Think canned cannellini beans are no match for dried beans cooked from scratch? Today’s canning processes might just prove that notion full of beans.
Published May 1, 2014. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 15: Pasta Rustica
We go through a lot of cannellini beans in the test kitchen. Their creamy texture and mildly nutty flavor round out soups, casseroles, pasta dishes, and salads, and they make appealing dips. Our readers love them, too. Seventy-one percent say that they regularly buy cannellini beans, outstripping the next two most popular white beans: great Northern and navy. We’ve always appreciated the convenience of canned beans for use in quick recipes and for their ability to be pureed into perfectly creamy spreads. That said, we’ve also always been a little prejudiced in favor of dried beans, considering their flavor and texture superior. They’ve been our top choice for bean-centric recipes like cassoulet and, in particular, soups, where they also lend richness and velvety texture to the broth.
As we surveyed the market to select five brands of each type, we spotted some trends. Recently, dried beans have been enjoying something of an image makeover, with home cooks and chefs snapping up mail-order heirloom varieties. We included two to see if they were truly better than plain-Jane supermarket dried beans. (Frustratingly, one maker was sold out of its popular cannellini; instead, we included a similar bean recommended by the company.) When it came to canned beans, we were happy to find that our options had grown since 2003; back then we couldn’t even find enough nationally distributed brands of cannellini beans to make a tasting, so we opened it up to all white beans. This time we had no problem assembling a lineup of cannellini beans, including one organic version that eschews preservatives and salt. Separating our lineups of dried and canned beans, we invited 21 editors, test cooks, and other staffers to gather for blind tastings six times, serving two rounds each of the beans plain, in dip, and in soup. To avoid any prejudices, we didn’t tell participants whether the beans they were evaluating were canned or dried.
A Hill of Beans
When we tallied the final results, we were shocked. Top scores for canned beans actually edged out top scores for dried beans. Sure, we disliked a few brands of canned, whose mushy textures and tinny flavors lived up to our preconceptions, but the best canned beans were excellent: firm and intact, with meltingly tender skins, creamy texture, and clean bean flavor. And above all, they were perfectly uniform.
When it came to the dried beans, the heirloom varieties stood out for flavor; tasters noticed a “clean,” “sweet” taste, almost like “chestnuts.” Supermarket dried beans were more ordinary in taste but still appealing. It was their texture that really drove down their ratings. With every bat...
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