Spilling the Beans about Beans

Pulses constitute one of the largest groups of edible plants; lentils, peas, chickpeas and soybeans have been consumed in different regions around the world since ancient times.  Common beans, belonging to the genus Phaseolus, are native to the Americas.  Two on-going arguments about cooking dry beans have been whether to pre-soak them or not, and when to add salt to the pot.  Many Mexican cooks have succinctly preached against pre-soaking for decades, but some people argue that pre-soaking dry beans and draining before starting the cooking time with fresh water will: 1) shorten the cooking period; 2) remove some of the toxic phytic acid present in different degrees in all beans, and 3) prevent flatulence.  About salting, Mexican recipes will generally advice to season towards the end of the cooking time, but a lot of baked bean recipes call for a hunk of salt pork to be added at the beginning of the process; the “Science of Good Food” (by David Joachim et al, 2008) goes further by explaining that pre-soaking in salted water will cause sodium to displace calcium and magnesium in the bean cell walls, softening the skin, and hence, shortening cooking times.

I was ready to grab a couple of bags of dry beans and conduct some experiments on pre-soaking and salting, when I found two articles by Russ Larson (LA Times 1994 and 2014) and a test by J. Kenji López-Alt from the Serious Eats Food Lab, addressing these issues; they were thorough enough that I felt I had enough facts to take a stand on the arguments.  First, they support the Mexican approach of no pre-soaking, because: 1) when actually measured, cooking times were not dramatically longer, just 20-30 minutes, compared to pre-soaked beans, 2) it is cooking, not soaking, what takes care of the phytic acid (most canned beans are not pre-soaked, for example), and 3) both authors comically found no noticeable differences in flatulence (other people make the argument that fiber causes gas as well, and will always be present in beans, anyway).  It was also emphasized that in terms of flavour, colour and texture, the pre-soaked beans, especially when the original water was drained, were found inferior to the batches cooked without pre-soaking.  As for the salt, it seems to be good to add at the beginning to soften the bean cell walls, as explained before, which will help to better absorb the seasoning, whereas adding salt at the end will flavour mostly the broth.

Frijoles de la olla is the traditional pot of beans that used to simmer on the back burner of every Mexican stove for what seemed like an un-ending length of time.  It was -and still is for many families- a staple that homemakers liked to have always available, to meet any circumstances or deadlines in their kitchens; there is even the expression “echarle más agua a los frijoles” – “add more water to the beans”, to make the dish more abundant when unexpected guests arrived close to a mealtime.  For this purpose, a large batch of dry beans would be cleaned, placed in a pot (preferably clay), covered with boiling water and left to cook along with a scoop of lard, and maybe some onion; other seasonings were added after the beans were fully cooked.  For my beans from the pot, the only details that changed from the traditional recipe were that I scaled down quantities, enough for four to five side bowls, and that some salt is added at the beginning of the cooking process; both details were enough to facilitate a reasonable cooking time without pre-soaking, resulting in a thick broth and flavourful beans.  More salt was added towards the end, as needed, with the rest of the seasonings.

Beans from the Pot – Frijoles de la Olla

Printable recipe: Beans from the Pot


1 cup dry beans (black, pinto, bayo, or canario)
5 cups water (approximately)
½ onion
1 tbsp pork lard (or 1 tbsp vegetable oil, for vegetarian version)
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 sprig fresh epazote (see note *)
2 serrano peppers (or jalapeño peppers, or omit)

Wash an drain beans; remove any brush, pebbles or damaged beans; set aside.  Bring water to boil in a large pot, then add beans, onion, fat and salt.  Bring back to boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook beans, covered, until tender (about 1 1/2 hrs.), checking occasionally to make sure the beans are completely covered with water; if needed, add more boiling water.  Once beans are fully cooked, remove lid, add epazote and peppers, if using, and adjust seasoning with more salt, to taste.  Let simmer for another 10 minutes.  Makes about 2 cups of cooked beans, plus broth.

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* Note: I have mentioned epazote in a previous post; it is called wormseed in English, and it is an easy to grow herb.  In addition to the unique flavour imparted to the beans in the pot, it is also said to help prevent flatulence.  If epazote is not available, a combination of summer savoury and parsley might achieve a pleasant result both in terms of flavour, and digestive comfort.

FUN FACT – The expression “to spill the beans” has a number of possible explanations, one coming from an ancient practice of voting by placing coloured beans in a pot, then tipping the beans out and counting them right before announcing the results.  This practice was used as recently as the time of the American colonies, when Pennsylvanians commonly voted by tossing beans into a hat.

I am bringing my recipe to What’s for dinner? Sunday Link-Up # 210 with Helen @ The Lazy Gastronome.

18 thoughts on “Spilling the Beans about Beans

  1. Love it! Though I’m quite keen on pulses myself, I hadn’t thought of writing a post about …beans. A recipe to try, for sure … if I can source the epazote.


    1. Thank you! It just fell into place; as I was finishing my post on beans, I saw your prompt and thought it was meant to be 🙂
      I think epazote might be available in the Southwest and Chicago areas in the US, maybe NY, but I do not know about other places or countries. Here in Ontario I had to sow my own seed, but as I have mentioned in other posts, you do it once and then it grows like a weed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting studies. I realize that I have been taking both paths. When doing slow cooking I just bung dry beans into the pot. But we always have some beans soaking in the kitchen for when we need to use them in a hurry.

    Liked by 1 person

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