Dried black beans are an economical food -- and when made from scratch they taste better than canned beans. Once cooked, black beans can be used to fill burritos and tacos or make anything from Cuban-style black beans and rice to black bean soup to bean salad. They also serve as a fine stand-alone dish on their own or paired with a wedge of lime. Other beans -- including pinto beans -- can be prepared in a similar manner.
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To Soak or Not to Soak
Some recipes and preparation methods suggest soaking dried beans, including black beans, for 4 to 8 hours before cooking. However, food expert Russ Parsons recommends against this common practice. He found that unsoaked beans had a firmer texture and a deeper flavor than beans cooked after either an overnight soak or a quick soak, which consists of bringing a pot of beans and water to a boil and then removing from the heat and letting the pot sit for an hour before proceeding.
When to Salt
Whether or not to salt beans -- and when -- is another point of controversy. Many experts contend that salting the beans before cooking makes them take longer to cook and turns them tough; however, Parsons once again found that salting before cooking made no difference in texture or cooking time. However, salting at the end of cooking does allow you to more closely control the final taste.
Seasoning the Beans
Besides salt, it's always a good idea to add aromatic elements to your bean pot before cooking to enhance the flavor of the final dish. Rancho Gordo recommends a simple mirepoix of chopped onion, carrot and celery sauteed in lard, bacon drippings or olive oil as a flavor base. Or use a bay leaf and a couple of crushed cloves of garlic, thrown in when you add the water. Other additions include fresh herbs such as a branch of rosemary or sprigs of Mexican oregano, or leaves of epazote. Serious Eats suggests adding a whole orange cut in half to the pot for a subtle flavor boost.
A Simple Pot of Stovetop Beans
To prepare a simple pot of black beans on the stovetop, choose a heavy-bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven. Add a cup of beans and 4 cups or more of water to cover. Bring the water to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender. This could take 2 to 4 hours, depending on how long your dried beans have been in storage. Add water as needed so that the beans are always covered and the dish remains brothy.
Beans Cooked in the Oven
You can also cook a pot of beans successfully in the oven. Use any large oven-safe pot with a lid -- a clay pot is traditional but a Dutch oven or deep skillet will work as well. Heat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover the beans with plenty of water and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Cover the pot, transfer them to the oven and bake for 75 minutes. Check for doneness and continue cooking until tender. This method takes slightly less time than stovetop cooking, and you are less likely to cook all the water off and accidentally scorch your beans.
To really speed up bean preparation, use a pressure cooker; a 6- to 8-quart pressure cooker works for a pound of beans. The Kitchn also suggests adding a tablespoon of olive or other cooking oil to the pot to keep foam from clogging the pressure valve. Follow your pressure cooker's instructions as to what pressure setting to use, how to secure the pot and how to release the pressure. Slow depressurizing helps avoid split beans. Black beans can be pressure-cooked in less than an hour, making this method the fastest by far.
Dried beans can also be cooked in a slow cooker. A pound of beans can be prepared in a 3- to 4-quart slow cooker. Add beans and water. Set up the slow cooker according to manufacturer's directions and let it work on the low setting for 6 to 8 hours. Although this method takes longer than others, using a slow cooker allows you to cook beans without supervision safely.