It’s a frustrating thing.
You’re cooking beans, whether for chili or some other recipe, and they just won’t soften no matter how long you cook them.
If you’re already at this point, you’re out of luck, there’s not much you can do after the fact.
But I can explain why it might have happened and how to avoid this issue next time.
1. Your Beans Are Too Old
Dried beans can be stored without problems for years if you store them correctly.
This means in a dry, dark place, and most importantly – in an air-tight container or bag.
If you just opened a bag and they won’t soften, this is probably not the issue (unless it’s super old).
2. You’ve Added an Acid Too Soon
The most common mistakes people make when making recipes like chili with dried beans is adding the tomato ingredients too soon.
The acid prevents the beans from soften.
Instead, you need to cook the beans first, essentially to completion, and then add the tomato sauce.
This goes for any acidic ingredient:
- Lemon juice
- Some molasses
3. You Have Hard Water or Chlorinated Water
Hard water (not the same as chlorinated water) can make softening more difficult, but it depends on specifics.
Beans will soften in some hard water, but not in other hard water.
If you’re worried about this, you’ll need to use filtered water of some kind.
Alternatively, some cities add a lot of chlorine to their water, and this can cause all sorts of problems when cooking beans (and even making bread).
You can let the water sit in your pot overnight to let the chlorine evaporate, or give it a quick boil to speed up the process.
4. You Didn’t Soak Your Dried Beans
Dried beans need to be soaked before cooking them (it’s still possible if you don’t, but much harder).
Soak them in warm water for at least 12 hours before cooking them. This makes them soften much easier.
How To Soften Stubborn Old Dried Beans
Just because your beans aren’t in ideal shape doesn’t mean that all is lost.
You can still cook them as usual in most cases, you’ll just have to cook them for much longer (2-3 hours in some cases).
There are a few other things you can try:
- Add salt to your soaking water – Add 1-2 tablespoons of salt when you soak your dried beans overnight (1).
- Add baking soda – While cooking your beans, add 1/4-1/2 teaspoons of baking soda to encourage softening. Careful though, if you do this when they are near cooked, they may become mushy.
- Use a pressure cooker – Pressure cookers are magic when it comes to beans, don’t ask me why.
If none of those work, your beans will have to head to the compost. The good news is that new beans are cheap, so it won’t hurt your wallet too much.
Beans That Are Still Hard After Cooking
If you’ve cooked your beans for hours and they are still hard, you’re out of luck.
Your last resort is to add baking soda, as described above.
Add 1/4-1/2 teaspoons of baking soda to encourage softening and give your beans another 30-60 minutes to cook while simmering (your liquid should be hot, but not rapidly boiling).
Do Dry Beans Go Bad?
Short answer: Yes, dry beans go bad, it just takes a long time.
Longer answer…If you’re storing beans in a reasonable location (dry, sealed off), dry beans are unlikely to get moldy, even after years. It is possible, so check for any weird looking beans before cooking them.
The issue is that over time, dried beans become harder to cook.
The older dry beans are, the longer they take to cook. Some have guessed that they lose their ability to soak up water. If your beans are too old when you cook them, they won’t soften much and will have an unpleasant texture.
So while eating dried beans that are a few years old is perfectly safe in most cases, they probably won’t taste as good. Ideally, try to eat them within a year at the latest.
How Do You Know if Dried Beans Are Too Old?
The most obvious sign is mold. You’ll see it, and likely smell it right away.
The other sign would be that they don’t expand as expected when you soak them. If you’ve soaked them for 12-24 hours and they still aren’t fully hydrated, the beans are “too old” and should be thrown away.
It’s a shame, but at least dried beans are cheap to replace.