Almost any from-scratch bean recipe starts with the same step: soaking them in cold water overnight, or using a quick-soak technique to soak beans in warm water for an hour. Need an example? Just turn to this 5-star bean soup recipe. The reason: reduce the cooking time and make the beans more digestible. But many Instant Pot and slow cooker recipes skip this step. So, what gives? Is soaking beans really necessary or is it okay to cook them straight away?
To find the truth, I turned to the two food scientists I completely trust when it comes to this kind of stuff: Harold McGee and Kenji Lopez-Alt.
What Do Food Scientists Say?
Harold McGee (who writes about food science and chemistry in his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen) doesn’t find soaking necessary if you have all day cook your beans. That means that unsoaked beans cooked low-and-slow in the slow cooker are neither gassier nor creamier because you took the time to slowly break down their indigestible carbohydrates. While soaking also breaks down those gassy compounds, it simultaneously leaches out water-soluble nutrients and flavor in the process – a high price to pay!
If you’re short on time (or, don’t have a pressure cooker – we’ll get to that in a moment), soaking beans can speed up cooking time by up to 75 percent. McGee suggests soaking beans in salted water (2 teaspoons of salt per quart of water) to displace the calcium and magnesium from the cell walls, helping the once-tough skins cook at the same rate as the insides. And, if you cook the beans in the soaking liquid, you won’t sacrifice any of the nutrients – although you won’t get rid of those gassy carbohydrates, either.
Kenji Lopez-Alt tends to agree on all fronts. In his James Beard award winning book (The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science), he also advocates for salt-water brines but goes on to say that soaking is never necessary for thin-skinned beans. In his tests, the unsoaked black beans had improved color, more flavor, and better texture – all without significantly increasing cooking time.
Okay, But What About the Instant Pot?
McGee goes on to say that the high temperatures of the pressure cooker will cut the cooking time of beans by half, or more. That’s why so many Instant Pot recipes skip the soaking step all together! That being said, if you want to really speed things up, McGee’s tests had salt-presoaked beans cooking in as little as 10 minutes in the pressure cooker!
So, in short, it’s really up to you. If you have the time to soak the beans overnight, make sure you add a little salt to the brine and cook them in the soaking liquid. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a last-minute dinner and you want it to include beans, skip the soaking and use the Instant Pot to speed things up – just make sure you’re using a thin-skinned bean like black-eyed peas, pinto beans, lentils, or black beans.
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