Start to finish: Up to 12 hours Servings: 8 to 10 as an entree, more as a side dish Difficulty: Beginner
Ancient slow cooking coaxed meals from the residual heat of a hearth or oven as it cooled. Some of the world's most cherished traditional dishes involve a heavy stoneware crock filled with beans or tough cuts of meat simmering for hours. The Crock-Pot and its modern kin replicate that gentle cooking in an electric countertop appliance.
- 2-pound bag of beans
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 medium onion
- 1 to 2 cloves of garlic, or garlic powder to taste
- Ham bone, pork hock or similar cut of meat (optional)
- Herbs, spices or other flavorings to taste (see Variations)
Pour the beans into a large pot or mixing bowl, and cover them with water to a depth of at least 2 inches. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and stir to dissolve it. Soak the beans overnight.
Drain the beans, and transfer them to a 5- to 7-quart Crock-Pot or other slow cooker. If you're using a ham bone, pork hock or other piece of meat, nestle it in the beans.
Slice or chop a medium onion, and mince 1 to 2 cloves of garlic. Add those to the slow cooker, along with any other herbs or flavorings you wish to use.
Fill the crock with enough fresh water to cover the beans, to a depth of at least 1/2 inch. Place the lid on the cooker and choose the "High" or "Low" cooking temperature depending on your timing.
Simmer the beans until tender. The time can vary widely, depending on your cooker and the age of the beans. Small beans such as navy or Great Northern can be fully cooked in as little as 2 hours on High or 3 to 4 on Low; while larger yellow-eyed or Jacob's Cattle beans might take nearly twice as long.
Tips and Variations
Tips: Soaking is best, but it's optional with most beans. If you cook them without soaking first, double the cooking time and cover the beans with water to a depth of at least 3 inches. Old beans might take a long time to become tender. Whenever possible, purchase your beans from stores that sell through them briskly. Thicken the cooking liquid to make a sauce for the beans, if desired, by mashing some of the beans and then stirring them back in. If you're draining the beans to use in other recipes, save the cooking broth and use it as a base for soup. Salt and acidic ingredients inhibit beans' softening as they cook. That's a problem if you're only cooking for a few hours, but a positive if you plan a slow, overnight cook. In extended 8- to 12-hour cooking sessions, those ingredients help keep the beans from bursting and dissolving. Add flavor by cooking the beans in broth, rather than water.
Variations: Add spices and herbs such as cumin, oregano, epazote and hot peppers -- or simply your favorite chili powder -- for a Mexican flavor. For flavorful, versatile beans that can be used as an ingredient in most recipes, add bay leaves, thyme and other understated herbs to the cooking liquid. * For old-fashioned baked beans, layer the beans with fatty salt pork -- or use a pork hock, ham bone or bacon -- and add ketchup, molasses and dried or prepared mustard to the cooking liquid. Other regional variations might call for sorghum, brown sugar or maple syrup, so feel free to experiment and find a version that appeals to your taste.
A Word of Caution
Most varieties of dry beans can be cooked in your slow cooker with or without soaking, though soaking speeds the process dramatically. However, a few beans -- fava (broad) beans, white kidney beans and especially red kidney beans -- contain a natural toxin called phytohaemagglutinin. It's one of a group of enzymes called lectins, which can cause your red blood cells to bind together. As few as a half-dozen red kidney beans can make you really ill if the enzyme isn't disabled. You can do this by boiling the soaked beans in fresh water for 30 minutes, before transferring them to the Crock-Pot to finish cooking.