Let's get one thing straight.
Canned beans are never going to be as good as home-cooked dried beans, no matter how many seasonings you add to your pot. They're like any other convenience food: a wan simulacrum, fine in a pinch but never transcendent.
You can do a whole lot better for not much more work cooking your own dried beans, once you get over the notion that they are fussy or in any way intimidating. Cooking a pot of beans is one of the easiest ways to get dinner on the table.
Whether your resolution for the coming year is to eat more healthfully, cut back on meat, be more frugal, do more home cooking or prepare food ahead for the week, simmering a big pot of beans will help you get there and then some.
But here's the most compelling argument in their favor: A bowlful of home-cooked beans bathed with their own magically delicious, creamy broth — served on rice, farro or polenta, or as part of a salad, soup or stew — makes a terrific meal.
Even the simplest recipe for dried beans yields amazing results. Rinse your beans, put them in a pot covered with water and a spoonful of salt and let them simmer until they are tender but not mushy. This can take as little as 15 minutes for red lentils or as long as four hours for large, recalcitrant lima beans. Keep simmering. They will come around.
And if they don't seem to ever get tender, it's not the salt's fault. It could be that your beans are very old; they start to deteriorate after a year. Or the culprit may be hard water. Water with a high mineral content can notoriously impede bean softening. So can adding an acidic ingredient to the pot. Save that squeeze of lemon juice or drizzle of vinegar for after the beans are cooked.
But do salt at the beginning, rather than at the end or in the middle of cooking, ignoring the conventional wisdom that beans cooked in salted water will never soften. It's just not true.
And salting early has many benefits. It seasons the beans to their velvety cores. It also intensifies the flavor of the cooking water, which will transform into a rich and flavorful broth that you can serve with your beans or use as a base for soups and stews. (It freezes for up to six months.) If you add salt later in the cooking process, you'll need to add a lot more of it, and even then you could end up with oversalted broth and blandish beans.
That's one bean myth shot down. Here's another: You don't really need to soak your beans.
Soaking does have benefits. It will help beans cook faster and more evenly, and it can help leach out the intestinal-distress-causing sugars some people are particularly sensitive to (though as you eat more beans, your gut adjusts). If you are a planner or have a sensitive digestive system, go ahead and soak. You don't need to do this the day before; even four hours of soaking will help the cause.
More spontaneous cooks can skip this step and cook the beans a little longer; an extra hour or two should do it depending upon the variety of bean. One thing to note: Adding salt to the soaking water helps speed up cooking by breaking down the beans' skins.
Whether or not you've soaked your beans, be sure to use lots of water for cooking them, covering them by at least 2 inches. And keep the water at a simmer rather than a vigorous boil. Cooking the beans gently stops them from moving around too much in the pot, which can burst their skins and make them mushy and waterlogged on the surface but still crunchy within.
If you've got a pressure cooker, you may already know that you can use it to take hours off your bean cooking time. A slow cooker takes longer, but it gives you superbly and evenly cooked beans. (To use a slow cooker, cover beans with 2 inches of water, add salt and any aromatics you like, and cook on the low setting until done, usually three to six hours.) My fuzzy-logic rice cooker set for brown rice works wonderfully well, too. Note that kidney beans need to be boiled on the stove first for 10 minutes to become digestible before using rice or slow cookers.
In any case, keep an eye on your beans so they don't overcook and burst. Beans are done when they are tender all the way through but still firm and intact. If you blow on a spoonful of beans fished out of the pot, the skins will wrinkle and curl back. But tasting a bean is the best way to see if it's ready.
Adding aromatics to the bean pot helps turn the liquid into a heady, rich-tasting broth. Whatever you'd normally put into a chicken or meat stock will go well with beans — think garlic, celery, herbs, ginger. Or get creative and throw in some spices or a chunk of ham or bacon. Even a humble onion and a bay leaf works wonders for beans. And you won't need to do much more than spoon them into a bowl to slurp up, preferably with a drizzle of good olive oil or hot sauce, a little vinegar or lemon juice and a lot of pepper.
These recipes really shine when made with home-cooked dried beans. If, however, you must use canned beans, go ahead, at least this once.