, i.e., table salt, in water; or (3.) a 1% solution of sodium bicarbonate, i.e., baking soda. There was also one comparison condition, with no soaking and no salt added. The seven cooking conditions are shown in blue circles in the figure below. Table salt and baking soda are ingredients that many people have in the home, they are pretty cheap, and research suggests they can help beans cook faster. So, in case you were wondering, that is why we chose to test them. 🙂
How Long Did It Take to Cook the Beans?
The average cooking times for each location and cooking condition are shown in Table 2. Cooking times are shown in minutes ± standard deviation (SD). The abbreviations mean: (1.) NaCl = 1% sodium chloride (table salt) soaking solution; (2.) NaHCO3 = 1% sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) soaking solution. Solution here just means that the particular salt (whether it was table salt or baking soda, both are considered under the broad category of “salts” for our purposes) was dissolved in the water. As shown in Table 2, cooking time increased with elevation.
Looking at the comparison condition of no salt and no soak, the average cooking time at the elevation in Michigan – close to sea level – was about 88 minutes. Above 10,000 feet in Leadville, the beans took 296 minutes to cook when not soaked (that’s almost 5 hours!).
Soaking the beans helped the beans cook faster, as we would expect. This was true for both the overnight soak and the quick soak. For instance, the beans took a little over 2 hours to cook without soaking at the 1,569 m elevation (Fort Collins, Colorado), but soaking in water only dropped the cooking time to about 1 hour. When table salt was added to the soaking water, that time dropped to about 50 minutes, and to only about half an hour when baking soda was used in the soaking water.
One common point of confusion around cooking dry beans is the addition of salt. Many chefs will tell you that adding table salt to the beans before they are fully cooked can prevent them from softening. As you can see in Table 2, we found this to be the opposite of the truth. In fact, adding table salt helped the beans cook faster. Thus, if you are not on a salt-restricted diet, adding salt not only helps make the beans more flavorful, but it gets them on your table more quickly. Baking soda shortens cooking time more than table salt. However, it can make the beans very soft, so experiment with this method to see if you like it. Rinsing the beans after soaking them in baking soda helps prevent any off flavors from the baking soda. Another option is to try baking powder instead of baking soda.
How to Cook Beans Faster
Findings from this study were combined with evidence from the scientific literature to create a CSU Extension handout. The handout is being distributed online and through classes and various venues. You can read more details about the tips in this handout here.
Personally – note that this is not in the study, but just my personal recommendation! – my go-to method is to soak beans in salted water, as I find it produces a great flavor and helps them cook faster. If I know I’m working with older beans, I’ll often add some baking soda to help them soften faster. I use a mix of different cooking methods. Most often, I cook on the stovetop, but I also use my slow cooker (CrockPot). I sometimes use a pressure cooker, but not very often, and that’s just personal preference. However, if you live at really high elevations, I probably wouldn’t recommend cooking on the stovetop because of how long it can take.
You can find the full article, The Effects of Elevation and Soaking Conditions on Dry Bean Cooking Time, available in the journal Legume Science. I also did a write-up of this research for the Fall 2023 edition of The Bean Bag, published by the Nebraska Bean Growers Association.
There were LOTS of references that went into this work. Here, I am only listing the two specific ones I mentioned in this post. If you want a more detailed reference list, you can refer to my paper, which includes about 50 references at the References section at the end. Happy bean reading!
Bressani, R., & Chon, C. (1996). Effects of altitude above sea level on the cooking time and nutritional value of common beans. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 49, 53-61.
Didinger, C., Cichy, K., Urrea, C. A., Scanlan, M., & Thompson, H. (2023). The effects of elevation and soaking conditions on dry bean cooking time. Legume Science.