Cooking dried beans Soaking your beans overnight, to no avail? Hard water may be the culprit!

Dried beans - Shelling beans

Dried beans are delicious, nutritious, and easy to prepare – unless, of course, you live in my neck of the woods.

When I moved to New York, cooking dried beans became a frustrating task. No matter how long I soaked and simmered them, they never quite cooked all the way through.

Then, a couple of years ago, my bean predicament came to a head. I’d invited a friend for dinner and decided to make a favorite Tuscan side dish: cannellini beans with rosemary, served with a drizzle of spicy olive oil.

I soaked the beans for 24 hours and started cooking them hours before our dinner. But I never got to serve them: long after the dinner was over, my beans were still simmering on the stove! I gave up. The entire batch ended up in the compost pile.

How long to soak dried beans? Well, that depends on your water…

The situation was intolerable. Life without being able to cook my own dried beans was simply not an option. After a fruitless Google search, I reached for my cooking bible: Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I found the answer on page 488. The culprit: hard water! The calcium in my tap water, even though I filter it, prevented the beans from cooking all the way through.

I put the book down, made a beeline for the pantry, emptied a jar of black beans in a bowl and immediately soaked them with bottled spring water. The next day, I strained the beans and simmered them with a fresh batch of bottled spring water. Within 45 minutes my black beans were plump and soft, to perfection: a triumph!

Effortlessly cook dried black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans… you name it!

Now I cook a pot of dried beans every week: extraordinarily creamy cannellini beans, flavorful black beans, meaty corona beans, colorful borlotti beans, petite Umbrian chickpeas, tiny white purgatorio beans… the list is as long as it is delicious. And every time my pot of beans simmers on the stove, I give thanks to Mr. McGee. Without him, I might have done the unthinkable: given up cooking dried beans altogether.

One last trick: use baking soda for extra-creamy beans!

If you want your beans to have an extra-creamy texture, you can add baking soda to the cooking water. This is helpful if you want to cook beans for making dips, such as chickpeas for hummus; or if you are cooking very large beans such as Gigante beans. But beware that baking soda can make your beans turn to mush in no time, so keep a close eye on them as they cook. Also, very little goes a long way – see cook’s note below.

Here are some scrumptious recipes that might inspire you to cook a pot of dried beans!

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Pinto Beans

Cooking dried beans

makes 4 to 6 cups (depending on the bean variety)
active time: 15 min

  1. 1 lb (455 g) dried beans (approximately 2 cups, depending on the size of the beans) – soaked 12 to 24 hours with plenty of bottled spring water
  2. more bottled spring water for cooking
  3. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 2 large garlic cloves – peeled and left whole
  5. 2 large bay leaves
  6. 1/8 teaspoon baking soda (optional – see cook’s note)

  1. Step 1: Drain the beans and place in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add enough bottled spring water to cover the beans by 2″. Bring to a boil and skim any foam that forms at the surface. Add the olive oil, garlic and bay leaves (and baking soda, if using) and stir well. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours until beans are tender. The cooking time will depend on the beans’ variety (larger ones take more time to cook), dryness and age.
  2. Cook’s note: Use baking soda only if you want extra-creamy beans or to cook very large beans such as Gigante beans. Baking soda will reduce the cooking time and tend to make the beans mushy, so be vigilant.
  3. Step 2: Remove bay leaves and garlic. Either let cool in their liquid and refrigerate for up to 5 days or drain and proceed with your recipe of choice. Always reserve the cooking water; it’s very flavorful and can be used as a stock.

Dried beans - Shelling beans

how-to, cooking beans, dried beans, bottled water

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  • Reply Josephine November 25, 2014 at 6:39 am

    How do you know if your water is hard? I live in Sydney Australia, and have a filter which makes the water taste a heap better, but have no idea if it’s “hard” water or not. I wanted to start my beans tonight to cook on my day off tomorrow, but maybe I’ll have to get spring water?

    • Reply Viviane November 25, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      Hi Josephine, Filters do not remove calcium in water so they are not helpful here. If you get spots on your glasses after washing them and letting them air dry, then you most probably have “hard water”. In the U.S. there are a couple of very reliable brands of spring water, that are low in calcium, but unfortunately I have no idea what kind of spring water you get in Sydney, so you’ll have to experiment a bit. On a side note, I love Sydney. I grew up spending many school vacation there – a beautiful city! Good luck with cooking your beans!

  • Reply Arianna August 21, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    My once, crunchy dried beans are now saved :). Thank you, thank you!

    • Reply Viviane August 21, 2014 at 5:22 pm

      Arianna! I am so delighted… May your beans always be as soft and creamy as can be!

  • Reply rachel January 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you!! I needed this information. We have very hard water, and I have been struggling with my beans being hard and crunchy, after soaking and cooking for hours!!! I just put them in the pressure cooker with some vinegar- that tends to cut the hardness. I hope it works!! Thank you so much for your post!! 🙂

    • Reply Viviane January 18, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      Rachel… You are most welcome! Good luck and do let me know how it works for you. I’ve never looked back!

  • Reply Rhonda Zoch July 13, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    OH!! Thank you for this! I just read my own life story. I’ve been cooking my black beans for TWO DAYS!!! I just tried pureeing them and making refried…..still chunky! Off they went to the compost. The culprit makes complete sense now…..we are on well water for the first time and it is HARDHARDHARD.

    Off to the bottled spring water stash in the garage……. ; )


    • Reply Viviane July 17, 2012 at 1:18 pm

      Rhonda! You will see that cooking beans is going to be pure joy… I bet you’ll be eating lots of them going forward! Thank you for your comment… It truly made me smile!

  • Reply Syl June 18, 2012 at 2:01 am

    A quick note to say thank you for posting this explanation. I just went through the same thing and had no bloody idea when it happened…lesson learned. 🙂

  • Reply Gerald January 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    I guess I have had the same problem…never thinking that it came from the calcium in the tap water..hahaaaaaaaaa!!
    However I was in Cyprus (Greek side) and asked a PSISTERIA (traiteur) where I buy my ready food among them white beans or butter beans done with olive oil and tomato sauce and seasoning. the man told me the secret was in the oven (heat & high temperature) after boiling beans once and throwing the water away, they would restart boiling it and continue cooking it in tray going to the oven…they would just melt down if u press them with both fingers or in ur mouth, with out feeling the skin of the bean.

    Voila I will try your tip and may be you try mine.


    • Reply Viviane January 28, 2011 at 2:10 pm

      Gerald, thank you so much for your comment. I tend to cook my beans on the stove, but will make them your traiteur’s way for sure! I can only imagine how delicious they must be… Thank you!

  • Reply Karen January 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Thanks for this very helpful information, Viviane. I had the same problem and resorted to canned beans. Now I will find my way back to dried beans. As always, I learn something new from you.

  • Reply Dianne January 28, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Viviane! Brilliant… I am certain I’ve had that problem too. Fantastic discovery and advise, Thank you! This is one I am certain to share with my clients and right now with my detox group… I gave them a cannellini & kale soup recipe, this recipe and article will be perfect for them…

    Thanks again, Dianne

  • Reply Joy January 28, 2011 at 10:03 am

    This is quite the informative article – I had no idea that hard water would cause your beans from softening but it makes sense. Though I’ve never had that problem here, I know what to tell my friends next time when their beans give them issues!! Wonderful post hope you are well lovely 🙂

    • Reply Viviane January 28, 2011 at 10:07 am

      Thank you Joy! It was a bit of a surprise to find out that hard water could have such a negative effect on cooking beans, but was relieved that the problem was so easy to solve. All’s well here… Hope all’s well with you also!

  • Reply Louise January 28, 2011 at 3:05 am

    That’s interesting to know, I’m glad you found the answer to your problem. Even though we don’t have troubles with hard water where I live, I had fallen out of the habit of cooking beans. I’m just restarting. You get such a nicer result than the canned beans- which are convenient of course, but when you’re used to cooking beans, it’s barely an effort at all.

    • Reply Viviane January 28, 2011 at 10:09 am

      Louise, you couldn’t be more right… The canned beans are convenient for sure, but they have that canned-food-flavor that is not so attractive.

    • Reply Andriea February 27, 2014 at 9:24 am

      That’s right when you’re used to cooking beans, there sure is no effort required. Interesting to know how the water makes the difference. we’ve been cooking beans in all kinds of water, salty, pure but have always cooked them in pure-clay pots. i am talking about the unglazed version. they cook my beans & lentils beautifully, and the best part is they don’t get mushy…I love these pots, i got them at Miriams Earthen Cookware, a company that makes them right here and sells online. I also see that when i cook with hard water there are some residual droplets that get squeezed through the pots pores and get pushed out. i guess the clay is pulling out the salts & toxins. Beans turn out just the same. very evenly & well cooked. After cooking in these pots, i now know that the pot you use also plays an important part in the process.

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