Dry Beans vs. 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.