The Dreaded Kidney Bean


by Emily Thorson

Beans! They are a good source of protein and can be mixed with pretty much anything (animal or vegetable) to create a near-complete meal. I used to buy canned beans, but have recently switched to dried beans because (here is the part where you think I’m going to say “they have a much more delicate flavor than canned beans” or “the consistency is far superior” but the answer is actually…) I have very small kitchen cabinets and round cans are an inefficient use of space.

So dried beans it is! This mostly works out fine–I can store them in adorable Ikea canisters and buy what I need in bulk at Whole Foods. But WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH KIDNEY BEANS? They will not cook properly. We had lots of people over for a football game recently, including a number of IFAers. I figured I’d make my chili recipe. It’s easy (has only meat + beans) and delicious. The meat was great. Spices, great. The beans? Despite hours simmering away, they refused to properly soften (everyone said the chili was fine but I know that they were secretly judging me. I deserved it).

Last night I made a dish of dal with cabbage and walnuts, courtesy Mark Bittman. I used three types of beans: adzuki, black-eyed peas, and kidney beans. The first two were done in under two hours. Our kidney friends? Well, I let the dish simmer for six hours, then gave up because I didn’t want to go to sleep with the stove still on. The rest of the dish was turning to mush, but the kidney beans were still unacceptably firm. This morning I actually went through and picked most of them out in an attempt to salvage an otherwise perfectly tasty dish.

Oh, and here’s the other thing about kidney beans–they cook unevenly. At any given point, a third of them will be perfect, a third will be falling apart, and a third will be positively hard. What’s with that? Is it me? Is it because I’ve been raised on canned beans and can’t appreciate my legumes al dente? Am I missing some extra kidney bean step? This sucks.

Also: more on the previously blegged bake-off coming soon. In the meantime, here’s the photo set.


21 responses to “The Dreaded Kidney Bean

  1. Your beans did not soften because God is punishing you for putting beans in chili, and kidney beans at that. If you must violate the 11th Commandment, at least use pintos.

  2. Do you soak them overnight before you cook them. That’s what my mom does, and her beans rock. Me, I use the cans…

  3. I’d second the soaking idea.

  4. Could it be salt in the recipe? Adding salt (and acid–maybe from tomatoes?) early in the cooking process for kidney beans makes them tough and lengthens the cooking time.

  5. Yeah, I have to throw in another vote for Karen’s comment.

    That being said, if you ever want to make them in a dish where they belong, or by themselves, you’ve got to soak them overnight, and don’t add salt until the very end.

  6. Danny Goldstein

    Francine is right. You have to soak them overnight, preferably a full ten hours.

  7. OK. Soaking overnight is doable, although requires more foresight than I prefer to expend on cooking. Maybe I’ll just stick to smaller beans (woo lentils!) that can cook along with the food. Although I would like to point out that one never *has* to presoak beans. The issue is how long you’re willing to simmer them. Any bean can be simmered to doneness, the problem is that if you mix it with food too early then your food will be simmered to over-doneness.

    The salt comment is interesting. Could definitely be part of the problem. I do enjoy randomly throwing large amounts of salt into dishes. Man, salt is the best.

    Oh and re: chili…perhaps it will redeem me if I tell you that I keep the beans SEPARATE from the meat so that people can add beans only if they want to. They’re more of an accessory (like sour cream or cheese) than part of the actual dish.

  8. A lot of supermarkets have low turnover on dried beans, so they’re old. They’ll keep for over 5 years when dried, but after the first year or so, you get the weird. A slow cooker can cook for 10-12 hours and at a low enough heat to mitigate a lot of the weird.

    At a certain point tho, you’ve got to stop buying beans from the stores that have no turnover.

  9. I know that in theory beans can be cooked properly without pre-soaking, but I’ve never had it work for me. And they’re so easy with pre-soaking. Especially black beans — I have a heck of a time with tough skins on them if I don’t pre-soak.

    You’re cute — thinking that mentioning beans in the same breath as sour cream with regard to chili — would be in any way redeeming.

  10. Nathan Williams

    I’m doubtful about the effect of salt on bean toughness. Appeal to authority: So is Mark Bittman.

  11. I’ll second “soak, no salt, no acid.”

    You can quick-soak beans by covering with water, bringing to a boil, and letting sit for an hour. Or just put them in a bowl of hot water while making your first cup of coffee and cook them after lunch (that’s what I usually do).

    It’s not that beans won’t cook if you don’t soak them; it’s that they cook very unevenly, and the skins crack and they turn to mush. And tough-skinned beans do not, in my experience, cook well in acid liquids like tomato juice.

  12. You must have gotten an old batch. Soaking helps, but sometimes beans just take MUCH longer to cook than you expect. Whenever I make beans for company, I cook them the day before (soaking them the previous night). That way you can be sure that your beans get all the time they need to cook without the stress of having hungry guests waiting (and if they’re really stubborn, you still have time to start over or run out and buy some canned). Besides, beans taste better the day after you cook them.

  13. After carefully reviewing these comments, I have determined the following:

    (a) I had a couple of crappy batches of kidney beans.
    (b) People are VERY prescriptive about their chili. Honestly, I can’t really get behind that attitude. Why can’t everyone just eat whatever kind of chili they want to? Some people can have their crazy beany sour creamy chili, and other people can enormous bowls of meat, and those Ohioans can put theirs on top of pasta (SO WEIRD) and everyone can be happy! What’s so bad about that?
    (c) Soaking: a pretty good idea! Pre-cooking: an even better one.
    (d) IFA commenters: Really, really awesome. And helpful! Also, funny.

  14. Once upon a time, my housemate and I got home early and decided to make a big ol’ pot of chili for the house. Housemate #3 comes in and says, “Hey, you’re making chili! Great! I hope you’re not putting any beans in it.” Housemate #4 comes in and says, “Hey, you’re making chili! Great! I hope you’re not putting any meat in it.”

  15. I’ve always found kidney beans excessively stubborn in any incarnation. I use habichuelas rosadas in my chili (sorry @Karen!) and they work well — they soften easily and they are milder than kidneys. At the risk of advocating a cop out — just switch beans :-)

  16. I feel your pain on kidney beans…I’m even more crippled by high altitude and find presoaking and using fresh beans to be the keys to success. Just one thing about kidney beans – be extra careful with them being undercooked since it increases the chance of a specific to kidney bean foodborne illness, see for more info.

  17. Celia nailed it. It’s not kidney beans per se, it’s throwing them into salty tomato stuff. Salt especially will mess with bean cooking. Sooo — if you’re going to trammel your chili with kidney beans (and as a northerner, I do so regularly, and I put the chili on spaghetti too, so there), either cook the beans separately or just use canned beans.

  18. I found this discussion in an attempt to find out if the kidney beans I cooked in the pressure cooker [for a few minutes longer than the booklet said] and that are not soft enough, though seemingly cooked, can be put back in with boiling water, and cooked longer under pressure. No one on the web seems to have answered this question.
    Toby – Salt Spring Island, BC

  19. You must cook the kidney beans to the right ‘doneness’ before adding them to the tomato sauce.

    I don’t know the intricacies of the chemistry, but they do not cook any more once placed in the tomato sauce.

  20. It’s been long time since u got this problem, so I hope u must have figured out by now what the problem was…….if not then soaking is highly recommended for kidney beans…..if u don’t plan ahead of time then was, rinse & cover them in enough water & bring them toboil cover & turn the gas off. keep it for 2 hrs. & now boil them as u would do it for overnight soaked beans.

  21. Well I always soak them overnight and i never add salt – those beans have now been cooking on the stove for 5 hrs and still hard as pebbles.

    Can only assume that they’ve been on the grocery store shelf since Adam was a lad – it’s hard to know how fresh they are when there is no sell-by date i think that should be compulsory.

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