This is more method than recipe. I’ve used this method with all kinds of beans – cannellini, pinto, corona, flageolet, little heirloom beans whose names I don’t know – and it works with all of them. I don’t even measure my beans anymore, or any of the seasonings. You can wing it. [Updated to add: a couple of readers have called to my attention an important fact of which I was unaware: red kidney beans must be boiled briskly before consuming, because they contain a toxin. Thus I cannot advise this gentle oven method for red kidney beans. Go here for more information.) A few notes:
1. I’m writing the recipe below mostly as John Thorne intended, but you should know that I generally only season my beans with olive oil, salt, and sometimes red pepper flakes. That’s all. Do as you wish.
2. When you cook the beans, they should be barely covered with water, so that the water and bean juices reduce to a delicious, thick broth. (In the photo above, I used a little too much water, actually, and they were soupier than I intended. No real harm done, though.)
3. Also, even though I just went on and on about the sadness of an overcooked bean, well… when I cook them this low, slow, gentle way, I actually like to cook them a little past done. My friend Olaiya taught me to do that, because by the time they cool down, they will have firmed up ever so slightly, and they’ll be perfect. So when I think the beans are done, I don’t immediately take them out of the oven; I leave them for an extra 15 minutes or so, to take them just a tiny bit further.
Preheat the oven to 200°F. Drain the beans, reserving the soaking liquid. Remove and discard any beans that have failed to rehydrate. (They will be wrinkled and ornery-looking.) Put the beans and seasonings, everything but the soaking liquid, in a Dutch oven or similar vessel. Pour the bean soaking liquid into a saucepan and heat to boiling. Add enough of this liquid to the bean pot to barely cover its contents, reserving any remaining liquid. Cover the pot, and put the beans in the oven. Cook at this very low heat – they should never come to a boil – until they are nicely done, about 4 to 5 hours. Check the water level periodically over the first four hours, adding the remaining bean liquid (and then plain boiling water) if needed to keep the beans covered.
Serve the beans hot, warm, or at room temperature, or use them in another dish. June likes hers plain, and she drinks the bean broth that’s left in the bowl after the beans are gone. We like to eat pinto or other brown beans with grated sharp cheddar and hot sauce. If I’m cooking cannellinis, I often use them in the Ed Fretwell Soup from A Homemade Life. And this week I used some flageolets in a Molly Stevens recipe that I’ll write about very soon.
Yield: Enough beans to make a side dish for 4 or a meal for 2 or 3