Is there a right way or a wrong way to cook beans?

That’s a question I’ve asked many times over the past few decades. My natal family was a meat-and-potatos family. While my mom insisted on at least one veggie dish per meal, it was almost always made with garden-grown vegetables or it came from the fresh and frozen aisles of the local grocery store. Dried beans rarely made it into her kitchen, at least not through my adolenscence when I actually paid attention to what she was cooking and how she was cooking it.

The result was, I got almost all my bean-cooking know-how from books, then later from the internet. I took a lot of what I read with a grain of salt, so to speak, and decided that the way that resulted in me actually cooking them was probably the right way. Anything that seemed insurmountable was just plain wrong in my kitchen.

Many Ways to Cook Dried Beans

I’ve seen three primary ways to cook dried beans: Soaking Overnight Method, Pressure Cooker Method, and Slowcooker Method. Each has its benefits and its downfalls.

Soaking Overnight Method – This is the method that requires you to actually plan your meals in advance. Really in advance. After washing your dried beans, you soak them in water overnight then begin cooking them by boiling for a bit then reducing the heat and simmering for awhile longer. It takes two to three hours of tending plus the aforementioned planning and soaking period.

Pressure Cooker Method – This is the method that works terrific for people who leave meal planning off to the last minute but don’t want to pay the higher price for canned beans. After washing your dried beans, you pop them into a pressure cooker and cover them in a few inches of water. You bring them to the boil for a bit, then pressurize the pot and cook them for about half an hour depending on the beans you’re using. You can also skip the boiling part and go straight to pressurizing and let them cook under pressure a few extra minutes. It takes in the neighborhood of an hour of tending, during which time you can be working on other parts of your meal-preparation. In my experience, this method is the hardest to guage in terms of tenderness of finished beans, thus is most likely to produce either grainy, possibly under-cooked or mushy overcooked beans. With that speed comes the greatest risk, but once you master your timing it can be quite quick and easy.

Slowcooker Method – This method strikes a balance between the two other. After washing your beans, you can bring them to a boil for a bit and then pour the lot into your slow cooker or you can just put the dried beans into the slow cooker with several inches of water and let them cook on low for the day. It takes as little as half an hour of tending if you boil the beans first or five minutes if you don’t. It requires some planning, but not as much as the Soaking Overnight Method.

I’ve combined the three methods at times, too. I’ve soaked the beans for the day, then used the Pressure Cooker method to finish them. I’ve soaked overnight then used the slow cooker through the day both with and without boiling. I’ve skipped the boiling step altogether. I’ve also tried skipping the soaking and using the stovetop cooking part of the Soaking Overnight method starting.

So, Which Method Cooks the Best Beans?

The first answer is…whatever way gets you eating more beans is probably the best choice.

Beans offer a lot of vitamins and minerals, like potassium, magnesium, folate, iron, calcium, and zinc. They’re also an excellant source of plant-based proteins that, when paired with corn, can make up the complete compliment of amino acids we need to create all our proteins. Many, many generations of peoples have relied on beans as a primary protein source rather successfully over the centuries. And, beans (along with a variety of other whole-food fruits and vegetables) are linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes as well as other diseases. Plus, beans are just plain good eatin’.

The more complicated but probably better answer depends on understanding the science that links good human health to good botananical health.

The Story Behind Lectins

The Plants all gathered round one day to discuss the problem of these new neighbors, the Animal and Insect Peoples. The problem was, more and more of the Plants number were being eaten by their new neighbors, and Everyone was distressed. They commiserated, then they strategiezed. Thus was born the Lectin.

Lectins are a chemical defense plants use to ward off predators, including many members of the legume and phaseolus families or pea and bean families. Nutritionists and Dietitians have gone so far as to call Lectins an anti-nutrient because they are so good at binding to carbohydrates and preventing the human body from absorbing nutritients. Lectins can wreak havoc on some digestive systems, causing low grade gassiness right up to blood clotting and severe digestive cramping and distress. The key word here is some…the conditions need to be right for you to have a really bad reaction.

One part The Plants didn’t count on was fire. Humans learned how to heat things up, which led to cooking, which got most of us around the Lectin Defense. When foods high in lectins, like beans, are soaked in water for long periods of time, they tend to shed a lot of their lectins. When those same foods are cooked, most of the rest of the lectins are de-activated. Our innovative approach to food, using fire to make it compatible with our digestive systems, opened the door for our ancestors to make healthy use of the rich nutrient larder those Legume and Phaseolus family plants put up to start their next generation off right. For the vast majority of humans through the ages, beans, peas, and their kin have been a staple in a healthy diet.

Most of us have evolved to happily digest lectin-rich foods, like beans and lentils, so long as we cook them right. Some of us, particularly those with chronic digestive conditions like leaky-gut syndrome or IBS/IBD, may still find the remaining lectins in some foods problematic. If you’re one of those folks with a chronic digestive condition, it may be wise to work with a registered nutritionist (like Phyllis D. Light) or an experiencd herbalist who has worked with chronic digestive conditions before you jump into adding lots of lectin-rich foods into your diet. Likewise, if beans have generally caused you digestive distress, like gassiness, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, intestinal cramping, or other digestive discomfort, you may be among the unlucky few who just don’t play well with lectins. If that’s the case, you can give the Best Method a try, and consider adding a lot of carminitive herbs to your dish, but be prepared to avoid lectin-rich foods. If your’e lucky, cooking them right will be your key to success.

Which brings us back to the question: Which Method is Best for Cooking Beans?

The best answer is, incorporate soaking and boiling into whatever method you use as often as possible. My personal favorite is the method I learned from Phyllis D. Light, which relies on an overnight or day-long soak followed by a 15-minute boil. The key for success is to drain the original soaking water off and replace it with fresh water for boiling. When you boil your beans, skim off as much foam as possible, regardless of whether you pour the just boiled beans and their liquid into the slowcooker or pressure cooker to finish off or let them simmer right there on the stove for a couple of hours.

Foam?!? Yes, foam. When you soak the beans, you’ll be removing a lot of the lectins but there’ll likely be a good sum left. Boiling them for about 10-15 minutes (I generally do 15 minutes to be on the safe side), changes their chemistry. In doing so, you’ll get a lot of foamy stuff that rises up to the top of the pot. That’s the stuff to skim off. That foam is either lectins or sapopines, depending on the beans you’re cooking and the scientist who’s describing them. In either case, that foamy stuff is a byproduct of the chemical reaction that’s de-activating lectins in the food you’re cooking, one you don’t need to ingest to get the best from your beans. Bottom line is: Skim off the foam.

My experience has been that the creamiest, most satisfying beans come from using Phyllis’s method all the way through to the end as she explained it to me, which is also the one that requires the most planning. Her suggestion to make extra and store them in the fridge or freeze them for use later in the week makes this method worth the effort. I’ve planned only far enough in advance to get that first meal cooked, then stashed a couple meals’ worth extra in the fridge to use later without a clear plan on how to do so. A few nights later, when I’ve said yes to a few more activities during the day than I could really manage, I’ve pulled those beans back out, and used them to make cooking that night much easier than it might otherwise have been. Plus, knowing they’re there and I ought to use them has made choosing to eat in a whole lot easier, which has probably been healthier for my body and my budget now that I think about it!