Beans Won’t Soften? Here’s Why, and Some Solutions

Beans make for a healthy meal thanks to all of their vitamins and nutrients, and they are easy to cook. But sometimes when you cook beans you’ll notice they aren’t getting soft enough.

If your beans won’t soften it’s usually because they haven’t been cooked long enough, because your water is too hard, or because there’s too much acid in the water. In this article, we’ll tell you how to solve these problems.

Beans that won't soften

Reasons Your Beans Won’t Soften

While the reasons mentioned above are the three main reasons that beans aren’t softening, there are other possible reasons. Let’s look at each of these reasons in more detail….

Your Beans Are Too Old

Beans typically have a shelf life of at least one year. If you keep them in a cool dry place, they can last for two to three years. After two to three years, their nutritional value starts to go down, which is why you should cook them before they get this old

How To Tell if Dry Beans Are Too Old

Your beans will need to be thrown out if they have mottled skin, any type of dark spots, or mold of any kind. Even if they look fine, if you open the bag and find that they smell funny, it’s time to throw them out. All of these are clear signs that your beans are no good because they’ve gotten old.

You Haven’t Cooked Your Beans Long Enough

When cooking any type of beans, you must cook them for long enough. Cooking times can vary widely—anywhere from 45 to 180 minutes—depending on the type of bean, age of the beans, and how long you soaked the beans before cooking.

Ladel lifting beans from a pot
If your beans won’t soften, it might just be a matter of waiting it out.

If you cook your beans over medium-high heat, it’s going to take time. Cooking them over high heat is usually not recommended because they can become overdone.

If you cook beans often, we strongly recommend investing in a beanpot. These special pots are designed specifically for cooking beans. Their relatively narrow mouths help the pot retain heat and minimize evaporation, while their thick walls are ideal for cooking slowly over long periods of time.

You Didn’t Soak Your Beans Long Enough

Beans need to be soaked for a minimum of four and up to 12 hours. Some people soak their beans overnight and then cook them in the morning. You can soak most dried beans overnight with no harm. The softer the beans are when you start cooking them, the shorter your cooking time will be.

How Long To Soak Beans

Some beans may take longer to soften than others, but whether you’re soaking pinto beans, black beans, or kidney beans, four hours is usually the minimum soaking time. When they start to ‘peel’ and get lighter in color, they are usually ready to be cooked.

Beans soaking in water after chef learned why beans won't soften

You Added Acid Too Early

Some people add acids such as tomatoes or lemon juice to their beans, but if you add acid too early, it can make the beans tough and much harder to cook. This is because the acid binds to the seed coat of the beans, making it harder for the beans to soak up water.

Acids also make the seed coat a lot harder. This doesn’t mean you can’t add any type of acid for flavoring or to improve the texture of the beans. You should just wait until near the end of the cooking process to do it.

Your Water Is Hard or Chlorinated

If your city water is too hard or if it is chlorinated, it may never be able to soften the beans enough. Some light-colored beans such as lima beans and navy beans take a shorter amount of time to cook, but even those may have trouble getting soft in the wrong type of water. If your water is too hard and you find your beans never get soft enough, try using distilled water instead of water from the tap.

What if You Add Salt Too Early?

It is a myth that salt makes beans tough. In fact, adding this ingredient early on allows the salt to be absorbed into the beans and give them more flavor. While some cookbooks may tell you not to add salt to your beans until the end of the cooking to prevent the beans from becoming too tough, this has been proven not to be true. So go ahead and season those delicious beans as you’re cooking them to help them taste just right.

How To Soften Beans After Cooking

If you’ve cooked your beans for a long time and they still aren’t soft, there are still some techniques you can try to speed things up a bit.

Keep Cooking Them

There is certainly nothing wrong with cooking your beans for a little longer. Sometimes this is necessary when you’re cooking beans to put in a soup or chili because those are two foods that absolutely require beans to be soft.

Add Baking Soda

Baking soda that can help when beans won't soften

Adding 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda toward the end of cooking can make the beans much more tender. This is because an alkaline substance such as baking soda breaks down the pectin molecules in beans. This in turn softens the beans so you don’t have to cook them as long.

Add Bay Leaves

Adding one or two bay leaves to the water will neutralize the water and help give it the perfect pH level, which allows it to do a better job of tenderizing your beans. Even if you add the bay leaves late in the process, they’ll still soften your beans and cut down on the cooking time. It’s a simple way to make your beans a little softer.

22 thoughts on “Beans Won’t Soften? Here’s Why, and Some Solutions”

    • Not really. Soaking is done before cooking, to reduce the cooking time and help beans cook more evenly. If you’ve already been cooking them, then your best bet is to keep cooking them longer. If you can add salt without making them too salty, that might help speed things up.

      • Super. My kid gets these power pak packages of food and this week I got 1 lb of pinto beans to use for chili. The instructions did not say to cook them separately and I’ve never used this type of bean before so I did what it said and put the beans in with the tomato’s to cook. My chili is ruined.

        • I just did the same thing and I’m wondering if, after 12 hours in the crockpot, adding bay leaves will make any difference. Watch this space.

          • Ditto—soaked my black beans overnight, and wanted to make a nice pot of chili on this cold, winter day, and after simmering for 6 hours, the beans are still tough! Argh…

  1. If I don’t buy a specific brand of pinto beans, they usually don’t come out like the ones that I usually buy. Why? I hate wasting all of the ingredients that I put into making my beans. I understand if they are old but I don’t see an expiration date on the package. Also don’t like wasting my whole day!

  2. Thank you. I did not realize that adding the tomato’s early would screw up the chili. Mine were not old- they were soaked overnight and in the crock pot all day-lesson learned. I’m going to try to add a little bit of water and throw it all in the pressure cooker…

  3. Its the texture of reconstituted / re-hydated beans that is lacking. After 24 hours soaking and hot potcooking, they still have a coarse texture. Suggestions??

  4. I never had that problem making bean soup or lentil soup and I always add tomatoes. But now I am having that problem. I wonder if harvesting the beans before they are ripe will make a difference in how they cook.

  5. I had soaked pinto beans in salted water overnight, but the water here is very, very hard. I then cooked the beans for about 10 minutes before adding them to my chili in a slow cooker. After more than 12 hours the beans were still hard. Thanks to this brilliant site I tried adding baking soda and salt and 2 hours later THEY’RE SOFT! Thank you!!!!

  6. Help! I use a lot of canned beans for time and convenience but often find they come out very tough, ESPECIALLY the skins, even when following a recipe exactly and cooking longer DOES NOT soften the toughness? This happens a lot when making a quick bean soup recipe which often calls for some type of tomato product. Canned beans should not require long cooking. What can I do at the end of the recipe cooking time to help soften them (cooking longer does not tenderize them)? Also does adding Baking soda change the flavor of the dish? Thanks.

    • Try cooking the beans for a while before you add the tomato product. That might help because the acid in the tomato can keep beans from softening. Baking soda will not change the flavor of the dish unless you really add a lot of it. Half a teaspoon won’t change anything.

  7. Oof, found this article too little too late. Made a huge batch of chili and thought I did everything right. Turns out adding the tomatoes before cooking the beans was the wrong decision. It’s been in the crock pot for 12 hours now and the beans aren’t soft enough yet. Should I just keep it going another 12 hours? 😫

  8. I soaked my great northerns for over 12 hours then cooked for 3. They were STILL hard. I was flabbergasted. Saw this page, added baking soda and it was like I waved a magic wand. Some of the beans turned into mush and the others were softened immediately. I’m in shock. Thanks for this great tip.

  9. Don’t be afraid to soak beans a long time. I do two days. Then boil IN THE SOAK WATER 20 minutes. Then turn down to simmer until soft your liking. Then add your other ingredients, flavors, sauces,etc. Black beans take longer than pintos.

  10. How much baking soda do you add to the batch in the crockpot? For say a 1-lb package of split peas or beans? Thanks

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