Sometimes, when ingredients are readily accessible, they begin to lose a bit of their magic. We see them without seeing them, taste, smell, and handle them without experiencing them. We look at it as a part of something collective, like their most common iterations, and we don't think about how they come to be. They're just… there. Comfortable. Beloved. But common.
Green beans are a prime example of one such ingredient. Although they're best May through October, they're readily available year-round and a staple of holiday dinners, smothered in casseroles, blanched quickly as an afterthought, or sauteed as simply as possible just to put something green on the table.
However, this supporting player deserves better. Charrable, steamable, roastable, fryable, and tossable—it's somehow sweetly delicious, juicy, and pleasantly refreshing no matter how it's treated. Green beans are a low-key favorite of many. And this fall, we give thanks for this humble bean by sharing its story.
Why Should I Eat Green Beans?
The most popular edible pod bean in the United States (and the third most commonly grown vegetable in this country), hardy and sold steadily through the seasons, its availability is one practical reason to snap these greens. This access also makes it an affordable fresh vegetable pick for those trying to keep their wallets healthy. But did you know that they can also help keep your waistline healthy, too?
Clocking in at only 31 calories per cup when raw, these beans are nutrient dense and a rich source of vitamins A, C, K, folate, fiber, manganese, and silicon, which supports connective bone and tissue. Recent studies have shown that green beans are as packed with carotenoids as carrots and tomatoes, which means it's also a good way to get extra antioxidants in you. Plus, in addition to it being a low-FODMAP food—clutch for those with digestive or autoimmune diseases—it's also been shown in studies to lower risk of diseases like adult diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and coronary heart disease.
All Green Beans?
Yes, all of them… and believe it or not, there are quite a few! This comprehensive guide to green bean varieties is a fantastic way to get acquainted with the spectrum of what we call green beans, snap beans, wax beans, and string beans; this explainer talks you through the differences between haricot verts and what we typically distinguish as plain green beans.
But Where Do They Come From?
All 130 varieties of green beans grow in one of two ways: on a bush, low to the ground no more than two feet tall, or on a vine, which can trail up trellises, poles, or across the ground. The latter are categorized into pole and runner beans, which were actually the ancestors of modern green beans, featuring bigger pods and beans at maturity. Both are a smidge nuttier than bush beans, which are more mild and tender due to an accelerated production period, and heirloom species are a delight to a connoisseur. As a grower, as you can discover with this list of top pole bean varieties.
Kentucky Blue and Scarlet Runners are likely the most well-known of them, but it’s the bush types that make green beans such an effortless ingredient. Bush varieties are prolific and easy to harvest by machine, making them the most common types grown on commercial farms across the South, Midwest, and West Coast. What most of us have access to are Blue Lake 274s, a bountiful type that only takes two months to bring to harvest.
Of course, like pole beans, there are heirloom bush beans, too. Farmer’s markets are likely your best bet to find those if you're not inclined to a green thumb yourself. If you want to add some snazziness and wow-factor to your Thanksgiving table, keep an eye out for not only the pale yellow wax and soleil beans and meaty Romas, but also Dragon Tongue or Rattlesnake beans, distinctive for their mottled aubergine streaks. Yardlongs, sold often in Asian markets, are also impressive, and a novel way to convince kids to eat their greens!
How Are They Harvested?
Ideally picked before the seeds begin to bulge through the edible pods, green beans are a gift that keep on giving. As long as you keep plucking the mature beans is as long as it'll keep producing when in season. In fact, the plant will die if the seeds are allowed to mature.
However, with commercial farming, the plants are treated less preciously. Because pole beans still have to get picked by hand, what you've likely eaten your whole life are bush beans. Regardless, green beans get mature all at once (hello, 99 cents a pound in the height of summer!), making mass-harvest machines the method of choice for growers. These farmers typically use mechanical bean pickers, which are big tractor-pulled contraptions that pull everything up in one fell swoop as an exhaust fan voraciously inhales the lightweight leaves and stems as the denser beans naturally sort to the bottom of any containers. After that, either shaker machines with conveyor belts work in tandem with human pickers that sort out non-bean refuse, or they're combed and drum blown again.
How Do I Select (and Keep) a Perfect Bean?
Once they're at the supermarket, it's your turn to select them.
Skip the drab, olive canned beans unless you're looking for a pickled treatment (in which case, you can DIY with small effort) and bypass the frozen if you have access to a bulk bin of loose beans.
You want to look for beans that are a rich, bright green, unmarred by brown spots and blemishes. Beans that have slight brown speckles are typically on the older side, and the paler green ones are usually slightly past maturity.
Pick beans that are around the same length if you're cooking them whole—and of middling girth. The super skinny ones are young and will wilt quickly, while the thicker ones that you can feel the beans through will be more fibrous and tougher. A good way to gauge the freshness is if it offers you that juicy pop and crisp snap these beans are nicknamed after.
Once you bring them home, they'll keep a week or so in the refrigerator crisper, if unwashed and bagged up in moisture-proof bags or airtight containers. When you're ready to use them, rinse them in cold water, then just break the stem part right off. Some people choose to trim the narrow, spindly end, too, but that's entirely up to the cook. It doesn't make a difference beyond aesthetic.
What's the Best Way To Enjoy Green Beans?
Well, it's Thanksgiving, so a traditional green bean casserole ought to be considered for sure. A vegan version is just as satisfying, and shorter prep. Then there's classic green bean amandine for an elegant minimal take, or blanched or steamed green beans for something even simpler. Many families choose to throw them in a pan for an easy saute accented with savory flavors like bacon or a high-heat stir-fry for a nice blistered take. You can also braise them with tomatoes using Southern techniques or global spices. And of course, they're fresh and verdant enough to be a welcome addition to any salad.
Basically, there's no right or wrong way to have fresh green beans, no matter if they're grown on a bush or a vine, picked by hand or machine, heirloom or commonplace. This versatile vegetable deserves its seat at the Thanksgiving table, and maybe with a little bit of background knowledge, a little bit of extra thanks for its dependable, delicious bounty.