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All About Heirloom Beans
These vibrant, flavorful legumes give new meaning to the phrase “cool beans.” Are they worth seeking out?
What You Need To Know
There are more than 30,000 varieties of beans in the world, but only a handful are cultivated on an industrial scale. The rest—the ones that the world’s big producers of canned and dried beans forgot—are known as heirloom beans. You may have encountered heirloom beans at a garden store, small market, or local restaurant. Their devotees include famous chefs and trailblazers of the food scene, dedicated local farmers, and biodiversity activists—not to mention millions of home cooks around the world. What makes them so special? How do they differ from the other beans you can buy at the supermarket? Perhaps most important, are they worth their slightly higher price? We dug deep, cooking and tasting dozens of pounds of beans and interviewing bean researchers, food historians, and heirloom bean suppliers, to answer these questions and more.
To understand heirloom beans, it’s important to first discuss beans in general.
What Does “Bean” Mean?
Simply put: Beans are seeds. “Bean'' is an umbrella term used to describe the seeds of thousands of flowering plants within the legume family, Fabaceae. “Beans” are a big category; the term even applies to varieties that aren’t really considered beans, such as lentils, peanuts, and certain types of peas. Still, when we think of beans, we're usually thinking of varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris, the "common bean," including black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, and even green beans. Most heirloom beans on the market are also varieties of common beans.
The Story Behind Everyday Beans
Most of the beans on the market are so-called “commodity” beans, which are grown using commercial farming techniques on an industrial scale. In the past 200 years, bean breeders identified certain varieties of common beans that were easier to grow, transport, process, and sell than others. These beans make up the monoculture you can purchase at your local supermarket: bag after bag and can after can of identical beans of only a few different varieties. They are low-cost and consistently available and can be delicious. The downside: Most consumers are missing out on other unique varieties.
What Makes a Bean an “Heirloom”?
When the commodity bean industry zeroed in on a handful of beans and ignored the rest, a few things happened. Most beans were lost to history, but the luckier ones were passed down for generations, preserved by avid small-scale farmers and dogged seed collectors for their unique appearances or flavors. Heirloom bean farming has been small-scale by definition, kept strong by networks of family farms growing the same beans for generations and selling them locally. These beans have adapted to the spec...
Everything We Tested
Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus) belong to a different species than the common beans we tasted, but they are prepared and used similarly. These lima beans, which have stunning, undulating reddish markings, cooked up with a meaty yet “melt-in-your-mouth” texture and a “mushroomy,” “vegetal” grassiness that tasters loved. Serve Christmas lima beans on their own as a side dish or in a salad.
Often added to cassoulet, these subtly greenish flageolet beans were among the creamiest beans we tasted. They were “fabulously silky,” so much so that they basically dissolved on the tongue. Their “wheaty sweetness” and “buttery” richness was reminiscent of oats with a “nutty hint.” These beans would shine when added to stews at the end of cooking, but they may be too delicate for extended cooking times.
These heirloom black beans had a complex depth of flavor that was “smoky” and reminiscent of chipotle chiles, with an earthy touch and a piquant, “mild astringency.” They held their shape well and were “dense and fudgy,” with “a pleasant give.” They would be perfect for a classic black bean soup or served with rice.
These heirloom cannellini beans were delicate and creamy, with thin skins and a “bright,” “buttery” flavor. They’re named for Italian cooking authority Marcella Hazan, who was especially partial to them. As one taster noted, they’re “a beautiful canvas for other flavors,” as in stews or side dishes, but they would be great served on toast drizzled with a bit of extra-virgin olive oil.
These pale-yellow beans resembled cannellini beans and other white bean varieties, but they had a pronounced meatiness and held their shape especially well. They had a subtle "bacony" vibe and reminded tasters of “cured meat” “with a subtle sweetness.” They would be perfect for pasta e fagioli or served in a simple stew with wilted greens; they’re also a classic option for refried beans.
These beans’ beautiful black-and-gray markings and "dense" but "smooth" texture reminded tasters of a cross between black beans and pinto beans. “Earthy” and “slightly smoky,” these flavorful beans conjured comparisons to black tea and red wine, with a “hint of fruitiness” that was “elegant” yet “subtle.” Moro beans hold their shape well and are versatile, but they would be ideal in soups or stews.
Notably—almost comically—large, these meaty white beans have thick skins but are “creamy” and “smooth” once fully cooked. These beans have “a fairly familiar white bean flavor—but intense” and offer a “sweet nuttiness on the finish.” These beans are substantial and versatile enough for almost any application, but we recommend them on their own, with a little olive oil, salt, and vinegar added just before serving.
A vibrant standout variety from the runner bean species (Phaseolus coccineus), these “starchy” beans were substantial, “almost like a potato.” They kept their scarlet “mottled, palomino-like” markings throughout cooking, though they did become a bit darker and more muted over time. They were “faintly sweet, mild, and roasty,” with a freshness that was “almost like you cooked them right off the vine.”
These striking beans’ dappled appearance—white with small yellow “eyes”—reminded tasters of black-eyed peas, though they differ in texture. They presented a “subtle woodsy flavor” and were “savory” and “earthy.” Their “creamy” yet “substantial" texture makes them versatile—they’re great on their own or as the star of traditional baked beans.
This heirloom pinto bean variety offered a “mild nuttiness” and many noticed a neutral bean flavor that was slightly “grassy.” Starchy and dense, these beans hold their shape well and can stand up to long cooking. We recommend them for rice and beans and especially for refried beans.
These beautifully mottled tan-and-white beans had a “pronounced nutty flavor” reminiscent of chestnuts. Take care to cook them fully to avoid any mealiness; when perfectly cooked, they became velvety smooth and creamy but held their shape beautifully. Though their markings fade somewhat with cooking, they are still pleasantly speckled when fully tender and would be ideal for salads and simple side dishes that show off their spots.
Another strikingly spotted variety—featuring burgundy splotches and shaped similarly to kidney beans—trout beans sport a “natural sweetness” and a concentrated bean flavor with a “vegetal” finish. These beans cook quickly (in roughly 30 minutes) and are creamy and slightly grainy. Their intricate markings all but disappear during cooking, but their pleasantly soft texture makes them ideal for bean dip or creamy soups.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Chase is an associate editor for ATK Reviews. He's an epidemiologist-turned-equipment tester and biscuit enthusiast.