There are around 40,000 different varieties of beans in the world today, but most of us will only ever try a few standard types that are mass-produced and easily available for consumption. Find out about the more common types of bean with our guide to different types of beans.
With the advent of modern farming techniques, beans, like most other food crops, have been selectively bred for high yield, disease resistance and weather resistance. This is partly driven by profit motives, and partly by the fact that beans are a staple food in many countries where failing crops would have huge consequences.
Mass-produced beans are not selected for flavour or nutritional value, however, and in recent years, people have begun seeking out beans that offer something a little different. Heirloom beans are trickier to get hold of than regular beans because, as the name suggests, some of them are known only to one family, or a small community.
Unlike mass-produced beans, heirloom beans are developed on a small scale, with seeds from the best bean crops passed down through the generations. The result is a huge variety of different beans. They come in all colours of the rainbow, and tend to have a deeper, more complex and intense flavour.
Heirloom beans are also fresher than regular dried beans, which can be up to 10 years old. This means there is no need to soak them before cooking (although you can if you wish), and because they’re fresher, they're easier to digest and less likely to cause flatulence.
Thanks to the work of heritage seed collectors, and of course, the families who have nurtured them throughout the centuries, there are now many different varieties of heirloom beans available to buy, either as seeds, or as ready-to-eat beans. To find out more about the individual varieties, take a look at these articles from Mother Earth News and Food and Wine.
Before the advent of commercial farming, all beans were what we would now think of as heirloom beans. People have been cultivating beans for over 10,000 years, so there were already many varieties prior to industrialisation. Some have been lost to time, but many small producers kept growing their traditional family varieties, preferring them to bland, mass-produced beans. This is particularly true of Mexico, the birthplace of the bean, and still home to the largest number of bean varieties today.
Over the past few decades, the focus on quality ingredients and slow food has caused something of a renaissance for heirloom produce. Heirloom beans have been particularly popular, with none other than Thomas Keller including them in his menu at The French Laundry. Their success in the USA has been spearheaded by seed collectors like Steve Sando, who regularly searches the markets of Mexico and Central America for heirloom varieties, which he then grows on his farm, Rancho Gordo, in California.
There are many different varieties of heirloom bean, and they all have different flavours. Because heirloom beans are bred for flavour as well as hardiness, they tend to have a richer, more complex flavour, and many have a creamier texture, or hold together better than other beans when cooked. Most people recommend cooking heirloom beans simply, to allow the flavours to speak for themselves.
Just as with flavour, the nutritional values of heirloom beans will vary according to the variety. Like all beans, they are packed with vitamins and minerals, providing a good source of protein, folate, iron, potassium and magnesium. They are high in antioxidants, which can help protect your cells from oxidative damage, reducing the risk of chronic diseases like cancer. Beans are also a great source of fibre, which is vital for a healthy digestive system, and can keep you feeling fuller for longer, helping to maintain a healthy weight.
Heirloom beans should be stored like any other dried beans. They need to be protected from excess humidity, which can cause them to go mouldy, as well as potential infestations by weevils and moths, who love to lay their eggs inside beans.
Remove the beans from their packaging and place in a food safe container with tightly-sealing lid to keep out any nasties. Discard any broken beans, and especially any with holes in, which may contain weevil eggs.
Place the container in a cool, dry place, as exposure to oxygen and light can cause beans to lose vitamin content. Stored in this way, beans will be at their best for up to a year, but may keep for even longer.
How to prep and eat them
Preparing heirloom beans couldn’t be simpler. Because they're so fresh, there’s no need to soak them, so you can skip straight to cooking them. All you need to do is place them in a pan, with enough water or broth to cover them, bring to the boil for 5 to 10 minutes, then simmer until tender.
If you want to try these extra-tasty beans for yourself, these simple but delicious recipes showcase them at their very best
Heirloom bean San Francisco beans: this slow cooker recipe from Healthy Slow Cooking features an heirloom variety known as the San Francisco bean, which has a rich, pinto-plus flavour.
Brothy heirloom beans with cream: this flavourful dish from Bon Appetit features mixed heirloom beans, simply cooked in a little broth and cream.
Rancho Gordo heirloom bean and mushroom ‘carnitas’ casserole: the rich flavour of heirloom beans and mushrooms are more than a substitute for meat in this vegetarian dish from 101 Cookbooks.