Everyone, and I mean everyone, should know how to cook black beans. If the idea of beans that don't come from a can is news to you, I'm not here to judge. We all start somewhere. Even in the U.S., where beans have been cultivated for millenia, there's been an explosion of heirloom varieties just in the past few years as people move beyond the can. Heirloom bean producers like Rancho Gordo have spread awareness that the variety of delicious dried legumes available is nearly infinite. But when it comes to burritos, I have strong feelings. As much as I love pinto and refried beans, I think a good burrito needs black beans. They're meaty, and almost mushroomy at the same time, and great on their own. In fact, they're the beans I cook most often at home. And they're much, much better when made from scratch. If you've always eaten your beans from a can, here's a simple guide for how to cook black beans.
* * *
Black beans, explained
The common bean — the species that includes black as well as pinto, kidney, and cranberry beans — was first cultivated in southwestern Mexico around 7,000 years ago. The bean itself is a seed, consisting of an embryonic plant (which becomes the sprout), surrounded by two hard, nutrient-rich leaves called cotyledons, which are in turn encased in a hard, water-resistant seed-coat. Beans are full of nutrients, particularly starch and protein (three times as much as in wheat or rice), and also packed with flavor. Like many other seeds, dried beans are tough, and need some coaxing to transform into the tender, creamy morsels I spoon over, well, everything.
* * *
How to cook black beans: slow or fast?
Have you ever noticed how, when boiled in water for just a few minutes, vegetables turn to mush, yet seem to stay crunchy forever when simmered in tomato sauce or a wine-soaked stew? That's because the acid present in tomatoes and wine inhibits the breakdown of tough cell walls. With black beans (and all other dried beans), the same is true, but where a firm vegetable can be a satisfying contrast to tender braised meat, a tough bean is liable to break a tooth. If you're adding beans to a braise that'll cook all day, use acid to your advantage, safe in the knowledge that your beans won't fall apart before the other ingredients are cooked through. But if you're strapped for time, there are a few ways to accelerate the process.
Rinse any debris from your beans, then transfer them to a bowl and cover with water by about an inch, then transfer them to the fridge and let soak overnight. Soaking beans can cut down cooking time by about a quarter. J. Kenji López-Alt recommends adding one tablespoon of kosher salt per quart of soaking water to cut down cooking time even more, and to season the beans throughout. If you forget, you can soak in warm water for up to four hours, to speed up the process.
The addition of baking soda to soaking water decreases bean-cooking time by about three quarters. Just as acid slows the breakdown of cell walls, bases such as baking soda accelerate it. Just a pinch will do: Too much can spoil the taste of your beans or cause them to go mushy.
Wait! Be careful what you wish for
Though soaking beans in water with salt and baking soda accelerates the cooking process, it has two drawbacks. First, salt and baking soda slow starch-gelation inside the bean, meaning you're more likely to get a grainy, rather than creamy, result. Second, long-cooking actually helps to break down the indigestible carbohydrates that contribute to gassiness. Quick-cooking beans are convenient, but they might end your dinner in disaster (think: the Hindenburg). Epazote, a pungent herb traditional to several Central American cuisines, not only adds a delicious, earthy flavor to black beans, but also reduces the risk of your party going up in flames. Asafoetida, a spice used in several South Asian cuisines, works too.
* * *
How to cook black beans until perfectly creamy
- Soak black beans overnight in salted water (with or without a pinch of baking soda) in the fridge.
- Add to a pot with just enough of the soaking water to barely cover the beans (add more liquid as they cook if necessary to keep them covered).
- Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down to a simmer over medium low heat.
- Add in seasonings like a few garlic cloves, a quartered onion, or a pinch of epazote per pound of beans. But don't add anything acidic (like tomato paste or wine) unless you have all day.
- Cook until tender, about 1 to 2 hours, depending on how old your beans are and your stove's power (start tasting after 45 minutes, and add more salt if the beans taste bland, or more water if they're too salty). If the liquid drops below the level of the beans, top up with more of the soaking liquid.