Why Won’t My Dried Beans Soften?

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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

Heather says:

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.  

Good luck!

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

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12 thoughts on “Why Won’t My Dried Beans Soften?”

  1. I’m making pasta e fagioli for my first time. Sadly, when I’m testing the soup before adding the pasta the beans are hard. I understand they may be old because I did soak them overnight and then I did cook them for 1 1/2 hours in water and aromatics. I am going to try to bake this in the oven and see what happens. If that doesn’t work I’m going to try the great idea another reader suggested and blend them to make a dip. Wow am I disappointed it smells so good in here.

    Reply
  2. I have never found the ordinary bolletti beans from the shop which are not organic to be hard after soaking them overnight and cooking them for only half an hour. It is the organic beans that never seem to soften, so that makes sense, maybe they are much older!

    Reply
  3. Thank you! I wondered if freshness had anything to do with it. We bought dried beans years ago and soaked them overnight, then cooked them on the stove for 2 hours, then cooked them overnight in the crock pot and they were no softer than when we got them in the mail! People said I didn’t do it right, but now I know what happened. I shall try them again. SO much cheaper. Thanks!

    Reply
  4. I let my beans soak overnight and I didn’t cook them right away. When I was ready to cook them I noticed they started to grow roots. I’ve never cooked black eyed peas before, are the beans still OK to cook?

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    • YES, and they are more nutritious that way! Sprouting beans causes changes that make the bean’s energy, minerals and everything else more accessible to the human body. I wish my beans had sprouted, hell they never even got soft! way too old.

      Reply
  5. I added tomatoes too soon while my black beans were cooking, the beans were tough but not too bad. A good fix for tough beans is to blend them up and make soup or dip. I added chicken, kale & enchilada sauce, it was beautiful!

    Reply
  6. Will tough or chewy beans make people sick? I made a soup for dinner using dried white beans. I soaked the beans in water overnight and cooked the soup for 90 minutes but the beans were still very chewy. I don’t want my family to get sick from this soup, which was delicious except for the beans. Thank you.

    Reply
  7. Great idea to try. I had not thought about dried beans getting too old but it makes sense.Thanks for the tip, a good one as usual. I am going to buy a new bag for my next batch of baked beans.

    Reply
  8. Half of my family doesn’t like beans and when I have convinced them to try them, sometimes I’ve had the problem of undercooked/not soft beans.  I’m now buying THRIVE Instant Black Beans (they have a couple varieties) – ImTHRIVing.shelfreliance.com/instant-black-beans.html.  I can now have beans in 20 minutes without the problem.  For full disclosure, this link is to my online store – but I was a customer before I became a consultant with Shelf Reliance.

    Reply
  9. After soaking the beans over night, I usually cook them on low in the slow cooker all day with the seasonings that I want to use. Patience is a virtue with dried beans. They won’t be hurried.

    Reply

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