At Milk Street, we cook with dried beans as often as possible; their taste and texture trump the convenience of canned. But Jamie Hunte of Tyrone, Georgia, recently called Milk Street Radio to say she has been struggling with them. Sometimes they cook up crunchy, other times mushy, and never as full-flavored as they should be.
This is a two-part problem: how to cook beans and how to infuse them with flavor as they cook. To find a best approach, we cooked nearly 12 pounds of kidney beans. Soaking them overnight was crucial. Beans that weren’t soaked cooked unevenly no matter what cooking technique we used. Soaking them in well-salted water (2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt in 8 cups water) was also key, producing the tenderest, fullest-flavored beans.
The salt softens the tough skins, allowing the beans to better absorb liquid. For the actual cooking, the direct heat of the stovetop produced irregular results. The more uniform heat of the oven was best.
We brought 1 pound of beans to a boil in 6 cups water with 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt in a Dutch oven on the stovetop, then baked them covered for one hour at 250°F, then uncovered for another two to three hours to concentrate the flavors of the liquid.
For better flavor, we took a lesson from Italy, where beans are often cooked with aromatic seasonings. We like using 1 chopped onion, 2 bay leaves and a whole head of garlic with the top sliced off (after cooking, squeeze the cloves into the broth to flavor and thicken it).