Do You Soak Your Beans? Should You?
What’s the deal with soaking beans? If this question does not shake your culinary spirit to the core, then absolutely nothing is wrong with you. The real answer is: who cares? Nothing has ever really gone wrong whether beans are soaked or not soaked. But we would like to discuss this mild controversy anyway. There is actually sufficient internet evidence to support an argument, or at least a robust discussion. So let’s get into it.
Bean soaking is prominent in most American recipes. This is ingrained in our heads early and the reason is omitted often enough to remain unknown. However this practice is somewhat restricted to American cooking behavior. It is fair to say that some cuisines in Europe might employ soaking from time to time. But most cooks across the globe just cook their beans. There are good reasons to just go ahead and cook those beans in Latin America, Africa, and all over India. The answer is simple: pot of water + seasonings + beans= dinner for many, many people around the world. And not to make anyone feel bad but in some places water is not so plentiful that it should be thrown away, ever. Our neighbors in Mexico, where some of the absolute best bean recipes were born, never soak their beans. So why are we so hung up on the bean soak?
It turns out that the only really good reason to soak beans is to speed up cook time. And by speed up, we’re talking around 15 minutes shaved off of what will still probably be an hour or more. The truth is, beans take time to cook. If you want to use an Instant Pot or a traditional pressure cooker then that will most definitely shorten the wait. Our own testing of beans has covered more ground than most would even dare. Beans vary in size and shape. And vibrant, colorful heirloom beans always fade into muddy, washed out browns. But they all are subject to the same results. Soaking beans will knock off some cooking time but something else happens that could be more important.
Serious Eats editor Kenji-López Alt wrote a great experimental piece on black beans, which you should definetly check out. The main takeaway was that soaking black beans leaves them a drab grey and less flavorful that not soaking. What does this mean? The black bean experiment clearly shows that soaking beans draws water in but also pulls something out. The apparentness of a black bean turning grey may not be seen so easily in other beans but safely assume that something is lost. And that something is probably flavor.
If a solution for the potential soaking woes is still desired, there are options. Try cooking beans in the soaking liquid. Anything that wept out of the beans will be there, so don’t waste it. Wash beans first if needed to ensure no residue or debris is in the water. The second solution is actually a favorite among many chefs; it’s called the quick soak. Simply cover potted beans with cold water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and allow the beans to soak for 1 hour. Then back to the heat and cook as normal. Results vary slightly but expect a reduced cooking time from 5 to 15 minutes and more flavorful beans.
Just to be honest and transparent, there are many articles regarding legumes being soaked in the name of science. Scientific American has a great article on the subject using black-eyed peas. That is the transparent part. The honest part is who are you going to take cooking advice from, scientists or chefs? The correct answer is chefs. Don't measure cooking results by volume or weight when delicious is the primary goal. If soaking is part of your cooking tradition, by all means go in peace and cook well. But if you are on the fence and still trying to figure it out then consider some of our many, many recipes for inspiration and decide for yourself if you want to soak.