Green beans are as ubiquitous to the American table as mashed potatoes or broccoli. They offer a splash of color on the plate, and their long, slender silhouette dresses up even the most humble meal. But many folks might not know about this standby’s intriguing cousins. Other snap beans―notably pole beans, wax beans, haricots verts, and rattlesnake beans―are worth getting to know. They possess slightly different tastes and vary beautifully in color, shape, and texture.
Botanically speaking, all snap beans are members of the legume family, Phaseolus vulgaris. Break one of these beans in half and listen for the snap―thus, their name. They’re also often called string beans because early varieties had strings that ran along the seams of the pods. Modern varieties are often bred to be stringless, so this is no longer so much of a concern―except for pole beans. What’s unique about snap beans is that they’re entirely edible. Most beans have tough, fibrous pods and must be shelled, but snap beans have tender, slightly sweet, grassy-tasting pods.
“Snap beans connect us to the past,” says Bill Best, a seed saver and founding member of the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds and sustainable agricultural practices of the middle-Appalachian states. Best originally planted seeds of heirloom beans at the urging of his mother; she kept seeds from her favorite beans in the freezer. Today his seed collection includes some 300 varieties of beans. “I have seeds that I can trace back to the Cherokee Indians,” Best says.
That’s fitting, since eating beans―the pods and all―is a Native American custom. It wasn’t until explorers traveled to the New World and returned home with the beans that it caught on in Europe and other parts of the world.
Whether you prefer the uniformity of supermarket-variety beans or the mottled skin and eccentric shapes of heirloom beans, late spring to early fall is the time for fresh snap beans. You’ll encounter an array of shapes, sizes, and colors, but the beans respond similarly to cooking (the glossary below also teaches how to handle a few of the many different types of beans).
Our recipes primarily focus on commonly available beans, but you can use your favorite heirloom varieties, as well. The following dishes feature classic flavor combinations, such as pole beans with bacon, and new twists, like Rattlesnake Beans with Olive Tapenade.
Selecting and Storing
Look closely at the beans in the market. If the sides of the pods are bulging from the seeds, the beans will be tough because they were picked too late. Make sure the skin is taut. Old beans have leathery, discolored skin, and they may be limp. Next, pick up a bean, and break it in half. If you hear the signature snap, the bean is fresh.
Once you get them home, cook snap beans as soon as possible. To preserve, wrap in a damp paper towel, place in a plastic bag, and refrigerate up to a week. If you can’t cook them within a week, trim the stem ends, blanch the beans, cool, and freeze until you’re ready to use in a recipe.
Snap Bean Glossary
Green beans: They’re called green beans, but these slender beans with tiny seeds tucked in the pods can also be yellow or purple. (When cooked, the purple beans turn green.) These beans should be cooked briefly in boiling salted water to seal in the bright green color.
Haricots verts (ah-ree-koh VEHR): Also referred to as French filet beans, these tiny beans are picked young and prized for their intense, slightly sweet flavor and crisp texture. They should be no longer than about three inches and only a bit larger in diameter than a matchstick. Even though these beans are commonly called haricots verts (vert is French for “green”), you’ll also find yellow and purple varieties. These beans are similar to green beans, but they cook more quickly.
Pole beans: These beans are longer and broader than regular green beans. Pole beans can be flat or round. Always check pole beans for strings by snapping off the ends and peeling back before cooking. Pole beans taste much like green beans, but they are tougher than other snap beans and thus need to cook longer.
Rattlesnake beans: An heirloom variety of pole bean, this bean gets its name from its mottled skin. Cook them as you would other varieties of pole beans. Once cooked, these beans turn green and lose their dappled appearance.
Wax beans: Wax beans are a hybrid first grown as a hothouse plant in England. Their waxy texture earned them the name, and in addition to classic yellow, there are purple and light green varieties. These beans are not as flavorful as green beans. They can be treated much like green beans for cooking purposes.