Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cooking Beans at Altitude

I received another GREAT question via email about living and cooking at altitude...this time about beans, so I thought I'd share it with you all:


I'm really struggling with cooking beans up here. I can't seem to get them soft at all without the skins all falling off. There are lots of ideas on how to cook them on the internet from soak them overnight, to don't soak them too much. Could I draw on your expertise to try again with a little more info under my belt.


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So, about beans. As you have discovered, it takes items cooked in liquid (beans, rice, stews, etc.) much longer to reach the desired end state at altitude than it would at sea level. The reason is the same for the varied affects we see in baked goods: The lower air pressure at high altitude allows water to boil at a temperature lower than the sea level boiling point of 212°F/100°C. Because the water boils at a lower temperature, the liquid stays at that lower temperature and these dishes take longer to cook. Time is an annoyance (although one we have to live with), so the skins falling off and the possible disintegration of our beans because they take so long to cook is the real problem here.

There are a few different tips to help prevent this disintegration.

  1. Presoak: This really is crucial at high altitudes, as cooking time can be reduced by 25% or more. The heart of the matter is that beans have a very effective seed coat, which controls the absorption of water. It takes up to an hour in cold water for the seed coats to even become hydrated (meaning letting water through them at all), which means that if you don't soak them you are basically spending your first hour of cooking just getting the water through the skin, which is definitely not going to help your end result. (The outside could be overcooked before water even reaches the middle of the bean.) The amount of time you soak your bean depends on your water temperature. In cold water, you reach maximum effectiveness (doubling the size of your bean) at 10-12 hours. (This absorption happens the quickest in the beginning, as the bean absorbs more than half its water capacity in the first two hours alone.) Or, you can bring your beans to a boil in water and blanch them for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let them soak, and the equal amount of water absorption (two times their weight) only takes 2-3 hours.  You cannot soak beans "too much" (as in, making them hard again through soaking), but you will not receive any benefits after 10-12 hours in cold water.

  2. Lower Temperature: Interestingly enough, it is actually recommended that we cook beansbelow a boil no matter what altitude we are at in order to prevent them from losing their skins and disintegrating. At sea level, the recommended "bean cooking temperature" is 180-200°F/80-93°C, known as the "simmering" point. "Simmering" is marked by slow, lazy bubbles. Obviously, if you follow this recommendation here at altitude, you will need to lower the temperature even more (say 165-180°F/74-80°C--the "poaching" temperature at sea level!), but more importantly look for those slow, lazy bubbles. And of course, your beans will take even more time to cook, which takes us back to the important step of presoaking (and prior planning!).

  3. Add Acid, Sugar or Calcium: Acid makes the bean's cell wall more stable and less disolvable. Sugar reinforces cell wall structure and slows the swelling of the starches. Calcium cross-links and reinforces cell wall pectins. Molasses is a good source of all three, and acidic tomatoes are also very helpful. Sometimes I cook beans with hearty greens, so there's calcium right there. Of course you can't always add these types of ingredients depending on your recipe. I have not tested this, but I imagine that adding just a touch of flavored vinegar (such as cider or red/white wine vinegar) or a tablespoon of sugar might help enough to get your desired end result without changing the taste of your dish too much.

  4. Add Salt or Baking Soda: This is not a great option due to their drawbacks, but these ingredients reduce cooking time greatly (due to the sodium in both and the alkalinity of the baking soda that help dissolve cell walls). The drawback is their affect on the taste and texture of the end result. The taste of salt is no problem (at about 2 tsps per quart of water), but this can lead to a mealy internal texture as opposed to creamy. That's a risk you might be willing to take. But baking soda makes beans taste "slippery" and soapy, so even though it can reduce cooking time by 75% you probably wouldn't risk it.

  5. Pressure Cook: I don't own a pressure cooker so I haven't tested cooking beans in one, but regardless of the outside air pressure these machines cook at 250°F/120°C which will cook your beans very fast, particularly if they've been pre-soaked.

  6. Storage: If beans are stored for several months or more in warm temperature at high humidity, their compositions physically change and they will never get as soft as regular beans. So don't buy more beans than you can cook within about 2 months, if possible, just to avoid this.
Okay, hope this gives you a couple of ideas to try for your next bean dish! Oh, and remember that sometimes beans are grown in such conditions that simply make them harder and more water resistant, and these beans just never get soft. When you're rinsing your beans before cooking, take out any that seem to be unusually small, as they might be this type of "hard-seed" bean, but other than that there is no way of telling if you've got bad beans before you cook them.

Here's a bean dish I cooked recently that I loved...

Sausage, Cannellini and Kale Soup
Recipe Adapted from
Serves 4-6
  • 1 Cup dried white beans (such as alubias)
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (1-1/2 cups)
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped (3/4 cup)
  • 1 medium celery stalk, finely chopped (3/4 cup)
  • 1-1/2 tsp. minced fresh rosemary
  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
  • 1 quart homemade or lower-salt chicken or vegetable broth
  • 6 oz. kale or other hearty green such as chard, center ribs removed, leaves chopped (Kale is hard to find in Mexico City, but I know one type, "Col Chino" can be found. Chard is widely available and called Acelga. Alternatively, you can use Spinach and cook for less time; see instructions below.)
  • 1 Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (1x3 inches; optional; authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is available at Costco, or use Grana Padano or Parmesan rind, found at Chedraui)
  • 1-1/2 tsp. cider vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2/3 lb. sweet or hot bulk Italian sausage, rolled into bite-size meatballs (Italian sausage can be found in the meat freezer section--next to the butcher--at Superama)
Put your beans in a large container or bowl and cover by at least three inches of cold water. Soak at least overnight and up to 12 hours. Alternatively, put your beans in a small saucepot and add cold water to cover by at least two inches. Bring the water to a boil and blanch beans for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let them soak for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.

Heat 1 Tbs. of the oil in a 4- to 5-quart pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste and garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 seconds. Add the broth, beans, and Parmigiano rind (if using). Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer gently until the vegetables and beans are tender, about 2-3 hours. Add the hearty greens and simmer for 15 more minutes. (If using spinach, cook for only 5 minutes.)

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1/2 Tbs. oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add the sausage meatballs, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Add the sausage to the soup and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook 5 minutes more to meld the flavors. Stir the cider vinegar into the soup and season to taste with salt and pepper.