These vibrant, flavorful legumes give new meaning to the phrase “cool beans.” Are they worth seeking out?
Published Sept. 14, 2021. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 15: Pennsylvanian Melting Pot
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.
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.
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.
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...
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Chase is an associate editor for ATK Reviews. He's an epidemiologist-turned-equipment tester and biscuit enthusiast.