Dear Home-Ec 101,
HELP! We tried dried black beans and mistakenly added salt, seasonings, and wine after soaking, and the beans are not getting tender even after hours of cooking.
Are there any fixes for tough beans you know of?
Thanks in advance,
Chewy in Chesterfield
Despite what you have been told, salting the water does not cause beans’ skins to become tough. Some people believe that salt prevents beans from absorbing water, but this has been disproven by a few studies. The salt ions, especially in black beans, actually replace the magnesium and calcium and the beans’ skins resulting in softer skins.
Water generally enters beans through three openings that have fancy names: raphe, hilum, and micropyle rather than crossing the outer coat of the dried bean. So don’t worry too much about adding salt or seasonings to the cooking water. Your beans will still soften even in the salted cooking water.
So that covers salt, what about the wine?
Here’s where the problem may have occurred. Acidic ingredients can cause tougher beans. The acidity can react with the bean’s coating, so hold off on adding acidic ingredients until the end of the cooking process. Acids play a vital role in flavor building, and I am not suggesting that we skip acids when cooking with beans. I just am suggesting to hold off on your acidic layer of flavor until your beans are nice and soft.
If you have hard water, the minerals dissolved in your water can act like the salt we discussed earlier, replacing the minerals in the skin, making them tougher than beans cooked in soft water. While some people suggest adding baking soda to the water, I find that it can create a weird texture and/or a funky taste. If you have hard water, grab a couple of gallons of distilled water the next time you are at the grocery store to keep on hand for bean soaking. I think you will appreciate the difference.
The leading cause of toughness in beans (sounds like I’m about to unveil some scary medical news, huh?) is age. Just because you bought the dried beans from your store last week doesn’t mean they are new. As dried beans age, the pores through which the water enters tend to close, and the outer coating may change, too. If water can’t get into the bean, it won’t soften no matter how long you cook them.
Unfortunately, in your particular case, you added the acidic ingredient early in the process, and the acid has already reacted with your beans. This means that the chemical change has occurred and really can’t be undone.
My best advice is to try again.
For those arriving from Google trying to figure out why your OLD BEANS won’t soften, try with fresher beans.
It wouldn’t do any good to buy the same beans from the same store if they came out of that same shipment from long ago. You will want to buy your beans from a store with a high turnover rate of dry goods.
Additionally, if you live at a high altitude, you may find that a pressure cooker significantly reduces the amount of time it takes your beans to soften and improves your success rate.
*2021 UPDATE* This post was written back in 2012, and since then, the popularity of Instant Pots has exploded. Thankfully, unlike their old-fashioned predecessors, this explosion has only been figurative. I absolutely love my (this is an affiliate link, and I do receive a small percentage if you purchase through it) 8-quart Instant Pot with the air fryer and use it multiple times a week.
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