Is soaking beans 24 hours unrefrigerated safe?
It strikes me as an unsafe food practice to follow Cook's Illustrated's advice for soaking dried beans for 24 hours unrefrigerated. I've also seen them suggest you soak steel-cut oats unrefrigerated overnight.
Is there some reason why these practices are okay? Would there be any harm in refrigerating them, particularly the beans, while soaking?
From Cook's Illustrated:
Dissolve 3 tablespoons salt in 4 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. Add [one pound] beans and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well.
I know it's common practice in the US to ask whether or not something food related is 'safe'. However, if you think about this wording, it's somewhat misleading. What do they specifically mean by 'safe'? What are you afraid of, specifically? Unless you are more specific, your questions, as well as answers to your question are lacking proper 'foundation'.
In fact, although the risk is low, the Penn State Extension does recommend soaking in the refrigerator, or using the quick soak method as opposed to an overnight room temperature soak:
To be on the safe side, it would be advisable to use the quick soak method: Bring water and beans to a boil, cover and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 1 hour. Drain and further cook.
Similarly, the US Dry Bean Council recommends (emphasis added):
A 12-hour soak in cold water before cooking helps hydrate the beans and considerably shortens cooking time. Ideally, beans should be put to soak the night before they are to be prepared and be kept in a cool place, or in the refrigerator, to avoid any fermentation taking place. Before soaking, wash them several times in cold water and remove any damaged or split beans. Discard any particles floating in the soaking water, such as small insects from the harvest, specks of dirt or other contaminants.