Cook’s Illustrated’s The Science of Good Cooking, my latest library rental, is organized by concepts — 50 of them! — but none so much as #28 halted my page turning: Don’t Soak Beans—Brine ‘Em. I read on to discover that Cook’s Illustrated recommends not only soaking beans in salted water but also cooking beans in salted water — as in salted water right from the start. Note: This is NOT a book to give to your favorite nonna.
I’ve tried the method now on both cannellini beans and black beans, and I have to say, the beans are cooking up so nicely — creamy, intact, and cooked through — in just about 45 minutes. Let me share with you Cook’s Illustrated’s scientific explanation:
“Soaking the beans in salted water is the key to beans that cook up with tender skins. Why? As the beans soak, the sodium ions replace some of the calcium and magnesium ions in the skins.
- (I’m lost, you?)
Because calcium and magnesium ions form links between pectin molecules, they are responsible for creating strong cells that are tightly bound together.
When they are replaced by sodium ions, the pectin weakens, leading to a softer texture. During soaking, the sodium ions will filter only partway into the beans, so their greatest effect is on the cells in the outermost part of the beans.
- (Head hurts.)
When brined beans are cooked, preferably with a little salt, the result is tender skins.
- (Got it!).”
I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison — I’ve left that to America’s Test Kitchen — but once again, I’ve drunk the bean-cookery Kool Aid: from here on out, beans will be brined and cooked with salt from the start. I’ve been soaking/cooking a pound of cannellini beans at a time and then making Marcella Hazan’s white bean soup from her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, (a better choice for your favorite nonna).
It’s simple: sauté garlic in olive oil, add beans, cover the pot, and cook for 6 minutes. Uncover, add water (or stock), and cook for another 6 minutes. As the beans simmer, some of them break down and cloud the broth, turning it creamy.
For a bean soup, there is very little liquid, and in the preface to the recipe, Marcella notes why: “If one really loves beans, all one really wants in a bean soup is beans.” She adds only enough liquid, olive oil and garlic “to help the cannellini express the best of themselves.” This isn’t a brothy soup and Marcella actually notes, too, that it can thickened up and served as a side dish. I’ve been toasting hunks of bread, smothering them with the stewy beans, and shaving Parmigiano Reggiano over top. It is delicious. Yes, soaking the beans and cooking them takes time, but once you have them on hand, these beans take no time to materialize.
Have a wonderful weekend, Everyone.
PS: Rancho Gordo named a bean after Marcella. I had to order some immediately.
Stewy bean ingredients:
Sauté garlic and sage (if you’d like):
Marcella Hazan's White Beans with Garlic and Sage
Yield 4 servings
Bean soaking method: Cook's Illustrated The Science of Good Cooking. Stewy Beans adapted from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (In the book, the recipe is called "White Bean Soup with Garlic and Parlsey") Serves 2 This is a half recipe, so if you wish to make more, double the quantities keeping the cup of water/stock the same. Marcella adds parsley (no sage) to her beans, so if that sounds nice, go for it — she adds the parsley at the very end. She also purées a half cup of the beans through a food mill. I find this step unnecessary because the beans break down on their own.
soaking and cooking the beans:
- 3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 qts water
- 1 lb. dried white beans, such as cannellini or great northern
- 1 onion, peeled and halved through the core
- a few sprigs thyme
- 1 clove garlic, smashed
- 1 bay leaf
for the stewy beans:
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small bundle sage, optional
- 3 cups cooked white beans, drained
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup water, chicken stock or vegetable stock, plus more as needed
- bread for serving
- grated Parmigiano Reggiano for serving
- Soaking and cooking the beans:Dissolve the 3 tablespoons of salt into the water. Add the beans and soak for 8 to 24 hours. Drain, rinse and place in a pot with the onion, thyme, garlic, bay leaf and remaining teaspoon of salt. Cover with water by three inches. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook at the gentlest simmer for about 45 minutes or until the beans are cooked through. Let beans cool in their cooking liquid. Discard thyme sprigs, bay leaf, and onion. Store beans in their cooking liquid.
- Making the stewed beans: Place the oil and chopped garlic (and sage bundle if using) in a soup pot and turn the heat to medium. Cook the garlic, stirring it until it becomes colored a very pale gold.
- Add the beans, a pinch of salt (I added about ½ teaspoon kosher salt, but you may want less), and a few grindings of pepper. Turn the heat to low, cover and simmer gently for 5 to 6 minutes.
- Uncover, add the cup of water or stock and simmer for another 6 to 8 minutes or until some of the beans have broken down and turned the broth creamy. Taste, and correct for salt and pepper. Turn off the heat. Note: If the bean liquid thickens up too much, add water or stock as needed to thin it out. If you make this ahead and plan on reheating, you most likely will need to thin with water or stock. Taste again, and correct seasoning as needed.
- Place toasted bread into soup bowls. Ladle beans over top. Shave cheese over top.