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The Eternal Question: Bean Soaking. Or Not.

You know you've gone from casual cook to bean freak when you find you are interested in whether or not to soak beans. Like the amount of vermouth in a martini, nothing stirs a bean person's soul like this subject of soaking, except maybe when to salt. Soaking Rancho Gordo heirloom beans As I've said before, I don't really care what you do as long as you're cooking beans. Canned are fine, I suppose, but the fact that you have to rinse off the muck is enough to throw my squeaky old can opener back into the utility drawer. Bean broth is a real gift. Along with superior flavor and texture, your pot liquor should be reason enough to cook beans. As for soaking, I've seen it claimed that I'm against it. This isn't quite true. If I'm home and I think about it, I also soak. Normally this would be Sunday morning, right after coffee. I clean and rinse a half pound of beans and cover them with fresh water by about 2 inches. Around the time I'm making lunch, I put the pot on to cook. I don't change the water, but again, if you think this is going to help make them digestible, go for it. I don't. In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee, everyone's favorite food scientist, says this about soaking and changing the water, "This does leach out the water-soluble oligosaccharides- but it also leaches out significant quantities of water-soluble vitamins, minerals, simple-sugars, and seed-coat pigments; that is, nutrients, flavor, color, and antioxidants. That's a high price to pay." Long and complete cooking helps break down the digestion-challenging oligosaccharides. But if it's early afternoon and I suddenly have the whim to make beans, there's no way I'm not making them because I had forgotten to put some beans to soak. Just go ahead. It takes a little while longer but it's not an impossible or even undesirable thing. Another option is the pressure cooker. Within an hour of the idea, you can be eating heirloom beans. Many pressure cooker fans are soakers, which to me defeats the convenience of pressure cooking. Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen, and author of Vegan Under Pressure, suggests soaking beans and then freezing the soaked beans with their soaking water in plastic bags and then just dumping the contents into your pressure cooker when you're ready to cook. Others like the "quick soak" method, where you pour boiling water over your beans and let them "soak" for an hour, then strain them and start cooking. Guess what? Soaking in boiling water is cooking. I think you might as well just start cooking them if this is what you're going to do. My current, and so far fool-proof, technique is soaked or not, bring the beans and water up to a full boil and keep it there for 15, maybe even 20 minutes. Not a gentle simmer but a rapid boil. This initial bullying makes it clear to the beans that you are in charge and there's no turning back. Then reduce the heat as low as you can take it. If you're in a hurry, a nice simmer is fine. If you're cooking for pleasure, the gentlest of simmers is best. Low and slow and loaded with love. I promise you, you will find your groove. It takes a few pots but instead of just following directions, you're really learning to cook and this will stay with you forever.

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