How to avoid a Dal FAIL

Last week I tried to make my favorite yellow split pea dal in my crockpot. It was an utter FAIL. Really and truly nasty—by the time the peas were finally edible (sort of), they had turned a disgusting brownish green color, which is why I’m skipping the photo. However, dear readers, I want to spare you the same miserable experience.

My problem, it turns out, is that I added turnip greens at the beginning, right along with the split peas, the potatoes, etc. Although we don’t think of them as such, it turns out that turnip greens are quite high in acid. The acid, in turn, makes it difficult for the split peas to absorb water. How difficult? Well. Let me tell you. These split peas—pre-soaked, mind you!—were still hard as rocks after 8 hours in the crockpot, at which point I turned it to low and we went out for pizza at our local brew pub instead. I let it cook overnight. The peas were still mostly hard the next morning, but by now the mixture had started to turn an alarming color. Determined not to waste food, I decided to pressure cook the whole thing. Five minutes at 15 pounds pressure did virtually nothing to the peas. After another 10 minutes, they were starting to soften, but still not done. Finally, after another 10 minutes at 15 pounds of pressure, they were finally soft enough to eat. They were also not very pretty.

The end product was edible, sort of, if you smother a bowl of the stuff with yogurt and chutney. But it is not something I will repeat.

The lesson? Only add acidic things (tomatoes, greens, lemon juice, etc.) to legumes after they’re cooked. This is the logic that explains, among other things, why recipes for baked beans usually either have you start with cooked beans or include a cooking time of several hours. Great mysteries revealed!

Now, to be honest, I’ve often had trouble getting beans soft in the crockpot, which is one of oh-so-many reasons I usually prefer the pressure cooker instead. How does this work, exactly? What tricks do you use?

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7 comments to How to avoid a Dal FAIL

  • Melody

    Great article. I soak my beans overnight in the crock and then drain them and refill with new water. That seems to do the trick!

  • How interesting that the acid interferes with legumes cooking…I never knew that!

  • I go through a lot to save food that might otherwise be lost. But this is heroic! And so interesting re: the turnip greens. Chemical reactions are amazing.

  • Janet

    I have read (in one of my many cookbooks) that sometimes a crock pot doesn’t stay quite hot enough to cook the beans well… the cookbook (which one I would never be able to remember) recommended placing a kitchen towel over the lid to insulate it just slightly. I have tried this and it really does make a difference.

    Good luck!

  • The only beans I regularly cook from dry in the crockpot are black soybeans, which are NOTORIOUS for taking forEVER to get soft.
    I soak them in boiling water for 30 minutes, drain, put them in the crockpot and fill with water to the correct proportion, and then let them cook for 12 hours. No salt. No peeking. On High the whole time. It’s the only way, besides a pressure cooker, that I’ve ever found to get dry soybeans soft…and I don’t have a pressure cooker anymore. But the 12-hr crockpot marathon after a half-hour soak does seem to work.
    As for dals I’m more of a top-of-the-stove girl.
    Hope this helps.

  • i grew up on indian food and i always make a base from caramelized onions, spices and tomatoes or whatever i want to add, then cook the lentils separately, no matter what kind i use, then add the lentils into the base at the last minute.

  • Aha…this is why lentils seem to take forever to cook when I add spinach. Spinach, you go in last from now on!