Dried beans, peas, and lentils are known collectively as legumes, a family of foods appreciated as a rich source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Black beans, red kidney beans, and mottled pinto beans feature prominently in the cookery of Latin America and the southwestern United States; white cannellini beans are an Italian favorite; large and small white beans are common in robust casseroles, while lentils appear in hearty dishes in Europe, the Middle East, and India.
Before cooking, dried beans, with the exception of lentils, should be soaked. There are two ways to proceed: overnight soaking, as shown in steps 2 and 3, or quick soaking. To quick soak, cover the beans with a measured amount of water (use at least 3 times as much water as beans) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside for 1 hour. Drain off the soaking liquid and rinse, then cook as directed (boil dried red kidney beans for 10 minutes before cooking).
Rinsing and Sorting
As a first step, place the beans in a fine-meshed sieve. Rinse under cold running water, tossing to wet all the beans. With your fingers, remove and discard any damaged beans or foreign material.
Put the beans in a large pot. Fill the pot with enough cold water to cover the beans by about 2 in (5 cm) or according to the recipe. Cover and set aside in a cool place for 8 hours or overnight.
Checking Soaked Beans
After soaking, the beans will have absorbed almost all of the water and will have expanded in size and look plump. Depending on the bean, the water may be darkened and cloudy.
Checking Cooked Beans
Cook beans until they are soft or as directed in the recipe. Taste a bean, or pick one up and squeeze it with your thumb and index finger to see if it is tender. If it is still firm in the center, cook longer.