I cook dried beans on weekends when I plan to be hanging around the house-- or more precisely the kitchen-- where I can keep half an eye on them while they cook. I don't cook dried beans every weekend, but when I do I cook a big batch-- very slowly-- in the oven. Once cool I reserve half of the beans for a mid week meal and the other half go into the freezer, tightly sealed into quart sized self closing freezer bags, for meals at a later date.
My favorite dried bean is the cannellini bean. But if cannellini are not available my next choice is the large white kidney bean. (I also love a big flat lima-type bean called gigante, although they are sometimes hard to find.) It doesn't matter which bean you choose because this slow cook oven method for dried beans works for almost any variety.
I prefer this slow gentle oven cooked method to top of the stove boiled method because the oven cooking guarantees a calmer, almost cocoon-like atmosphere, in which the beans can slowly hydrate and cook to tender perfection. Once in the oven there is no opportunity--or need-- to stir them, which is a good thing. Stirring roughs up the beans causing them to shed their skins and turn mushy. Plus the slow, steady oven heat doesn't have the heat fluctuations between hard and slow simmer found in stove top cooking that causes the beans to loose their shape and break up. When oven baked beans are cooked tender each and everyone is perfectly shaped on the outside and soft and tender on the inside-- just like a cooked bean should be.
The extra beans stashed in the freezer retain their great taste, but because their texture softens from the freezing and thawing process, they're best used in soup (see the Tomato and White Bean Soup with Spinach Pesto) or in a white bean puree (recipe coming soon) to spread on toasted bread topped with cooked greens and garlic chips (another recipe coming).
But, today I'd like to tell you how I cook the beans. First, the night before, I place the beans (about 3 cups or 1 1/2 pounds) in a large bowl and add water to cover by at least 2 inches. (The soaked beans will almost double in bulk.) Leave the beans to soak overnight in a cool place. If the kitchen is warm (not ours!) put the bowl in a cooler place in the house, or better yet, in the refrigerator. The next day drain the beans and place them in a large deep oven-proof casserole or Dutch oven. I use my mid sized Le Creuset. Add fresh water almost to cover, but not quite. Do not add salt until the beans are fully cooked. (Expert cooks claim it toughens the skins and I have found this to be my experience, too.) Instead I season the cooking water with a leafy celery top, a thick slice or wedge of onion, a couple of peeled and bruised (hit them with the side of a knife) garlic cloves, a few whole black peppercorns, a bay leaf or two (use Turkish bay leaves, I find the California bay too aromatic) and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Then cover the casserole or pot, tightly, place in the oven, set the oven temperature at 350 degrees, and the timer for 1 hour. When the hour is up, the beans will most likely not be cooked, but check them just the same. The cooking time will vary depending on the "dryness" of the beans which is determined by their age. Older beans (still good) will take much longer (probably 2 hours, sometimes longer) to cook. Freshly dried beans will cook in less time (about 1 hour).
To gauge the remaining cooking time, taste one of the beans. If it is still hard, they'll need at least 1 more hour of cooking. If it is a little soft, but not soft enough, they'll need about 30 minutes more. Oh, and while the beans are out of the oven check the amount of water. There should be water visible near the top of the beans. If not, add enough very hot, almost boiling water, so that you can see the level of water through the beans.
Then the beans go back in the oven until they're tender. Beans cannot be rushed, so keep yourself occupied with other chores and the beans--guaranteed-- will eventually cook.
Once the beans test tender to the bite they're done. Gently fold (use a rubber spatula, not a metal spoon because the metal will break beans) in 2 teaspoons of coarse salt. Then return the cover and let the beans cool in their liquid. The beans will absorb some of the liquid as they cool. To use the beans immediately lift them from the liquid with a slotted spoon. Save the liquid. It makes a great "bean stock" for soup.