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Soak the beans overnight. The night before you plan to cook (or 10 to 14 hours ahead), soak the beans to reduce cooking time and help them cook more evenly. Place the dry beans in a bowl. Pick through the beans and discard any shriveled or unappealing beans. Cover the beans with a few inches of cool water and leave them on the counter for 10 to 14 hours.
Drain the soaked beans. The next day, the beans will have absorbed much of the water and nearly doubled in size. Drain the beans from their soaking water and rinse them gently under cool running water.
Transfer the beans to a cooking pot. Transfer the drained beans to a Dutch oven or other heavy cooking pot. Add the aromatics, if using.
Add water and bring the beans to a boil. Add enough water to cover the beans by about an inch. Bring them to a boil over medium-high heat.
Reduce to a low simmer and cook. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and a very gentle simmer. You should barely see the water moving. Leave the lid off for firm beans meant for cold salads and pasta dishes. Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar for creamier beans for soups, casseroles, and burritos. (Learn more: Leaving the Lid On Vs. Off When Cooking Beans.)
Check the beans after an hour. Cook the beans for 1 hour, and then begin checking for doneness. Depending on their age, size, and variety, beans can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to cook through. Be patient. Keep the beans at a gentle simmer and taste frequently as they start to become tender. Add more water as needed to keep the beans submerged, and stir occasionally.
Add the salt when beans are just barely tender. When beans are tender but still too firm to enjoy eating, add the salt. Adding the salt too early can keep the beans from becoming tender. Continue simmering until the beans are as tender and creamy as you like them. Taste and season with more salt as needed.
Cool and store the beans. If not serving immediately, cool the beans in their cooking liquid. Transfer the beans and cooking liquid to airtight containers and refrigerate or freeze.