Dry Beans or Canned Beans: A Cost-Effective Comparison

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Meena asks about “Cost comparison between canned beans and cooking from dry – is it really worth the extra time?”

We use a lot of beans in our cooking. Generally, our solution is that if we’re planning ahead enough, we cook our own beans, not necessarily because it’s a winner in terms of cost or time, but because freshly-cooked beans taste a lot better (at least to me). I’m able to season them as they cook, too, which subtly alters their flavor.

In order to really make this comparison, though, we need some numbers.

The Raw Data
These are based on prices found at local grocery stores, coupled with data from my own cooking.

Average cost for a can of cooked beans: $1.19
Average contents of a can of cooked beans: 2 cups cooked beans
Average cost for a pound of dried beans: $1.99
Average cooked contents of a pound of dried beans: 8 cups cooked beans

From this, a few calculations are easy.

Average cost of pre-cooked beans: $0.60 per cup, cooked
Average cost of dry beans: $0.25 per cup, cooked
Energy and water use to cook beans: $0.01 per cup, estimated
Savings per cup using dry beans: approximately $0.34 per cup, cooked

For roughly every cup of cooked beans that I prepare myself (approximately 1/8 lb. dry beans will cook into 1 cup cooked beans), I save $0.34, including the additional costs.

Now, for the times:

Average labor time, pre-cooked beans: 1 minute
Average labor time, cooking dry beans: 13 minutes (measured over several cookings)

And this gives rise to some more calculations:

Time saved per two cups cooked beans: 12 minutes
Time saved per cup cooked beans: 6 minutes
Cost savings per hour of labor: $6.80

Conclusions
There are a lot of variables here. Almost all of these measurements were done using my own local grocery stores as well as my own calculations and timings in my kitchen. The experience of others will certainly vary. All I will say for certain is that there is a cost savings in using your own beans that adds up to roughly minimum wage (after taxes).

Another factor to note is that you can cook a lot more than 2 cups of dry beans in that 13 minutes. You can easily cook up to two pounds of beans without significantly altering the labor time, which would mean that if you’re cooking a lot of beans at once, the cost savings per hour would go up slightly.

Another important element is the wait time – and this is usually the killer. If you’re cooking your own beans, your labor is spread out over a multi-hour period as your beans cook on the stove. You don’t have to be standing there the whole time – you can engage in other tasks – but you do have to be at home for a period of time to cook beans.

For many families, this restricts their ability to use beans on weeknights, as there’s no one home to actually cook the beans. The solution I’ve used in the past is to cook the beans I need the night before I need them, starting them in mid-evening, then draining the water and putting them in the refrigerator just before bed.

So, although there is some notable cost savings in using homemade beans – and, in my opinion, there’s a large flavor benefit – the big restriction really is the waiting time. You have to plan a bit more to use beans you’ve cooked yourself.

This is why we use both. We cook our own beans when we’ve planned well (because they’re less expensive and taste better), but we do keep some canned beans in the cupboard for a pinch, like when we’re throwing together bean enchiladas for dinner.

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  1. Nick says:

    This is good info Trent and in line with what I thought it would be.

    If people are interested, I did a similar comparison on hummus on my site. I made two versions of hummus: one with dried beans and canned beans and compared them to store bought varieties in the categories of time, nutrition, cost, and taste.

    If people are interested in reading it, just google “Homemade Trials Hummus”.

  2. Angie says:

    I cook them up and package in 2-cup containers and store, labeled, in the freezer. Almost as quick as canned!

  3. valleycat1 says:

    We prefer cooking our own over canned, too. We add some spices/seasonings, which would slightly increase the cost.

    And the time/$ calculation really only applies if you would have otherwise been doing paid work but instead are spending the time on the beans.

  4. Sonja says:

    You can speed up the cooking time of the dried and soaked beans by using a pressure cooker. Maybe someone else can speak to the stove top variety of these, but I was leary of them due to stories I heard about them exploding. However I received a programmable electric pressure cooker as a gift about 8 years ago and I love it.

    It sits on the counter and you plug it in, put your ingredients inside, lock the lid, select your cook type (steam or pressure) and input your cook time and walk away. I use mine to primarily to cook rice (20 minutes = perfect brown rice!) and dried beans that have been soaked. It cuts the cooking time to about 22 minutes for garbanzo beans and about 12 minutes for black beans. I have used this pressure cooker to cook stews and to steam vegetables also, so I find it to be pretty versatile piece of equipment. It is about the size of a 6 quart crock pot. I think beans I soak and cook myself taste better than the canned kind which often have a lot of sodium added.

    The programmable pressure cookers cost around $100, so I would not rush out and buy one on a whim. But I enjoy mine and find it valuable enough in my kitchen that I would buy myself a new one when this one finally breaks.

  5. Diane says:

    I cook lots of dal, and do what most people in India do for beans – use a pressure cooker. Garbanzos done in 25 minutes, channa dal peas in 15. Less waiting and you don’t have to be home for hours. If you cook a lot of beans it’s worth investing in one.

    On the other hand, it does take a bit of trail & error bean by bean so you know how much time each kind actually needs with your pot. You don’t want mush or, conversely, hard beans.

  6. Katie says:

    And the time/$ calculation really only applies if you would have otherwise been doing paid work but instead are spending the time on the beans.

    Not if you assume increased leisure time is worth something as well.

  7. Adam P says:

    I just wanted to add two thoughts:

    1) canned beans can contain criminal amounts of sodium…try to find low or no sodium if you get the canned kind.

    2) free time is worth a lot to me and most every one I know…spending it preparing beans that are already much cheaper than the rest of your food canned or dried is not worth it to me.

    Those points together I usually grab some organic no sodium beans for a buck a can, rinse them in a strainer and I’m all set.

  8. bogart says:

    I’m a pretty lazy bum when it comes to preparing food, but try to steer clear of canned stuff because generally it contains BPA (Bisphenol A) and I don’t really want to expose myself or my kid to that if I can avoid it — a clear argument for taking the time to fix the from-scratch beans. Those less concerned about BPA may prefer the canned, and of course they are darned convenient!

  9. JS says:

    One of the best tips I ever got from the Tightwad Gazette book was that if you freeze beans after soaking them overnight, they cook up a lot faster. That being said, I usually use my limited kitchen space as an excuse to use the canned beans.

  10. Jon says:

    I am definitely less concerned about BPA than I am about botulism. You know the food-borne illness that BPA helps prevent?

  11. I use a slow cooker and no longer pre-soak beans, having read about a Mexican cookbook author whose mom never soaked beans before cooking.
    Generally I’ll cook two cups at a time and use them during the week: as a big pot of chili, eaten with a sauce of with homemade yogurt and salsa, added here and there to soups or salads, or turned into burritos.
    When I run out, I make another pot.
    Currently I’m using the last of the beans that I bought a couple of years ago in 10-pound bags (easier to store than the 50-pounders). The price then was only 57 cents a pound; when I checked the price online recently it had gone up to 68 cents a pound. Although I no longer belong to a warehouse club, I can go shopping with my sister when I (finally) run out of pintos. If you know someone who has a Costco or Sam’s Club membership, ask if s/he will buy in bulk for you. Or check ethnic markets, which tend to have lower prices (and bigger bags!) than the supermarket.

  12. Steve says:

    Wow, I’m surprised the time is as low as it is. Now that you mention it, making a pot of beans does always seem like a giant effort. Though I suppose, making more than two cups at a time would be more efficient…

  13. Melissa says:

    We cook our dried beans (mostly black beans and garbanzos) in a crock pot. It takes a few hours but you don’t even have to monitor it. Just taste test around the 4 hour mark to see if they are done. We can cook 10 or more cups at a time depending on the size of the crock pot we use.

  14. Gretchen says:

    I’m surprised it takes 13 minutes.

    What I’ve learned is that some beans cook quickly then others- large limas, for instance, take less time then chickpeas.

  15. Rebecca says:

    I agree with Trent’s conslusion, but his times and cost seem way off to me. What part of prep takes 13 min? I open the bag, sort out the bad ones and pebbles, quick rinse in strainer and cover with water to soak over night. 4 min. The next day i drain the old water off, rinse and add beans to crockpot with water to cook. 2 min. then the crock pot does the rest. The only reason I even soak them is that I have had several batches of beans where only half of them cooked, and half were so old they were hard as rocks. I you soak over night, all the beans should plump up the same, if not you can pick out the duds.

    And agree with #11, even a 1 lb bag of beans is rarely more than $1.25, I often get them for 99 cents. And larger amts can be as little as 40 or 50 cents a lb.

    plus home cooked just taste way better.

  16. Sara A. says:

    Slow cooking beans uses half the active time but takes more waiting time, although you do not have to be home for the waiting time like you would with a pot on the stove. Also I think my crockpot uses less energy than my stovetop, but YMMV.

  17. almost there says:

    I can’t see the reason to add the hourly wage to the article. Like others have pointed out it only applies if you would have been paid for the time spent preparing the beans. A retired person on the other hand gets paid to breath staying alive to collect the retirement. Assume the retiree gets $2000 per month and they alot 8 hours a day, 40 hour week total to the “work” of being retired. That equates to $11.53 per hour, or $2.744/hour if counting all the hours in a year. I’ll take that any day over work.

  18. bogart says:

    @Jon of course I’d choose BPA over botulism, but happily, I don’t have to — I can cook my own beans (or buy canned beans from Eden Foods, which uses cans lined with materials that don’t contain BPA for most of its products, including its beans). Can liners have dramatically reduced the incidence of botulism and most can liners contain BPA but it does not from that follow that BPA prevents botulism.

  19. Tracy says:

    This doesn’t make sense to me:

    Average labor time, pre-cooked beans: 1 minute
    Average labor time, cooking dry beans: 13 minutes (measured over several cookings)
    And this gives rise to some more calculations:
    Time saved per two cups cooked beans: 12 minutes
    Time saved per cup cooked beans: 6 minutes

    You really can’t break it out like that, because it still takes you 12 more minutes to cook a single cup of beans than it does to open a can of beans and take out half.

    The same math would say you save less time, the more beans you cooked, and that’s even less accurate …

  20. Nancy says:

    Crockpot folks, would you give details please, such as how much water to add to 2 cups dried beans, and whether high or low temp? I’m going to try this great idea! I also didn’t think of freezing them.

    My issue with beans is they go bad so quickly and I don’t want to make a huge batch. Canned beans are so convenient, but the SMELL when you open them is so bad.

  21. Brenda W. says:

    Ditto what Donna (above) said about no soaking needed, and using the slow cooker to cook the beans. Each slow cooker (and type of bean) will vary, but for mine, garbanzos (probably the longest cooking beans) needs 8-9 hours on high. I add 3-4 times as much water as beans.

    Another piece of info is to add salt to the beans AT THE START of cooking. Old info always said not to, as this would make the beans tough. Actually it is just the opposite …. it helps soften them.

    Another time saver is skipping the “sorting thru the beans”. Honestly, I think that is from years (decades?) past … I’ve never found anything to remove from a batch of beans. I do rinse them, although I suspect this too, is unnecessary in today’s world of commercially prepared dried beans.

    As Angie (above) mentioned, freeze them in 2 cup batches, and you have the equivalent of a can of beans at your fingertips. I freeze them in quart size freezer bags, with the beans (no liquid) flattened out flat, so all the beans are just in a single layer in the freezer bag. Then I stack those bags one atop another in my freezer (I don’t have a freestanding freezer; my only freezer space is what’s above my ‘fridge.)

    Frozen in this format makes them very easy to use right from the freezer. Each bean is loose and individual … you do not have a 2 cup chunk of beans to thaw. If you’re using it for soup or stew, just add to the pot.

    For something like hummus, pour the beans out onto a couple layers of paper towels on a plate and microwave on high for a minute or so.

  22. Tom says:

    Re: BPA, so you buy dry beans in plastic bags to avoid it?

  23. Larabara says:

    I use my recipe for beans called “Jacob’s cattle” that I grow in my garden. They are about the size of large lima beans. After soaking for a day (during this time I change the water three times), I cook beans in my crockpot with sliced onions, a ham hock or bacon (vegetarians can omit this part), and spices. I cover them with twice the amount of liquid (water or stock) as soaked beans. Please note that the beans plump up after soaking, so 2 cups of dried beans swells up to way more than 2 cups after soaking! Measure the beans after soaking to get the right amount of liquid. I set the whole thing on “low” and leave it for about 6 hours, then taste for doneness. I soak them for a day instead of overnight because I heard that if you rinse them three times, it cuts way down on the gas factor. So three changes of water in the soaking stage takes about a day or so for me.

  24. valleycat1 says:

    #20 Nancy – My rule of thumb for water is to have it 1-2 inches above the top of the beans, depending on how much extra juice you want. You cook on high or low depending on how long you want them to cook.

    I’ve found that the bulk pinto beans in the produce section cook down softer than the bagged ones.

    My husband dehydrates cooked pinto beans & bags individual servings to take along when back country hiking. He adds water at the beginning of the day & by the time he stops to eat lunch, they’re ready.

  25. Sheri says:

    DON’T skip sorting the dry beans–particularly if you buy cheaper house brands and/or beans from Mexico. Pebbles that are the size of beans or smaller can easily slip through the mesh the manufacturer uses for sorting–as I learned as a college student, back when I thought sorting was a waste of time. A good-sized pebble was in my pot of black beans, and I chipped a tooth. Hurt like the dickens.

    My little daughter does the sorting for me. It can take her a while (she loves fussing over it), but it takes me less than a minute/pound. Just use a small plate or pie plate that contrasts in color with the beans. Pour about one-third of a pound at a time into the plate and quickly glance over them, before dumping the good beans into a large bowl for soaking.

    I’d say that I/we find a pebble or little lump of dirt (yummy!) about every couple of months. We eat a lot of beans! :-)

  26. bogart says:

    #22 Tom plastic bags!? — Ye gods and little fishes ;)! No, naturally I buy them in bulk in brown paper bags from my local food co-op. They are, however, stored in plastic containers, but my general sense is that as they are not heated nor do they contain liquid, there’s probably less BPA transferred (it doesn’t list dry beans, but if you google “Concentrations of bisphenol A in composite food samples” — sorry, I’d post the link but then I’d get subject to comment moderation — and compare the BPA levels in plastic-packaged dry bread and cereals to those of canned goods, I think there’s reasonable evidence to support this view).

  27. Tanya says:

    I thought this was a really interesting comparison. I always use canned beans, particularly for my black bean salsa, which takes three cans of beans. Maybe I’ll try making some in a slow cooker next time.

  28. AnnJo says:

    Trent’s prices seem high. I buy brand-name canned beans on sale for 50 cents a can, and dried beans from my local restaurant supply store in 25# bags, costing between $13.50-$19 depending on the variety, or between 54 and 76 cents a pound. The dry ones keep for literally years (although they will get harder and take a longer cook time).

    To prep dry beans, I sort them while my kettle comes for a boil for my morning coffee and pour into a bowl. After I fill my French press coffee maker, I pour the extra hot water over the beans to cover by about an inch, and cover with the kettle. When I come home, I drain the softened beans, rinse, pour into the pressure cooker, toss in 3-4 cloves of garlic (unpeeled), a bay leaf, thyme, and whatever spices I want, and put on to cook. The pot comes to pressure in about 10 minutes and the beans are usually done 20-25 minutes later.

    If I don’t have left-over cooked dry beans in the fridge, I use canned beans when I’m adding beans as a secondary ingredient, as in salads, soups, or casseroles.

    Canned and dry both have their place, but Trent is overpaying for them by over 100%. I’ve noticed that about a lot of his cooking posts – all the prices he quotes seem consistently way higher than they need to be.

  29. macke says:

    I often cook in large portions, be it beans or not, and freeze it down in portions. In this way daily dinners takes less time as I usually have to cook some pasta, rice or potatoes as well as some vegetables.

  30. Rebecca says:

    BPA is a concern mostly with foods heated in bpa containers, like cans. I prefer to soak and sort mine for i have often found little pebbles or dirt on the beans. If I am just cooking the beans plain, I start with enough water to cover by about an inch, adding more if need too. How long depends on wether you cook on high or low and the power of your crockpot, but mine usually go 6 hrs on high.

    for home made refried beans I just barely cover the beans with chicken stock, add spices and a half pint of chile peppers to the pot. Watch and add stock if needed, but not too much or they get runny. Add salt and I either blend with my food processor or a stick blender at the end, and I freeze all my beans in regular pint canning jars, no liquid.

    They defrost quickly, and if I needed them ASAP I can pour some hot water over the beans and strain them to get them out of the jar quickly.

  31. Maureen says:

    I agree with AnnJo. Trent sure overpays for his canned beans. They are frequently on sale for less than 70 cents a can.

  32. Brittany says:

    You also have to keep in mind that different parts of the country have different food costs. While rural Iowa might have cheap corn in the summer and perhaps inexpensive dairy, processed food is generally more expensive. This was a pleasant surprise for me moving from the rural Midwest to the big city, after being told how much more expensive everything was going to be. Except for housing, nearly everything is cheaper here than in my small town. I don’t buy canned beans ever, but dry beans, without deals, bulk purchases, or running to a lot of grocery stores are $.79-$1.39 depending on the variety.

  33. Jon says:

    @ #18 bogart

    It also does not follow that BPA causes any adverse health affects. Sure, there have been increased incidents in lab mice who were INJECTED with BPA. But I don’t plan on doing that any time soon.

    At this point in time, can liners containing BPA is the most cost effective way to prevent botulism.

  34. bogart says:

    #33 Jon I don’t know enough about can liners to assess the advantages/disadvantages of creating them without BPA. I also understand that there’s considerable conflict about whether BPA is something we should or shouldn’t be worried about. I do sometimes eat canned products, and I don’t avoid BPA-containing cans when I do.

    All that said, I’d argue that in this case, cooking your own beans is the most cost effective way to prevent botulism and BPA exposure, all in one fell swoop.

  35. Emma says:

    It seems logical to cook your own beans when you already cook at home. Beans are easy to cook. Why use can of veggies? Giving can beans to kids and telling them that they are good for you is inconsistent.

  36. Priswell says:

    While I’ve had a crock pot/slow cooker since I was 16, I am only now starting to use it on any kind of a regular basis.

    I have to add another +1 for the pressure cooker. Pinto beans take me almost exactly 1 hour to cook from dried-beans-plus-water to perfectly done. I always make a huge batch using a 6L pressure cooker and freeze what we don’t use. The beans are always there in dinner sized quantities after thawing.

    I also buy my pintos in a 20lb bag for about $16 dollars.

  37. Sara A. says:

    @ #20

    When using the crockpot, you want to use it to capacity, not just 2 cups. I have a 6 quart crockpot and will cook beans in 1 lb portions. Store the rest in meal sized portion in the freezer for leftovers… it is a great time saver.

    Cover soaked beans in 2 inches of water in the crockpot. If the beans are unsoaked, you might want to leave like 4-5 inches of water above the beans.

    I typically like to soak my beans the night before and dump the leftover water. This serves both cleaning and soaking at once. I will then put the soaked beans in the crockpot with 2 inches water on top.

    Another protip: if you want very soft beans, use 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. This works great for making chickpeas for homemade hummus. The baking soda will break down the outside shell of the bean. Don’t use too much though… it will caused them to have a burned smell.

  38. Holly says:

    I have a different take on the canned vs dried. I have NEVER been able to cook up garbanzos right. They are always 1/2 hard and I HATE the skins so I use canned.

    I seldom use pinto (chili only) so I buy the BIG can generally at Aldi.

    I do regularly cook up black beans from dried. I make a good size batch and use some and freeze some in single serve portions.

    Generally I see garbanzos and black beans sale priced for about the same cost.

    Bottom line:
    I cook only the type of beans I use MOST frequently.

  39. Bubamara says:

    RE: Barbara and salt in beans, I think it’s acid you are supposed to stay away from until the beans are done cooking, lest they get tough and never finish cooking. Salt isn’t so bad because the salted pork products most people use is obviously full of it and is OK to add at the start. Just don’t add the tomatoes or lemon juice until they’re done :)

  40. leah says:

    Once I tried cooking my own chickpeas, I was a convert. They taste so much better than the store-bought canned variety, and they’re softer, too. I pre-soak them and use a pressure cooker. (I’ll often pressure-can five pints at a time for convenience.) For me it’s a matter of taste, not cost savings, though that’s a nice bonus.

  41. joyce says:

    website for good bean recipes – Bush’s Best Beans
    Trent, please try the recipe “Bush’s Best Black Bean Salad”. Look at comments for recipe. Highly recommended.

  42. littlepitcher says:

    Certain beans have toxins which are neutralized by boiling, and must be parboiled before slow-cooking. Additionally, parboiling speeds cooking. Just bring to a boil and let sit an hour. I drain them after the parboil to remove the majority of polysaccharides which create flatulence.
    If you add fresh garlic and a dash of vinegar, you can cut or even eliminate the salt.

  43. Marta says:

    I cook my beans in a crock pot overnight. I rinse them, then cover with about 3x as much water, turn crock pot on high and go to bed. This can also be done when leaving the house in the a.m. Another option is to cook a few lbs, and measure by @ 1 can’s worth into a small freezer bags and freeze – then its ready as conveniently as a can just by defrosting.

    I only use canned beans when on a camping trip or an emergency. :) They taste so much better slow cooked in the crock pot, plus you can control the salt etc…

  44. Roberta says:

    Reference #11

    Giving up your own wholesale club membership if you no longer use it is one thing, but asking someone else who pays for one to buy you beans in bulk seems unethical to me. One of the ongoing discussions on this website is the difference between frugality and cheapness. Frugality is generally seen as getting the best value from the money you spend. Cheapness is paying the least amount possible, even if it means taking advantage of other people or organizations. Taking towels from a hotel isn’t frugality, it’s theft. Asking someone to buy you things from a wholesale store to which you do not have a membership is theft in my mind also. Even if you pay the person for the items they purchased for you, you are cheating the store.

  45. socalgal says:

    Roberta, as a shareholder of Costco Stock, I disagree. While the annual membership fees do represent a nice chunk of money to the company, I believe that some people are just not able to justify paying for a service they only need one or two times a year. Therefore, if Costco can benefit by selling this consumer some goods occasionally, it is a win win situation.

  46. PF says:

    Can I just say that I have bean-cooking envy? You simply cannot cook dry beans at 9000 ft elevation where I live without a pressure cooker (which I really need to get, but they are expensive as mentioned above). I wish I had the choice. Waah, poor me, right? LOL! Thank goodness for canned beans.

  47. AnnJo says:

    Roberta, as an on-again, off-again shareholder of Costco, thank you for respecting the method Costco has chosen to offer its goods to the public. It may not be the full equivalent of theft to evade the rules, but it is engaging in a deception, even if some individual shareholders of Costco don’t support the business model.

    Since I’ve been a member for years, I don’t know if Costco offers day-passes. I know Sam’s Club occasionally does, and also allows anyone to shop without becoming a member, for a 10% markup. Restaurant supply stores are the best sources of multiple varieties of beans, in my experience, and most don’t require membership.

  48. Katie says:

    I find the idea that you shouldn’t be able to pick up an item or two for a friend at Costco kind of ludicrous. Grabbing things for friends when you go to the store is a pretty basic thing at any store – limiting this when it comes to Costco because it’s a membership system seems a little silly to me. You’re paying to do normal shopping there. Tossing an extra bag of beans in your cart is well within normal use. You might do that for a neighbor or roommate even if they did have a membership and just didn’t want to drive out there.

    I totally accept that it’s a matter of degree and you shouldn’t be doing massive amounts of shopping for other people. But that’s not so unusual in financial ethics. I also think it’s reasonable to flip through a book at Barnes & Nobles that you’re not interested in buying to kill five minutes before a dinner reservation, but not so much to sit down and read it cover to cover.

  49. Georgia says:

    I am going to try to cook some navy beans soon. We always had them at home. One hint – if you get gas from eating beans – is to put one ounce of caster oil in your pan when you put a one pound bag of beans on to cook.

    We learned this from a restaurant owner. My mom tried it. About the 5th time she did it, we said, Ugh. She informed us we had been eating them regularly. It is just enough to relieve the gas, but cause no other problems. The man who told mom this said that if you do not have a good reputation for non-gassy beans, no one would buy them at the lunch hour. I’ve done this for about 60 years and it works.

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