Hard water and failed, failed beans

My beans failed. There’s just no other way to describe it. Fail, fail, fail. It’s a shame, because they would have been delicious.

Beans ‘n Greens, that was the goal. Black-eyed peas, started from dried beans, simmered in chicken broth with garlic and heaps of kale. Some smoked salt, some red wine vinegar, some dried herbs. Cooked until the kale was soft like buttah, filled with flavor when, so good that Merrie wanted more, more, more than I could pick out of the pot. The broth: delicious. What little there was of it, anyway, the tiny part not contaminated by the beans.

But oh, the beans, the beans. They had had a consistency like boiled peanuts. They remained crunchy, inedible. I did my part, or so I thought: I boiled them for several minutes, then let them soak for a few hours. Then I left them in the crock pot all day, thinking “surely they’ll soften up by evening.” They didn’t.

So I put them on the stovetop, thinking, “More heat. They just need more heat to soften.” They didn’t.

So I added water, more, and then more, thinking, “More liquid. That’s all they need to soften up.” And still, they didn’t.

Mind you, I’ve made dried beans before, mostly successfully. This time, though, was simply a failure.

Ah, but isn’t it true that there’s no such thing as failure? Only feedback? (tell that to my 12th grade European history teacher, please). So I tried to figure out what this feedback was trying to tell me. I’ve done quite a bit of reading, and thought I’d pass along what I’ve learned:

1. It is better to cook beans in soft water, rather than hard water. Do you have hard water? You’d know it if you had it; it would leave mineral deposits on your cookware, for instance. Our water comes from a well, and it is quite hard (related: our laundry is always a little less clean, and our hair a little less shiny as a result). If you have hard water and have trouble cooking beans, consider using purified water. Or maybe it’s time to finally get that water softener hooked up.

2. No purified water? Some recommend adding a pinch of baking soda to your soaking beans. But if you go this route, please don’t add too much — even as little as an eighth of a teaspoon per cup of dried beans can mess with the beans’ nutritional value.

3. Regardless of your water quality, adding any acid, like all that nice red wine vinegar, before the beans are fully cooked = really bad idea. Acidic foods prevent the bean cells from swelling, so they don’t ever break down and get soft. Any acidic ingredients — lemon, tomato sauce, wine, vinegar — shouldn’t be added until the beans are already soft.

4. There is some controversy about salting beans. It seems that in most cases, salting beans isn’t a problem unless you’re working with hard water (again, you’d know it, because your hair would lack bounce, and your clothes would never brighten in the wash). In which case, it’s a bad idea.

5. Crockpot settings can be too low in general, which is particularly bad for the beans if, uh, you have hard water.

So. If you were going to make really crappy uncooked beans, you would want to start with hard water, add salt and vinegar, and cook them in the crockpot. Voila! Just like that, you will have crappy beans that never, ever cook. It’s like a perfect storm for inedible beans.

Hard water drinkers — we recognize each other by our stained clothes and dull, lifeless hair — please consider yourself warned.

As for the rest of you, with your municipal water, your fancy Culligan systems, your shiny, luxurious hair and crisp, white laundry: you just need to leave the acid out until the beans are tender. Then you’ll be fine, you lucky shiny-haired duckies.

Lesson learned.

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14 Responses to “Hard water and failed, failed beans”


  1. 1 fiwa April 16, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    And I really don’t think there is anything quite as disappointing as failed beans. You wait so long for them, they smell so good. The first pot of navy beans I made this winter did that – I think it was because I salted ‘em. Sorry bout your beans!

  2. 2 Sara April 17, 2009 at 1:09 am

    Just so you know, I don’t have hard water, didn’t salt, didn’t add anything to the water, and still after a half an hour of boiling and a couple hours of sitting, I ended up with hard, failed black beans. Which, to me means that those extra few cents I pay for a can of beans? Totally worth it.

  3. 3 JessTrev April 17, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Hmmmm… so interesting! I have hard water. And it takes forever! forever! for me to cook a pot of beans till softness. Like all day. AND – I always soak them overnight with lemon or lime in em cause I read in Nourishing Traditions that this made the beans more digestible. Hmmmmmmmm. They actually say to use whey or lemon/lime and I never have whey lying around.

  4. 4 Janine April 17, 2009 at 1:21 am

    So…what if I know my water is soft but I choose to drink soft, bubbly wine (Prosecco, anyone?) instead and my hair is still dull and lifeless because too many children means not enough showers/no time to see my colorist and my clothes are all stained (see: too many children)…should I still be warned? Am I destined to be a canned black bean type ‘o gal??

    Maybe I’ll stick with navy beans and add all the rest of the delicious stuff you mention above. Sounds yummy!

  5. 5 Ali April 17, 2009 at 2:21 am

    Stained clothes and lifeless-haired gals unite!

    Yeah, dried beans are definitely harder than canned. In addition to the above: if they’re old, they’ll never cook, in soft or hard water. But if you’re going with canned, I would say first cook the kale until it’s soft like buttah, and THEN add the beans, otherwise it will be mush, mush, mush.

    Which is still preferred to fail, fail, fail.

    Also, if you’re concerned about BPA, Eden Foods beans are made in BPA-free cans.

    Now let’s all drink soft, bubbly wine with Janine, shall we?

  6. 6 Vikki April 17, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Sorry…I couldn’t read this because of the light bouncing off of my my shiny, shiny hair and reflecting from my crisp white shirt.

  7. 7 Frances April 17, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Also — when you buy beans in bulk, there’s really no telling how old they are, where they came from, etc. Even your local bulk bin dude may not know. Very old dried beans will take a hell of a long time to cook, and may not ever soften at all. I’ve had that problem a handful of times in the last few years, and it’s definitely a disappointment.

  8. 8 jenniwd April 18, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    Crockpots aren’t hot enough for cooking beans

  9. 9 Maribeth April 20, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    You know, soft water can be weird. My mother has a water softening system and I find her water “slippery” and I struggle to wash the soap off my hands.

  10. 10 mojavi at Simple Things April 20, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    lol…. you crack me up.

    good post, acid dully noted

  11. 11 doriskd April 21, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    I also just read that even though beans are dried, you should use ‘fresh’ dried beans. If you want more details, check out p. 47 of superfoods Rx by steven platt.
    and apparently, i love my hard water so much i don’t even notice the dingy laundry or care about my un-shiny hair. well, i do now that you’ve pointed it out. thanks… but i love that i can feel squeaky clean. i hate trying to wash soap off my hands in soft water and feeling filmy.

  12. 12 cyndin May 4, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    I also have extremely hard water from a well (my water softener broke years ago, probably from the buildup of particulates from the hard water). My drinking and cooking water is filtered, but still hard. 99% of my beans come out just fine. My one big failure was also black-eyes peas. I guess they are more sensitive to the pH or mineral content than others.

    And yes, when I do overnight visits to friends with soft water, everyone tells me what lovely hair I have. Until a couple washes back in my home shower. Sigh…

  13. 13 kate May 15, 2009 at 7:27 am

    i too have had the same problem with almost the exact same recipe. as the weather was getting cold last year i thought i’d make a kale, sausage and white bean soup. the kale and sausage were fresh from the last farmers’ market of the season, but upon examining my cupboard, i found some black-eyed peas and opted for them instead of the white beans. we ate it anyhow, spitting the beans out into a bowl. it was delicious and sad. maybe they are harder to cook than other beans? i also used salt and some chicken stock. i cooked and cooked them. hmmm.

  14. 14 coo-ee February 15, 2010 at 1:20 am

    I’m so happy I came across this page before I tried for the second time (in 10 years) to soak and cook dried beans. That first time was such a disaster… and I don’t even like to cook, which made it doubly traumatic! I have such fond memories, though, of the beans a friend used to cook years ago, that all this time I’ve been meaning to try again.

    I was just now about to put the beans in to soak, but decided to get some ideas online, hopefully to avoid repeating the last disaster. Thank goodness I did, or I’d have failed again and probably given up on the idea forever. I’m going to hold off now until I buy some purified drinking water. And maybe I’ll use it on my hair, too, now that I know my lack of shine might not be genetic. (I’m w/doriskd tho; hate that slimy soft water feeling… the first time I ever showered in it I was so surprised to find that the water seemed to be crawling all over me, lol)


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