Last week, I assembled all available family members for a bean taste test. At issue, do heirloom beans really taste better than ordinary, store bought beans?
I purchased heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo. I got a pound each of garbanzo beans, pinto beans and black beans. Rancho Gordo has many more interesting and exotic beans, but I choose bean varieties that I could also get at the the supermarket. The Rancho Gordo beans cost $5.50 a pound. I ordered them online. They arrived in about 5 days.
I went to my local grocery and purchased a one pound bag of their store brand, of the same 3 varieties of beans. The prices ranged from 89 cents for a pound of pinto beans , 99 cents for black beans and $1.19 for the garbanzos.
As you can see there is a pretty big price differential between the heirloom beans and the store bought. I did pay some shipping on the Rancho Gordo beans. And I did have to wait a few days to receive them.
While I do not have a particularly scientific mind, I did try to be as scientific as possible in the conduct of the taste test. Family would test, side by side, heirloom vs. store bought of each variety.
I cooked all the beans simply and in exactly the same manner. I used 1/2 cup of each dried bean. I soaked them overnight in fresh tap water. In the morning I drained the beans, set them to cook in 3 cups of water with no seasonings. I checked the beans frequently for doneness. As soon as they were tender, I added 1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt to the pot. I didn’t add any other seasonings as I wanted that pure bean flavor to shine through.
With the exception of the pinto beans, cooking times between the heirloom and the store bought did vary somewhat. To my surprise the heirlooms took a bit longer to cook than did the store bought. I am going to say that this result was un-scientific because I had the beans in different pots and on different burners. That would certainly be an issue.
The Cast of Characters: My panel of judges included Husband, my Mom, my Dad, my Sister, my Niece (she is a professional pastry chef!) and Niece’s two adorable kids, ages 8 and 6. I did not participate as a judge. I was just there to observe.
The Rules: This was a blind taste test. The beans were labeled “A” and “B”. I knew which was which…but the judges didn’t. Each judge had a note card for each bean. They were asked to make notes on taste, texture, appearance and last but not least, they needed to tell me their preference. They weren’t trying to guess which was the heirloom, they were simply stating a preference. I provided them with water, saltines, table salt, pencils, and a whole lot of plastic spoons.
Garbanzo Beans: We started with the garbanzo bean. The heirloom bean was described as firmer, held it’s shape better, grainy. The store bought bean was described as creamy, a bit sweet, mild and tender. Four of the seven judges preferred the store bought bean. Interestingly, both kids, preferred the heirloom bean!
Pinto Beans: Let me say at the outset that the panel of judges unanimously agreed that this was the hardest bean to judge. They all said that these two beans were so similar that they could hardly make a judgement. They spent a lot of time on the pinto beans, going back and forth trying to discern subtle differences. The judges found the color of the store bought bean to be more appealing. The Rancho Gordo bean had a bit of a purple, gray-ish tint. The store bought was browner in color. The taste and texture were so similar as to make little difference. So I guess it came down to appearance. Six out of the seven judges chose the store bought pinto bean. The one person to pick the heirloom? My six year old nephew!
Black Bean: The judges were really knocked out by the difference between the store bought black bean and the heirloom. The store bought bean was deemed to be bland and tasteless. The heirloom was flavorful and creamy. They loved the heirloom black bean. Their comments about the Rancho Gordo black bean were far more effusive than on any other bean in the taste test. And their disinterest in the store bought bean was particularly apparent.
My Conclusions? Well, the store bought garbanzos and pintos were chosen as the winners. The heirloom black bean won out by a long shot. My Dad suggested that perhaps the reason that they preferred the store bought beans was that it’s what they are used to (we eat a lot of beans in my family!). Perhaps appreciating the full value of the heirloom takes a bit of time.
A thought about the pinto beans; we live in South Texas so I am sure that the turn-over of pinto beans in our grocery store is very high. Pinto beans are a staple here. Maybe that plays a role in the outcome.
Will I stop buying heirloom beans? No. We were all a little surprised by the outcome of the taste test. However, I think that the companies that are selling heirloom beans are really passionate about beans. I think that they are making environmental contributions by preserving these beans. I think that they are helping communities by preserving these beans. I think that the heirloom bean movement raises interest, awareness and enthusiasm for making beans a part of our daily diets.
On the other hand, it is valuable to know that good tasting beans are readily available, inexpensively and conveniently at the grocery store.
These results aren’t scientific. And they only reflect the preferences of my family. It is possible that the results would be entirely different if I had served them more complex bean dishes. My Mom was really longing for some hot sauce. That’s how we eat beans in Texas!
We had fun. We all sat down around the table, tasted, talked and discussed. So I have to consider our taste test to be a great success. After the bean tasting, I served everyone a big dinner of baked ziti, salad, garlic bread and lots of Chianti. It was a good excuse to bring the family together.
One final note – The only judge on our panel to consistently choose the heirloom bean was my six year old nephew. He picked the heirloom bean every single time! The boy knows his beans.