Buy dried beans from a place that has a high turnover of beans. (They’re dried, so aren’t they meant for long-term storage?) Yes, but beans that have already been stored for a while will take longer to cook and won’t taste as good as more recently dried beans.
Once you get them home, sort through the beans and pick out any with blemishes and little pebbles.
If you start with about 2 cups of dried beans, you should end up with 5 to 6 cups of cooked beans. Whatever you don’t use right away, you can store for future use.
Give the beans a good rinse, put them in a bowl, and cover them with a few inches of water. Pick out any floating beans—they are too old.
Soak the beans overnight, or at least 6 hours. I recommend soaking them in the fridge—that way, if they soak longer than planned, there is less risk of fermentation.
No Soaking: Split peas and any variety of lentils don’t need soaking; you can go straight to cooking.
For other beans, some people skip the soaking step and just cook them longer. You’ll retain more nutrients that way but you’ll also end up with the unpleasant gassy side effect.
Quick Soak: Bring beans and water to a boil in an uncovered pot, remove from heat, cover, let the beans steep in the hot water for an hour or two, and then drain.
During their soak, the beans should expand to about twice their dried volume and absorb much of the soaking liquid. Drain the beans and discard the liquid. You are pouring out some of the nutrients and most of the gas-producing culprits. Put the beans in a heavy-bottomed pot and cover them with about 2 inches of fresh water.
Add Aromatics and Cook
The beans will be much more flavorful if they simmer with some aromatics. Choose herbs, spices, and vegetables that will enhance your final dish.
Some ideas: parsley, thyme, bay leaf, oregano, onion, cloves, garlic, celery, and carrots. Do not add anything acidic like tomato or lemon until the cooking is done. A strip of kombu (dried kelp) will also help tenderize the beans, though the flavor can come through in dishes where you don’t want it.
Bring the pot to a gentle simmer on the stove with the pot partially covered. You can also cover the pot and put it in the oven at around 300°F.
If you have a slow cooker, it might take a bit of experimentation, but the gentle low-heat cooks beans beautifully. Set to medium-high and cook the beans for 3 to 4 hours.
Skim and Keep a Close Eye
As the beans simmer, some foam will build up on the water's surface—just skim it off. Make sure the beans do not dry out. Add water as necessary to keep the beans covered. Continue cooking the beans until they are tender but still hold their shape nicely. Beans that are falling apart have been overcooked or cooked over too high a heat.
How long? Lentils can cook in as little as 20 minutes. Most beans need 1 to 2 hours or more.
Salt and Cool
Wait until the beans are fully cooked before salting. Then fish out the aromatics and/or kelp, salt the beans generously, and let them cool in their liquid. If you are not using the cooking liquid in the preparation of your dish, freeze it to use another day as a rich soup base.
Storing Cooked Beans
Store the beans in their liquid in a closed container for a few days in the fridge, or a few weeks in the freezer. You can defrost the frozen beans by putting the container in a warm water bath. With cooked beans on hand, you may never need the canned kind again!