Getting down to chili and beans


Subscribing to Cooking Light magazine changed the way we eat in this house. For one thing, I was able to lose forty pounds between the time Matt popped the question in February of 2007 and my last dress fitting in August (when I was ordered by the seamstress to “knock it off” because there would be no more chances to alter the wedding dress before our September date). For another, I have become downright adventurous in the kitchen. I don’t know if it’s the fault of those tantalizing photographs or what, but I became compelled to try all manner of recipes that were quite different from my usual, very limited, repertoire. One Cooking Light recipe that has been firmly ensconced in my personal collection is for Beef, Black Bean, and Chorizo Chili. We liked it so much and made it so often that when we planned the 2009 garden we decided to grow the black beans and pinto beans that are called for in the recipe, as well as kidney beans, which I have always liked. We knew we should eat more beans because they are one of the cheapest forms of protein available and nothing could be easier to store. However, we had no idea how to cook dried beans. The vast majority of modern recipes (and most of my vintage ones, too) call for canned beans. As I plunged into what seemed like it should have been the simple matter of cooking with dried beans, I soon came up with three quandaries with no clear answer: 1) Do I or do I not add salt to the soaking/cooking liquid? 2) At what point in cooking can I add acidic ingredients? 3) Can I cook dried beans in my slow cooker?

  1. (Un)salted soaking and cooking water – At one of our favorite junk stores I picked up a book called Beans: Seventy-Nine Recipes for Beans, Lentils, Peas, Peanuts, and Other Legumes by Bonnie Tandy Leblang and Joanne Lamb Hayes which gave me, I thought, all the information I needed on cooking with dry beans. They recommend preparing dry beans by starting with a slow salt soak: “10 cups water and 2 teaspoons salt to 1 pound of beans” for 6-8 hours or overnight at room temperature or in the fridge. They also recommend cooking them with salt though they note that this will lengthen the cooking time. I went merrily along until I encountered this statement in the back of Cooking Light Slow Cooker (Terri Laschober, ed.): “Dried beans may take longer to tenderize if salt, sugar, or an acidic ingredient (such as tomatoes) is added at the beginning of the cook time. For best results, add any of these ingredients after beans have cooked until tender.”
  2. Acidic ingredients – The other issue raised by the statement in Cooking Light Slow Cooker as quoted above is the issue of acidic ingredients. Neighbor-Lady recently acquired a copy of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, to which I’ve heard reverent references on the internet. She dropped by one day a few weeks ago with a cup of the tastiest homemade hummus I have ever encountered. While on my porch, she mentioned that Nourishing Traditions says that acidic ingredients “pre-digest” the ogliosaccharides responsible for the musicality of the fruit. (“Hmm.”) The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (or, as we call it, the “Plaid Book”) remains mute on this subject, but another slow cooker resource I had on hand, Rival Crock-Pot Cooking (Rival Manufacturing Company 1975) agrees, saying “sugar and acidic foods, such as tomatoes, tend to have a hardening effect on beans; therefore, always soften beans thoroughly before using them in baked beans, chili and similar recipes.” Beans does not make any statements about the acid issue, either, and as their recipes all specify precooked or canned beans the issue never arises.
  3. Slow cooker or stove top – During that chat with Neighbor-Lady she wondered aloud about cooking beans in her crock pot. I told her not to because I had read in the Plaid Book that “soaking dry beans overnight does not work for crockery cooker recipes because the beans never become tender.” (Her turn to say “Hmm”.) Cooking Light Slow Cooker makes no specific statements on this issue, but it does include a recipe calling for dried beans with no mention of soaking. Rival Crock-Pot Cooking agrees that beans should be cooked before adding to slow cooker recipes. Beans makes no mention of slow cookers.

Answers! After two failed attempts to contact the American Dry Bean Board I got my answers from the FAQ pages of the United States Dry Bean Council: 1) Yes, salt will toughen the beans and should be added just before serving. 2) “Add acidic foods, such as tomatoes, vinegar, lemon or calcium-rich molasses, near the end of the cooking time, because these ingredients may toughen the skins.” 3) You can cook beans in a slow cooker, but it takes a long time and can’t be hurried. They need 6-8 hours or overnight.

— Amanda

Photo by Teodoro S Gruhl on


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