Steve Sando, the owner of Napa Valley’s Rancho Gordo, wrote the book Heirloom Beans (© 2008, Chronicle Books) and shares these tips for preparing beans.

Steve Sando writes, “There isn’t one single best method of cooking beans. When you’re in a hurry, you may want to use a pressure cooker. On a leisurely, rainy Sunday, you might want to put a clay pot full of beans in the fireplace. At the most basic, you want to simmer the beans in the pot until they are soft. Soaking can speed up the process, and vegetables or broth will make the beans more flavorful. It’s really that simple.”

Soaking The Beans

On bean-cooking day at Rancho Gordo, Sando rinses the beans in lots of cool water and checks them for small pebbles and other debris. Then he covers them with about an inch of cold water and lets them soak for two to six hours; though optional, soaking beans improves their texture and helps them cook evenly.

Flavoring the Beans

According to Sando, heirloom beans don’t need to be fussed over in the kitchen, especially if they are cooked fresh (within two years of harvesting). “You can cook them with a ham bone or chicken broth, or, as I prefer, simply with a few savory vegetables like onions and garlic,” he writes. “Another option is with a classic mirepoix: a mix of finely diced onion, celery and carrot, sautéed in some kind of fat—often olive oil, but also bacon drippings or even freshly rendered lard. Keep in mind that salt, sugar and acidic ingredients like tomatoes, lime and vinegar can prevent the beans from softening, so don’t add them until after the beans are soft.”


Easy-To-Find Heirloom Beans

Anasazi Beans

These pinto-like beans, first grown by the Anasazi, are ideal in Southwest-American and Mexican dishes.

Borlotti Beans

Though native to Colombia, these are the classic choice for the Italian soup pasta e fagioli.

Christmas Lima Beans

The stunning magenta-and-white-flecked Peruvian beans make a terrific, chestnutty side dish.

Hutterite Soup Beans

This firm, starchy bean, named for the Hutterite religious sect, is excellent in stews.

Scarlet Runner Beans

Fantastic in salads; gardeners also love them for their bright red flowers.