While perhaps not my greatest source of worry, I have spent way too much time wondering about substituting dried beans for canned.
In the foodie world, the conventional wisdom is that beans cooked from dried are infinitely better than canned. But is that true? If you have a recipe that calls for canned or dried and you want to use the one not specified, how do you substitute? Are there good reasons to use one or the other? And finally, what’s the best way to cook dried beans?
I’m not a “bean snob,” as the Culinary Director of SeriousEats described himself. Although I do keep dried beans in my pantry, I’ll use canned beans if they are handier, especially if I haven’t recently read something touting how much better dried beans are than canned. My Provencal Vegetable Soup au Pistou and my vegetarian chili both specify canned beans because using canned makes those recipes less intimidating.
Of course, I do occasionally use a boxed cake mix (in my poppy seed cake) and I’ve been known to take a few other shortcuts, so the all-things-homemade police would definitely pull me over for a moving violation or two. Still, I think that my use of both types of beans makes me more objective, because I really have no dog in this fight.
I don’t claim that these questions are momentous in the grand scheme of things. But with several surprising take-aways (at least for me), it was a fun to spend an afternoon searching out the answers.
Questions about Substituting Dried Beans for Canned
Do Beans Cooked from Dried Taste Better than Canned Beans?
To find out whether beans cooked from dried taste better than canned, I cooked dried dark red kidney beans and white (cannellini) beans two ways (long soak – about 8 hours, and quick soak, then simmered until done) and did a taste test comparing both of those batches with thoroughly rinsed canned beans of the same types. In order to make the test about the beans and not about ancillary tastes (such as onion or spices, which would be in most recipes that call for beans), I did not add anything to the beans.
I had only one taste tester, my husband. But it was a blind taste test and I can vouch both for his well-developed taste buds and the seriousness with which he took the task. He could not tell the difference among the three types: long soak, cooked from dry and canned, except that he detected a faint saltiness in the canned beans and so he was able to differentiate between that batch and the two that had been cooked without salt. That surprised me because I had rinsed them well. His reaction suggested how difficult it is to remove saltiness from canned beans.
We both agreed that the canned beans had nicer looking shapes than the home-cooked ones with both soaking methods. (More of the home-cooked beans broke apart and their skins started to peel off.)
And although the test wasn’t blind for me, I didn’t think the dried and cooked beans tasted any better than canned either.
Of course, if you cook dry (or soaked) beans with onion and garlic, those ingredients will permeate the beans with flavor than canned beans don’t have. If you’re eating the beans by themselves or in a dish where the beans will stand out, that may make the flavored and cooked dried beans a better choice than canned. But for chili or other dishes with strong flavors that tend to overpower the beans, are you going to be able to notice the difference between those flavored beans and canned?
What’s the Ratio when Substituting Dried Beans for Canned?
My experiments indicated that dried beans roughly double in size and weight when cooked. (That ratio held true for both types of beans.) This means that if your recipe calls for 1 cup of canned kidney or cannellini beans, you should use ½ cup if you’re substituting dried. Conversely, if a recipe calls for 1 cup dried beans to be cooked, then if you use canned you should use 2 cups of canned beans. For other beans, check this article in SeriousEats.
What’s the Best Way to Cook Dried Beans?
The bottom line is don’t bother soaking them for a long time. I tried one bath of beans soaked for almost 8 hours and the other using Pati Jinich’s method – covering dried beans in several inches of water, bringing them to a rolling boil and simmering them partially covered for somewhere between 75 and 90 minutes, or a bit longer if you want them really soft. Although the soaked beans took slightly less time to cook, there was no difference in taste and the cooking time differential was less than 30 minutes.
By the way, when you soak dried beans they begin by shriveling up, but those wrinkles go away after the beans are cooked. In the photo below, you can even see that the wrinkles apparent after a few hours – in the middle bowls – mostly dissipate after a few more hours of soaking – in the bowls closes to this paragraph.
Pati’s two best hints for cooking dried beans: don’t add salt (if you will add it at all) until the last 15 minutes of cooking. Adding salt at the beginning toughens the beans according to Pati – and this woman knows her beans!! Also, if you need to add water to the pot as the beans cook, add hot water not cold.
Some day I’m going to try the taste test again, this time with unsalted canned beans and more taste testers. Wonder if I can duplicate the results or if I’ll eventually side with the bean snobs.