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Spread beans in a single layer on a large baking sheet and pick through to remove and discard any small stones or debris and then rinse well.
Soak the beans using one of these two methods:
Traditional soaking method: In a large bowl, cover beans by 3 inches with cold water, cover and set aside at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight.
Quick soaking method: In a large pot, cover beans by 3 inches with cold water, cover and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, remove pot from heat and set aside, covered, for 1 hour.
Drain soaked beans and transfer to a large pot. Cover by 2 inches with cold water, add onion and bay leaves and bring to a boil; skim off and discard any foam on the surface. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, gently stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Drain beans (if desired), discard onions and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper.