One of those "wish I could do it better" items that has sat on my cooking To-Do list for years is beans. I prefer for taste, nutrition and cost to work with dried beans, but I'm forever plagued by inconsistent results. Well, two books that I recently got seem to have removed most if not all of my worries. The books are Harold McGee's Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes and The Science of Good Cooking from Cook's Illustrated.
McGee is the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, which is the go-to reference for culinary professionals, worldwide. Cook's Illustrated is a publishing arm of America's Test Kitchen, a 2,500 square foot test kitchen located just outside of Boston with more than three dozen full-time cooks and product testers.
Both Keys to Good Cooking and The Science of Good Cooking agree that the first step for any dried beans that require prolonged soaking is to brine them in a solution of 2 teaspoons (10ml) of salt per quart or liter of water. According to Cook's Illustrated, what happens is that the seed coat of beans is made up of pectin molecules which are cross connected by calcium and magnesium. The sodium in salt replaces some of the calcium atoms in the pectin matrix which makes up the seed coat, weakening the coat and allowing water to penetrate into the interior. Beans should be brined for a minimum of 8 hours and preferably over night.
The next step is to cook the beans long and slow to allow the interior to soften without breaking the coat. This is easiest done by bringing the beans to a very gentle simmer on the stovetop, and then putting them in an oven set to around 250°F (121°C). Keys and Science differ slightly in whether to add salt to the cooking water. Cook's Illustrated says to salt the water, whereas McGee says that salt won't hurt, but added to cooking water without pre-soaking, it can slow down water absorption. Both agree that acidic liquids, sugar and calcium can all keep the beans firm. For this reason, other ingredients, particularly tomatoes, molasses, sugar, etc., are added later in the cooking.
To do the pre-cook, drain the beans, place them in a dutch oven with an equal amount of water, by volume, and bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Cover and place in the oven for approximately 2 hours or until the beans are nearly cooked but still slightly al dente. If you want, you can add a bit of baking soda (1/4 tsp per cup of dried beans) and the salt called for in the recipe.
After the two hour cooking, all of the other ingredients can be added and the dish finished according to instructions. Uncover if necessary for the last half hour or so if there is too much liquid.
I tried the above -- brine overnight, pre-cook for two hours in the oven in equal parts water with 1/4 tsp of baking soda and then finish the recipe -- making chili con carne and got spectacular results. Most of the beans remained whole, with unbroken shells, but their insides were creamy smooth, almost buttery. Next stop, Boston Baked Beans.
Try brining them overnight. It may just change your outlook on using dried beans.