How Long Do Dry Beans Last?
And How Do 24-Year-Old Beans Taste?
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Patrice Lewis Much ado is made over the proper requirements for long-term food storage. Woe betide anyone who dares to defy the mandated wisdom of Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers for their bucketed food. The implication, of course, is storing beans, rice, and other dry goods without proper preparation will render the food items inedible.
It’s worth noting most long-term dry foods don’t last forever and lose viability year by year. Fortunately, we’ve learned through experience that “shelf-life” is vastly overrated. Most (though not all) dry foods are good for years of storage when protected from heat, light, moisture, and pests. They might lose a fraction of their nutritional value, but in a crisis, who cares?
Dry beans are usually given a shelf-life of 3 to 6 years under optimal storage conditions. But sometimes, as we learned, things can turn out better than hoped.
Back in 1999, as earnest and novice Y2K preppers, we filled a five-gallon bucket with black beans and screwed on a gasket lid. That’s it. No oxygen absorbers, no Mylar bags. Just beans in a bucket.
We never used those beans. Now here it is, 2023, and these beans are nearly a quarter-century old. We opened the bucket once or twice just to make sure they weren’t moldy or eaten up by bugs, but otherwise, we didn’t use them. The last time we opened the bucket eight years ago, quite by accident, we didn’t screw the lid down correctly. The beans were likely bug-tight but certainly not air-tight for eight of those 24 years, please note.
By all accounts — and especially since we stored them in what could only charitably be described as suboptimal conditions — the beans should be rock-hard and entirely inedible because they would never soften. Right?
I scooped out about two cups last year and ran the beans through a basic cooking test. I soaked them overnight in water, then put them in a pot with fresh water and boiled them for about 30 minutes. The result? Soft and ready for a chili cook-off.
We didn’t use a pressure cooker or baking soda as a soaking aid; we simply soaked them overnight in water like any dry bean and cooked them as we would any soaked beans.
How can this be? All conventional wisdom says the beans would be like little pebbles under these conditions, especially since they weren’t stored with any packing aids.
For a bit of enlightenment, my husband was able to locate a 1991 master’s thesis written by a fellow named Scott Myers at Brigham Young University entitled The Effects of Packaging Gas, Temperature and Storage Time on Germination, Loaf Volume and Protein Solubility of Wheat.
Granted, this study involved wheat, not beans; but the gist is as follows: during the 18 months of the study, the packing gas used for each of the wheat samples (air, carbon dioxide, nitrogen) made little difference in the wheat’s ability to become a loaf of bread. What did make a difference was temperature. The higher the long-term storage temps (topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit), the less likely the wheat was to make bread.
We haven’t been able to locate a similar study for beans, but our anecdotal experiment illustrated that quarter-century-old beans can be very forgiving.
As an additional experiment, we wondered if beans this old were still viable. In other words, could they be grown? There was only one way to find out. I planted some.
Not only did these 24-year-old beans grow, but they grew very well. I started them in pots on the windowsill and later hardened them off and transplanted them to the garden, where they grew splendidly until the ding-dang deer decided to decimate them (a story for another day).
However, growing 24-year-old beans shouldn’t come as a surprise. I know a woman who used to live in New Mexico. One day, a neighboring rancher’s cows trampled an area and uncovered a clay pot with a wooden stopper, sealed with pine pitch. The rancher took the pot to the archeology department of a nearby university, where some large white dry beans were discovered inside. The beans were carbon-dated to 1,500 years ago and later christened Folsom Indian Ruin beans. Our friend was given a couple of the beans, and she planted them. They grew splendidly, and my friend continues to plant and grow these beans each year.
So yes, beans are very forgiving.
Admittedly, our friend’s 1,500-year-old beans had been stored (however, accidentally) in a dry, low-humidity environment. As it turns out, our 24-year-old black beans were also (accidentally) stored in a low-humidity environment since we live in a fairly dry climate. If you live in an area with lots of humidity, your dry-storage needs will be different.
I would never suggest duplicating the same haphazard storage conditions we used for long-term food storage. Nor am I putting down Mylar bags or oxygen absorbers, which perform their functions superbly. Instead, it’s to point out it is still possible to successfully store dry foods long-term under less-than-ideal conditions. In other words, don’t despair if your storage conditions aren’t perfect.
The enemy of dry food storage is heat, light, moisture, and pests. These are the issues you need to address for your own long-term food storage, especially if your climate is humid. To this end, some people place their bulk foods in the freezer for a few days (to kill off any pests) before storing them. Others dust the contents with a small amount of food-grade diatomaceous earth, which is vicious on insects but harmless to people. (Make sure the diatomaceous earth is FOOD GRADE.) After that, place the food in jars or food-grade buckets with tight lids and store in a cool, dark, dry place. And yes, Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers aren’t a bad idea, either.
More and more people are engaging in long-term food storage, which is a decidedly encouraging trend. While I hope you don’t make the same food-storage mistakes we did, it’s nice to know you can still eat (and grow) 24-year-old beans.
PATRICE LEWIS is a wife, mother, homesteader, homeschooler, author, blogger, columnist, and speaker. An advocate of simple living and self-sufficiency, she has practiced and written about self-reliance and preparedness for almost 30 years. She is experienced in homestead animal husbandry and small-scale dairy production, food preservation and canning, country relocation, home-based businesses, homeschooling, personal money management, and food self-sufficiency. Follow her website http://www.patricelewis.com/ or blog http://www.rural-revolution.com/.
Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.