Most sources of dietary protein are highly perishable, including meats, eggs and dairy products. One notable exception is dried peas, beans and lentils. These durable staples can be stored for years and still provide lean, high-quality nutrition. Dried beans are prepared by slow-cooking in water or other liquids, with flavoring ingredients that vary with availability and culinary heritage. Recent testing by food science writer Harold S. McGee and the editors of Cook's Illustrated has shown that brining the beans in salted water helps them cook more quickly than soaking in plain water.
Pick through your dried beans, discarding any broken pieces or small pebbles that may have found their way into the packaging. Chaff such as dried husks or bean fragments can be fanned away.
Place the beans in a large bowl, with lots of room for expansion. The beans should fill the bowl to no more than 2/3 of its capacity.
Cover the beans with warm or cold water, containing 2 tablespoons of salt for every quart of water. If you do not know your bowl's capacity, mix one quart of salted water ahead of time and use that. If you need more, mix a second quart.
Soak the beans for at least four to five hours, or preferably overnight. Cooks in warm climates should refrigerate the beans during soaking to prevent fermentation or sprouting.
Drain the beans well the next day, and rinse them under cold running water. Cook as you normally would, but begin checking the beans for doneness approximately 25 percent sooner than usual. For example, if you normally cook your beans for four hours, begin checking at the three-hour mark.
Brining helps beans cook more quickly by changing the structure of their skin. Sodium from the salt replaces other substances in the skins, making them more permeable and allowing the water to soak through more rapidly.
Very old beans take a long time to cook, but this technique will help with even the most stubborn and longest-cooking.
Once soaked, beans are perishable and should be cooked or frozen on the same day.