Baking – Can/should I use baking soda when cooking beans


My recipe for hummus says to cook the garbanzo beans with a little baking soda to soften them. Does this work with other legumes?

I've often seen the advice against salting the cooking water for beans, as it supposedly toughens them. Will a different sodium compound, bicarbonate, have the opposite effect?

Would love to know the science of this issue.

Best Answer

Chick Peas (aka Garbanzo or Gram) are slightly different to other dried pulses, but the cooking is affected by whether they are to be cooked straight or whether they were soaked (from an hour or two to overnight) first.

In the UK a variety of dried peas known as marrowfat peas are sold with a tablet containing bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) to add to the soaking water to "soften" it. They are then cooked to destruction as mushy peas. That is the cooking method of that dish which requires that outcome -- a sort of green soup with lumps in it! But cooking with baking/bicarbonate of soda destroys the thiamin and also makes them too soft for what is usually needed.

The various dried lentil, pea and bean varieties are all going to need different cooking times no matter how they are cooked, but the traditional the way each was treated and cooked represents the smallest energy consumption or fuel cost to time ratio.

In the example of chick peas, soaking in fresh water for an hour or two will usually be sufficient to reduce cooking time by up to 50%. Kidney beans will need an overnight soak and are the only example of a bean I have personally encountered which will never become tender enough to eat if soaking is omitted. (True story, but then I stopped trying after they had been on the stove all day and most of a night!)

The addition of bicarbonate of soda in fresh green beans (also other "greens" such as cabbage and sprouts) was specifically to enhance the colour, or rather to stop the beans turning a grey colour -- usually only a problem if they are being cooked too long. If so much was added to taste of soap, then obviously far too much was added and the beans cooked far too long. If ever using soda for greens, always use a tiny pinch added when the water has returned to the boil. Discard all the water and drain well to serve or add to another dish.

Cooking habits have changed over recent years, as have our tastes. It would no longer be appropriate to serve fresh beans or cabbage which have been boiled hard for half an hour. Which is why some older recipes need editing and "taking with a pinch of salt" (if you will excuse the pun). Salt I will not even mention because of the Seasoned Advice nutrition police who cut any reference to health and nutrition from posts.

For general rules on cooking pulses, I strongly recommend downloading/reading the Guide to Cooking Beans, Chickpeas, Lentils and Peas a pdf file from the Pulse Canada website.