Cooking dried beans and lentils from scratch is a pretty simple thing, and I’m going to break it all the way down for you! The general rule is pick over, rinse, soak, cook. In my opinion, pressure cooking is where the magic happens. Soaking and cooking times will vary based on which bean or lentil you are cooking, so I will group them from what I have noticed to be fastest cooking to slowest cooking/longest soaking.
Quick cooking: red lentils, soak time: none required, but can soak for 15 min while prepping other ingredients
Medium cooking: brown/green lentils, black eyes peas; soak for 1-3 hours (or overnight)
Slow cooking: pinto/white/mung beans, split pigeon peas; soak for 4-6 hours (or overnight, or quick soak for 1 hr)
Slowest cooking: chickpeas/kidney beans; soak overnight (or quick soak for 4-6 hrs)
Picking over lentils/beans refers to pouring them into a shallow, wide dish and just quickly sorting through with your hands to remove shriveled up pieces or debris or the rare piece of rock. Simple step, and usually, there isn’t much to pick out, but it’s worth doing to avoid accidentally crunching on a piece of rock and chipping your tooth. If I haven’t scared you from cooking with dry foods, please, continue. In my experience the rock thing is very rare!
I prefer to add salt into the soaking water, and I am usually generous with the salt, because I drain and replace the water before cooking. I used to add salt in after cooking, but I have noticed the skin of the beans/lentils tends to be softer and the salt absorbs inside the beans/lentils more if added during soaking. (osmosis, anyone?) I used to always add salt after cooking because I read the beans would be tough otherwise, but honestly, I haven’t noticed a problem since I switched over, maybe because I usually pressure cook. See what works for you!
Quick soaking refers to boiling the dry beans/lentils in the soaking water for 10 minutes and then soaking in the hot water for 1 or more hours depending on the beans. I do this when I’m deciding what to cook last minute… (so, yes, frequently). I do add salt to the water when using this method as well.
Pressure cooking: This is my favorite cooking method for the slow/slowest cooking beans/lentils.. I can literally pressure cook them in less than 20 minutes, rather than cooking for hours and topping off with water whenever it gets low. No checking, no stirring. I ALWAYS use this method for my “slow/slowest cooking” items. The one downside is that you have less control knowing exactly how soft your beans will turn out, but you can get pretty good with practice. Also in some cases like stews, or when you’re blending the beans, this doesn’t matter. You can also always undercook the beans a little and then finish cooking without pressure to get a perfect texture. I’m generally just not that picky with it and don’t mind my beans getting a little over-mushy.
Slow cooking: This method works for any type of bean or lentil; the time just varies. You will have to check that your water hasn’t reduced below the level of the beans, and I would make sure a boil is reached for at least 10 minutes at some point in the cooking process. I don’t generally do this, because I’m not much of a slow cooker user.
Stovetop, Dutch oven: This is quicker than using a regular pot, because the temperature gets higher in there with the heavy lid, and less water is lost. You may still have to check on the water level and stir occasionally. I like to use this for the items in the “medium cooking” category, especially if I am making some type of stew.
Stovetop, regular pot: The benefit of this is that you can use any pot you have. It will be slower and need to be checked more often to make sure there is enough water. You would have a lot of control to get the beans/lentils to the perfect tenderness. This is pretty much what I do for my quick cooking red lentils, but it would work for any type of bean if you don’t have any of the above.
Freshness of your beans/lentils
If you somehow ended up with an old batch of beans/lentils, you might run into a situation where you seem to be cooking them forever and they aren’t getting soft. Unfortunately it’s hard to tell if your beans/lentils are old by looking at them, so getting beans/lentils somewhere where there is high turnover can help prevent this situation. If you have an Indian grocery store near you, many beans/lentils should have high turnover. Other places you can try are places with bulk bins such as health food stores that get a good amount of customers.