Including how long your legumes keep before and after cooking, as well as our best tips and recipes for cooking them.

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cooking garlicky beans with thyme
Credit: Dana Gallagher

You probably already knew that beans are one of the healthiest foods you can buy for your pantry. Low in fat, high in fiber, and scientifically proven to lower cholesterol, it's not exactly a mystery why they are a staple in cuisines all over the world. Which is why we're sure you didn't think twice before you picked up a few different bags of dried beans at the grocery store. But now you're  home, hungry, and not quite sure what possessed you to buy so much of something you've never cooked before. One Google search is enough to tell you that bean cookery goes back further than Jack and the Beanstalk, and we're here to tell you that some of the information out there is just as much of a fairy tale.

Below is everything you need to know—and, perhaps most importantly, nothing you don't—about how to cook that bag of beans.

Yes, Dried Beans Can Go Bad

First and foremost, if you've had the same bag of beans in your pantry for the last five years, then it's time to say goodbye. Dried beans start to lose their luster after about a year, and they turn downright unpleasant after about two years. The upshot? They'll still make great pie weights.

The Spice of Life?

There are around 40,000 varieties of beans out there, but we'll focus just on how to cook the types that can be found on supermarket shelves. And rather than taking a complex look at the nuances of a black bean versus a pinto, it's better to think about bean varieties in terms of how you will want to use them. Rules were made to be broken, meaning you can enjoy beans almost every which way no matter the variety, but consider the following a good rule of thumb: Do you want beans that will hold their shape nicely in a cold salad or in a casserole of classic barbecue baked beans? Then opt for firmer varieties like chickpeas, black beans, black-eyed peas, navy beans, and kidney beans. Are you looking to add body and creaminess to a hearty Tuscan-style soup, make lighter refried beans, or whip up a smooth dip? Then varieties that will break down more easily and release their starches, like cannellini and pinto, are great choices.

The Magical Multiplier

Dried beans expand quite a bit once cooked, so thinking about how many beans you want to have at the end of the cooking process is probably a good idea. If a recipe you're using calls for dried beans in weight and you don't have a scale, remember that one cup of dried beans weighs just shy of half a pound. Once cooked, that cup of dried beans will triple, yielding about three cups. If you are following a recipe that calls for canned beans and you want to sub them for freshly cooked beans, the average 15-ounce can of beans holds about 1 3/4 cups of cooked, drained beans.

Never Skip the Rinse

Before we get to the great soaking debate, it's important to note that all dried beans should always be rinsed in your colander and given a good picking over. Scan them for any pebbles and grit, and toss any beans that look damaged. As for rinsing, what you do is really up to you. It used to be canon that beans must be soaked overnight in order to prevent digestive problems. This myth has since been debunked; beans will hold on to their title of the most "musical fruit" in the land regardless of whether you soak them or not. Still, soaking does have worthwhile benefits, such as slashing the cooking time significantly (think one hour versus three!) and promotes more even cooking. This basic recipe for a pot of beans walks you through how to soak in the first step of the method.

You can still successfully cook un-soaked beans, but if the recipe you are using calls for them to be pre-soaked, plan on adding more liquid as they cook (and remember that beans should always be completely submerged in the pot when simmering), and know that they will take longer than the recipe states.

Tread Carefully with Acidity

When cooking beans, the rule about not using acidic ingredients like tomatoes and vinegar in the beginning holds true. Basically, if your cooking liquid is too acidic at the start, it will fortify the bean's cell walls (which is exactly what we want to break down). This not only extends cook times, it means your beans will likely never soften up to their full potential. Prevent this from happening by adding acidic ingredients that need to cook, such as canned tomatoes, at least midway through; save other potent flavorings like citrus juice and vinegar until the end.

How to Store Them

If you've gotten this far, then you're sitting on a literal hill of delicious beans. You've wrapped them in a burrito, sprinkled them over your salad, and simmered them with rice. Your household is officially waving the white flag, begging for a bean break. Don't toss them! Refrigerate cooked beans directly in their flavorful cooking liquid for up to five days. The freezer is another good option for preserving (also in their cooking liquid), though they might become a little too mushy for something like a salad once thawed. Don't stress, as there will be plenty of great recipes on hand for using them up!

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