There’s an ongoing conversation in the cooking world about whether to simmer dried beans in salted or unsalted water.
Conventional wisdom has said that dried beans simmered with salt in the water won’t soften well. But experiments done by Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times (results published in same newspaper on 29 January 2003) found no difference in the texture of beans cooked in salted water versus those cooked in unsalted water for the same amount of time.
Two sources since then, however, disagree. They say that salt in the water does affect the dried bean. Their suggestions are, however, not to cook in salted water, but rather to brine the beans overnight then cook in unsalted water.
One of the sources backing brining beans is the food scientist Harold McGee. He says that how dried beans soften is by water penetrating to their interior. Salt inhibits the osmosis by which this happens, so the softening time is slowed down. He says the other thing to consider is that, however, putting it in the simmering water at the start helps let the salt flavour penetrate deeper into the beans, while adding it late just leaves the salt flavour at or just under the bean’s surface. He says that the way to avoid this conundrum is to simply salt the water that you soak the beans in overnight — in effect, brining the beans. Use about 3 tablespoons of table salt per pound (450g) of dried beans. Next morning, drain the beans, and rinse to get all the surface salt off. Then simmer as usual for the type of dried bean you are cooking. Note: you may wish to reduce the amount of salt in any sauce recipe you subsequently apply to the beans.
Another source is Bridget Lancaster of America’s Test Kitchen. In 2012, she released a video in which she says, “Simmering beans in salted water does indeed affect their structure. The negative effects were that the interior of the beans were mealy and gritty, however the salt tenderized the tough skins of the very same beans, especially when the salt was added early in the cooking process. We wondered if there was any way to use salt to tenderize the skins without turning the interior into a mealy mess…. the solution was to brine the beans. By soaking them overnight in salted water, the salt slowly softens the skin. However, as the skin does not allow the salt to penetrate into the bean’s flesh, the interiors remain creamy and not mealy at all.”
Lancaster follows McGee’s advice, recommending using 3 tablespoons of salt per 4 quarts of cold water, in which to brine 1 pound (2 cups) of dried beans. You let soak at room temperature from 8 to 24 hours. After soaking, drain, and rinse well to remove any salt clinging to the beans surfaces.
Note that neither Lancaster nor McGee make any direct assertions that brining affects the flavour of the bean one way or the other.
Of course, if you have been advised to avoid salt for health reasons, that is another matter altogether, at any stage of the bean cooking.
But if you want to add salt when simmering dried beans in water, go ahead and do so. They will soften — the only thing is that you’ll have to simmer them longer.
Lancaster, Bridget. Learn to Cook: How to Brine Beans. America’s Test Kitchen. 25 April 2012. Retrieved July 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRDL2C6M1_o