It’s a cook’s nightmare. The table is set, hungry diners hover, and the beans still aren’t done. They’ve been cooking for six hours, but still haven’t softened and never will.
For those of us who have foresworn canned beans in favor of the real thing, the unpredictability of dried beans’ cooking time can turn a nourishing meal into a game of chance. Lentils or black-eyed peas are usually a safe bet, often done within an hour. Soaking beans overnight may shorten the cooking time a bit, but only if they have the potential for softening at all, and most any kind, from navy to kidney, can occasionally be recalcitrant.
Various culprits have been offered: salt, acidic additions such as vinegar, acidic water or certain minerals in the water. But the most likely factor is the age of the bean. Unlike fresh vegetables, dried ones don’t show their age, so you don’t know whether you’re buying a lively, nutritious, foodstuff or a useless has-bean.
Out of caution, I often prepare bean dishes the day before, or stage a back-up scenario, such as pasta. If they still remain hard, an added pinch of baking soda does the trick, since we have acidic water. (Not too much or they’ll get mushy, with an odd taste.)
But the best solution is to lay up a good winter’s supply of beans I’ve grown myself the previous summer. I like to plant several different kinds for variety’s sake — say, black turtle beans, white cannelinis and some dark red Vermont cranberry beans, always saving some of the seeds to plant next year.
Beans are sown when the soil is good and warm. Pole beans, grown vertically, take up the least space, but for drying I often choose the bush type whose pods ripen all at once rather than in a long succession.
Dry beans are harvested when the pods are crisp and tan-colored. They can then be hung in clusters in an outbuilding, spread out on a table or stored in large baskets until there is no hint of moisture left. You can then put the pods in a feed sack, old laundry bag or pillowcase, and stomp on them to make them release their seeds, which will collect at the bottom of the bag. Pouring them into a container or tossing them with your hands while a breeze (or a fan) is blowing will get rid of the last of the chaff. Store them in sealed jars in a cool place.
Though an extremely easy crop to grow, a year’s supply of beans do require a lot of garden space — at least 100 feet of garden row — and I find there are never quite enough of them. Just as well. Those not eaten might find their way into some dark corner of the cupboard to be fished out hastily some day long hence, too old and stubborn for a good soup.