We spend an awful lot of time thinking about how to prepare different dishes and ingredients. And, as Daniel Gritzer has said to me on many occasions, we don't blindly adhere to prevailing assumptions about how things should be made. Serious Eats puts those assumptions to the test, relying on the sound principles of the scientific method to bring our readers the best, most forward-thinking recipes and techniques possible.
Sometimes, that means we simply confirm what everyone knows to be the case. But we also sometimes discover a technique so fundamentally bonkers it not only flies in the face of conventional wisdom, it stretches our understanding of the physical nature of the universe. In those cases we tend to hold back a bit, testing and retesting until we’re absolutely sure what we’ve developed stands up to scrutiny.
And so I am humbled to be able to reveal our most recent discovery: Dry-brined beans.
You read that right. Intrigued? Read on!
Brine Your Beans
In Nik Sharma’s recent article about brining beans in a liquid solution, he wrote:
“Transforming a hard, dried bean into one that's tender, creamy, and enjoyable to eat requires first that the bean absorbs water and then, as it's heated, the bean's physical structure needs to change. The bean's seed coat presents an initial obstacle; the water must first penetrate the seed coat before the interior of the bean can begin to absorb water and cook.”
Nik’s testing was impeccable, his findings clear as bean liquor. In his own words:
“Clearly, using a brining solution with an excess amount of sodium produce by adding both salt and baking soda produced the best results in texture, and reduced the cooking time significantly for both black and kidney beans.”
But his conclusion got me thinking: Do you actually need to add water to get the seasoning and tenderizing effect of brining?
What If You Cooked Beans Like...Meat?
We have been down this road before. For a long time, the word "brine" immediately conjured up the image of a vat of liquid, swimming with sugar, salt, and aromatic ingredients. No matter what you were cooking—a turkey, say, or a hunk of brisket destined to be corned beef—it was implied that the only way to achieve good results was to get out a bucket and fill 'er up. And yet, we all now know that this isn't the case: wet-brining is out, dry-brining is in, and we've all reaped the benefits of this little bit of food science, even if it's kind of a crime against language. The best way to brine meat is to cure it, and that's as true for brisket and turkey as it is for a whole chicken or a steak.
So I thought: Why stop at meat? Why can't we brine other proteins? Why can't we, I said to my colleagues, why can't we dry-brine a dried bean?
Salt Science: What's the Deal With Clumps?
In our guide to salt, Caitlin PenzeyMoog noted that Morton’s kosher salt contains the anti-caking agent yellow prussiate of soda, and in his own story about kosher salt, Kenji López-Alt wrote that table salt contains trace elements which help to prevent clumping. But the reason clumping happens at all is because salt is hygroscopic, meaning that salt attracts water molecules that are floating around in the atmosphere.
You know how sometimes salt shakers in diners will have rice mixed into the table salt? That’s because the rice absorbs the water, helping to keep the salt from forming into a block inside of the shaker. Sure, it looks horrible, like tiny yellow Shai-Huluds burrowing through a mini Arrakis, but if you want pourable, granular table salt, it works.
Turns out, beans can benefit from those water-absorbing grains of salt. As we know from both Nik’s testing and our own extensive bean coverage, soaking beans speeds up their cooking time and also helps to season them, but soaking (in most cases) is not a mandatory step. Considering that, why can’t we just encourage the beans to absorb water that exists in the atmosphere while seasoning them at the same time?
Using Osmosis to Season Beans
Osmosis is the “movement of a solvent (such as water) through a semipermeable membrane (as of a living cell) into a solution of higher solute concentration that tends to equalize the concentrations of solute on the two sides of the membrane.” When osmosis occurs it doesn’t just carry across water molecules, it also brings with it sodium ions.
If we heavily (and I mean heavily) season beans with clump-prone hygroscopic ingredients, such as Diamond Crystal-brand kosher salt (which doesn't contain any anti-clumping agents) and baking soda, any ambient moisture will be attracted by the hygroscopic salt and baking soda, and then absorbed by the beans via osmosis, carrying with it the little known (but vital) ions "seasonide" and "tenderizine." Thus, the beans are brined, but they aren't bogged down with an excess of flavorless water (yuck!).
Here’s the thing, though: you need to go all in on seasoning these beans. I know it looks odd, but don’t hold back. Whatever your version of "whole hog" looks like, add another hog. Is it a lot of salt? Yes. But remember, that salt is providing the beans with the water they need. The more salt you add, the more watery the beans will get, but not in a bad watery way; it's good!
Once you've allowed the beans to dry-brine for a long while—my test revealed that the bare minimum they need to brine is about two days, but they can sit in the brine almost indefinitely, and, in fact, only get better with age—cook them as you would normally. Do you still add salt? I know this, too, sounds crazy, but yes! Load 'em up! The salt will only add more seasoning, of course, but it will also add extra water, soaked in from the air, to the cooking liquid as it flies from your fingertips into the pot.
A Reason to Celebrate
We've often thought that we don't give ourselves enough credit. After all, it isn't often that anyone, anywhere, revolutionizes food science; it isn't common for a cookery website to justifiably be in the running for a Nobel Prize—physics, chemistry, peace...this bean revelation has it all.
On the rare occasions when members of our team do something that will go down in history books, we've decided to introduce NFTs. Books may burn and go out of print, but blockchain is forever, and sound science means we embrace sound finance.
So without further ado, I have the honor of introducing Serious Eats Official NFT #00001.
Obviously the image published here is not the real NFT. Nevertheless, you are not allowed to download it or share it in any way. You can just look at it, forever, on this webpage. Let me say that again: You may not download it. You cannot make it your phone background. You cannot post it to social media or tag us on IG, or otherwise have fun with it. Even if you do, remember: just because you copied it—a thing anyone can do with any NFT—doesn’t mean it’s the original. That one we own, and I assure you it is totally real, and super duper valuable.
- 1 pound (450g) dry beans (such as kidney or black beans)
- 2 cups (or more) Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 1 cup (or more) baking soda
Spread dried beans evenly inside rimmed baking sheet.
Add 1 cup of kosher salt and 1/2 cup of baking soda to beans and stir to mix evenly. If that volume doesn't seem correct, add more. Don't be shy!
What're we doing here, trying to save our salt and baking soda for a special occasion? Throw them on there!
Seriously, you can't overdo it. Really bury those beans.
Let the beans sit in their dry-brine for anywhere from 2 days to 3 weeks. Rinse them thoroughly before cooking them according to any recipe.
This is an April Fool's joke.