Does Soaking Beans Make Them Healthier?

black beans

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman 

Beans are one of the healthiest food categories to include as a part of a balanced diet. This food group includes beans such as chickpeas, black beans, lima beans, soy beans, white beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, cranberry beans, and black eyed peas, to name a few.

They are high in fiber, high quality protein, and beneficial low glycemic carbohydrates that can help with cardiovascular health (by lowering unhealthy LDL cholesterol), weight management and blood glucose control.

Furthermore, beans are an essential part of a healthy vegan and vegetarian diet because of the micronutrients they contain such as B-vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium and zinc. But what are the best ways to purchase them, prepare them and store them to get the most flavor, nutritional value and minimize unwanted GI side effects such as gas and bloating?

Canned vs. Dried

Beans can be purchased canned or dried and both have their pros and cons. The major and most significant con to canned beans is that they cost considerably more per pound than dried (roughly three times as much). Otherwise, differences are slight and the bottom line is that beans consumed in any form are healthy and beneficial for the body.

Beans, whether purchased canned or dried, are an important food group to include as part of a balanced diet.

Nutritional Value

While canned foods have historically been associated with poor nutritional quality (mainly due to high sodium content) and poor taste, "canned" foods have come along way and can now be available in high quality BPA free packaging, either in cans, boxes, or pouches as well as low sodium or no-salt-added versions.

Thus, if purchasing no salt added varieties, canned beans can be just as nutritious as dried. If no-salt-added varieties are unavailable, rinsing canned beans in a colander under cold water for about 10 minutes and allowing to drain for two minutes before consuming can reduce sodium content by as much as 40%.

Sodium Content of Canned Beans

  • Canned beans with added salt has about 400 mg sodium per 1/2 cup serving
  • Low sodium canned beans has about 100 mg per 1/2 cup serving
  • No salt added beans has about 15 mg per 1/2 cup serving

Flavor and Texture

Canned beans are typically softer in consistency than the optimal texture of beans although this will vary between brands and bean type. Cooking beans from dried allows for more control during the cooking process in terms of texture. Cooking beans from scratch also gives the opportunity to add aromatics to the cooking liquid and enhance flavor of the beans.

For example, garlic, onion, and bay leaf can be added to the water to enhance the flavor or kombu seaweed for natural salinity or you can even cook beans in unsalted vegetable stock. If using beans in a salad, cooking properly from dried can yield a firmer less mushy texture so may be preferred if planned in advance.

However, in some instances, soft canned beans may be more desirable; for example, if making a bean dip, pureed soup, or refried beans, a softer consistency would be ideal for easier blending.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

One of the most common complaints about eating beans is resulting gas and bloating after consumption. Research indicates that there are some methods to reducing these symptoms through soaking and specific preparation techniques.

According to Mayo Clinic, both soaking and canning can reduce the gas-producing indigestible carbohydrates. The canning process helps break down these carbohydrates and the soaking process helps remove some of them that leach out in the soaking water.

If soaking, change the water several times during soaking and cook in fresh water (not the soaking water) to help drain as many of the gas-producing compounds as possible.

If purchasing canned beans, give them an additional rinse (even if they are no-salt-added) to remove any lingering raffinose sugars — which is what makes them hard to digest — that may have leached out in the liquid during storage.

Whether consuming dried or canned beans, including enough water in your diet is essential to helping your GI system handle the extra fiber.

Another way to reduce GI symptoms from beans is to include kombu seaweed in the cooking liquid which neutralizes the difficult-to-digest small carbohydrates in the beans and adds a great umami taste and natural salinity without added salt.

Kombu contains enzymes that break down the raffinose sugar. If cooking dried beans, add kombu during cooking and/or soaking. A general rule of thumb is to add one 3 by 5-inch strip of Kombu to 1 pound of dried of beans and 4 quarts of water during cooking. If purchasing canned, look for Eden Foods canned beans which actually contain kombu in their canned "No Salt Added" beans.

Phytate Content

Another nutritional consideration when including beans in your diet is to aim to reduce their phytate content (AKA phytic acid), achieved by both soaking and purchasing canned varieties.

While beans contain a plethora of essential vitamins and minerals, beans also contain phytates (the main storage form of phosphorus) that act as "anti-nutrients" and inhibit the absorption of these beneficial nutrients such as zinc, iron, and calcium.

Phytates are found not just in beans but in nuts, grains and other legumes; specific phytate content in these foods varies considerably. Phytates will only impact the absorption of the minerals eaten within the same meal but not of minerals eaten at other times in the day so true mineral deficiency due to phytate intake is unlikely if one consumes a varied diet.

That being said, if one consistently consumes foods high in phytates throughout the day and on a daily basis, there is a potential for impaired absorption and deficiencies over time. Fortunately, there are preparation and cooking methods that can reduce the phytate content in beans.

In an article published in the Journal of Physiology and Biochemistry, soaking legumes is an important method to significantly reducing the negative effects of phytates on mineral absorption. In fact, studies indicate that soaking beans for 12 hours in plain water at room temperature can reduce phytate content by up to 66%.

Phytate content in canned beans is even lower, due to their processing techniques and extended storage in liquid. Other methods to reduce phytates include sprouting and fermenting.

How to Store and Prepare Dried Beans

If stored properly, dried beans can keep well for up to one to two years.

Storage

Buying beans in the bulk section of the supermarket is usually a good choice because they have higher turnover and will be fresher when purchased. Once home, transfer out of the bag to an airtight container and store in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight such as a pantry.

Preparation

Before preparing dried beans, sift through them to check for any small stones or other potential debris commonly found in dried beans, transfer to a colander and rinse under cool water. At this point, there are two soaking methods to choose from: a quick hot soak or traditional overnight cold soak.

Quick Hot Soak Method

In a stockpot, cover 1 pound dried beans with about 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil for up to 10 minutes for larger beans (only a few minutes for small beans such as lentils).

Turn off heat and leave in pot to soak for 1 hour. Drain, rinse, and proceed with recipe to cook them until tender. Note that there is some research that indicates there is greater loss of water-soluble nutrients with this process, but it may be the best method for reducing gas symptoms.

Traditional Overnight Cold Soak Method

Place beans in a large bowl or pot and add enough water so that there is about 4 inches of water covering the beans. Soak at a minimum of several hours up to overnight (about 12 hours).

The larger and tougher the bean, the longer the soaking time; garbanzo beans tend to need the full 12 hours whereas black beans will be good after 6 hours. When finished soaking, drain, rinse, and proceed with recipe to cook them until tender.

If trying to reduce gas-causing sugars, change the water several times during the soaking process.

Tip

Wait to add any acidic ingredients to beans such as lemon, vinegar or tomatoes until after they are cooked because this will prevent the beans from softening if added early in the cooking process.

Common Questions

Should I soak all legumes before cooking?

In terms of cooking, beans do not have to be soaked prior to cooking but without soaking, they will take considerably longer to cook, will potentially lead to more GI discomfort, and contain more phytates than soaked counterparts.

Even legumes such as lentils or split peas that do not necessarily require any pre-soaking due to their small size, will reap the benefits from soaking such as reduced gas and lower phytate content, even if soaked for just a few hours.

Should I add baking soda while beans are soaking?

Some recipes call for adding baking soda to the cooking water. This is because the baking soda creates a more alkaline/basic environment and makes the beans soften faster, speeding up the cooking process.

The downside is that it can result in some nutrient loss. There have also been studies that indicate adding baking soda to the soaking water helps break down the gas-causing raffinose sugars but recent research indicates that soaking overnight for 12 hours in plain water or baking soda water will yield the greatest reduction in gas producing substances.

How long do beans take to cook after soaking?

Cooking time will vary depending on how long they were pre-soaked (i.e. how soft they are before cooking) and also the size of the bean. Small legumes such as lentils may only take 15 minutes but most average sized beans will take about 1 hour cooking at a a low simmer.

Other larger varieties may take up to several hours so continue to check through the cooking process. Keep beans at a gentle simmer while cooking, not a rolling boiling, to keep skins intact and result in a tender creamy consistency on the inside.

Should any salt be added to the liquid when cooking dried beans?

For optimally seasoned beans, add about 1 Tablespoon of Kosher salt per quart of water during soaking process, rinse the beans before cooking and then add just a pinch to the cooking water — don't go overboard since it will be very hard to fix over-salted beans once they are cooked.

If on a low-sodium diet, however, avoid adding salt at any stage. To maximize flavor in place of salt, try cooking beans in unsalted vegetable stock or using kombu and other aromatics in the cooking liquid.

How should beans be stored after cooking?

Cool beans in their own cooking liquid and refrigerate in a tightly sealed container for up to 5 days. For longer shelf life, freeze beans (also in their liquid) for up to 6 months.

What is the yield for dried beans to cooked beans?

As a general rule, 1 cup of dried beans yields about 2 and 1/2 cups to 3 cups of cooked beans.

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Article Sources
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  1. Beans and Other Legumes: Cooking Tips. Mayo Clinic.

  2. Hileslassie, H, Henry C, Tyler R. Impact of household food processing strategies on antinutrient (phytate, tannin and polyphenol) contents of chickpeaas (Cicer arietinum L.) and beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.): a review. Internatonal Journal of Food Science and Technology. 2016; 54(9): 1947-1957.

Additional Reading
  • Beans and Other Legumes: Cooking Tips. Mayo Clinic. July 06, 2017.

  • Hileslassie, H, Henry C, Tyler R. Impact of household food processing strategies on antinutrient (phytate, tannin and polyphenol) contents of chickpeaas (Cicer arietinum L.) and beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.): a review. Internatonal Journal of Food Science and Technology. 2016; 54(9): 1947-1957.

  • J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. Should I Salt My Bean-Cooking Water? Serious Eats. Published September 1, 2016. Last Updated: October 31, 2019.

  • Shadix, Kyle. Reducing Sodium in Canned Beans — Easier Than 1-2-3. Today's Dietitian. Published January 2010.

  • Sudesh Jood, Usha Mehta, Randhir Singh, Cheranjit M. Bhat. Effect of processing on flatus-producing factors in legumes. J. Agric. Food Chem. 1985; 33 (2): 268-271. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf00062a028.

  • Urbano G, López-jurado M, Aranda P, Vidal-valverde C, Tenorio E, Porres J. The role of phytic acid in legumes: antinutrient or beneficial function?. J Physiol Biochem. 2000;56(3):283-94.