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I have heard opinions on both sides of this. The the latest answer on this site, says salt softens bean skins quoted Cooks Illustrated (I can't see the article, but I trust CI), while another answer says salt hardens the beans' skins.

In case is varies by bean, I'm interested in:

  • Kidney Beans
  • Black Beans
  • Small Red Beans

So which is it? Inquiring Minds want to know.

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2  
Uh oh! Science may be required. –  KatieK Jan 24 '12 at 20:37
    
@KatieK Hmm I would say a simple experiment wouldn't be too hard. If the difference in toughness of the skin isn't discernable by just touch and feel and then taste, then we can safely assume that soaking in salt water make negligible differences and thus not affect the bean in terms of cooking. –  Jay Jan 24 '12 at 20:56
    
Maybe I'll send this in to MythBusters. I wonder how they'd objectively measure the thickness of the bean? –  Clay Nichols Mar 28 '12 at 20:42

3 Answers 3

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Soften. Other things that typically are added with salt will tend to toughen the beans, but it isn't the fault of the salt. For decades, chefs have circulated the oral tradition that adding salt hardens beans, but it's a myth.

Several scientific studies verify that adding salt to the soaking water for dried beans will reduce the cooking times. The first and most cited article, originally published in 1977, can be found here. As mentioned in the first answer you cited, the fine folks at Cooks Illustrated found in 2008 that 3 TBSP per gallon of water produces soft skins while not over-salting the interior of the beans. Since you can't see the full article, here is the science according to CI:

"Why does soaking dried beans in salted water make them cook up with softer skins? It has to do with how the sodium ions in salt interact with the cells of the bean skins. As the beans soak, the sodium ions replace some of the calcium and magnesium ions in the skins. Because sodium ions are weaker than mineral ions, they allow more water to penetrate into the skins, leading to a softer texture. During soaking, the sodium ions will only filter partway into the beans, so their greatest effect is on the cells in the outermost part of the beans."

Harold McGee's NY Times blog (August 9, 2008) also notes that adding salt early enough will allow complete penetration of the bean, which improves flavor.

On the other hand, things typically added with salt -- particularly sugar and calcium-rich products -- tend to toughen beans (and the salt gets the blame). This toughening effect is most notable in baked-bean recipes using things like ketchup, molasses, and BBQ sauce. You can bake these beans for days, yet the beans will stay whole and firm. The actual mechanism for this effect is not clear; one hypothesis currently circulating seems to be that these products stabilize the cell-cell "glue" (e.g., Shirley Corriher says so on Good Eats "Pantry Raid III - Cool Beans", transcript online here), but I could not find any peer-reviewed study specifically verifying that hypothesis.

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Go to the beans section in J. Kenji López-Alt's chili blog post:
http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/01/how-to-make-the-best-chili-ever-recipe-super-bowl.html

In short: salt replaces calcium and magnesium in the beans' skins that make them tougher. The result is that when beans are soaked in salt water the skin softens at the same rate as the bean interior and the beans do not "blow out"

Different beans have different toughness of skins but soaking in salt water should not have a different effect for different beans.

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With fresh dried bean you can do nearly anything with them

But in most parts of the world the beans have been shipped by sea and stored for long lengths time, or have been heat treated. These take a much longer time soak and to cook, and you will find salt, and other additives causing problems

Heat treated beans can can take more than a day to soak, leaving the beans in salted water for a day or more will cause the bean core to absorb salt too

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