My Recipe Box

A Fresh Approach to Bean Salads

For a standout side dish, flavor the beans during cooking and toss them—still warm—with an intense dressing

by Martha Holmberg

fromFine Cooking
Issue 58

When I have people over for dinner in the summer, I like to serve an antipasto-style meal—bowls and platters of salad-type dishes built around seasonal produce—and just about every one of my menus includes a bean salad. They’re delicious when you make them right, and they’re a nice vegetarian option because they feel substantial. But that can be a problem, too: A lot of bean salads that I’ve tasted have been heavy and bland. To avoid that trap. I keep three key points in mind when I make my salads.  

Beans alone can’t do the trick. On their own, beans are pretty starchy, so they really benefit from contrasting flavors and texture, like acidity, aromatics, and crunch. I always include another vegetable, like tomatoes, peppers, or corn. I also put a ton of fresh herbs in my salads for complexity and zip.  

The vinaigrette has to deliver a powerful punch. Beans have an uncanny way of soaking up flavor, so you need a sauce with a real kick for it to stay bright. I use a lot of salt and pepper, and something else strong, like a ground spice or anchovies. (Note to readers who don’t like anchovies: Please include the anchovies when you make the white bean recipe. You won’t actually taste them, but if they aren’t there, the salad won’t be as good.)  

I also use citrus juice as my acid because I like the way the fruitiness works with the creamy, starchy beans. I double up on the citrus flavor with some grated zest, too, which adds a lovely fragrant note to the salads.  

The oil doesn’t go in until the end, so the beans drink up more flavor. I first toss the still-warm beans with all the dressing ingredients except the oil. When the beans have soaked up all the liquid, I fold in just enough oil to moisten and separate the beans. This gets the flavors blended throughout the dish and not just on the surface of the beans.

You can make these salads ahead of time and keep them in the refrigerator, but be sure to let them come almost to room temperature before serving to let the flavors blossom and the beans become nice and tender again.

How to cook dried beans for a salad

You can enhance the flavor of any bean dish by cooking the beans with flavorful ingredients at the outset. Iuse the following method, changing the herb according to the flavors in the final dish. You’ll notice that I add salt at the beginning of cooking. Some recipes say that this toughens the skins and slows the cooking, but I’ve never found either to be true, and early salting allows the flavor to penetrate the beans better.  

Use the quantities of beans and flavorings listed in each recipe. Spread the beans on a baking sheet and feel for any stones. Rinse the beans well, put them in a large pot, cover by 3 to 4 inches of water, add the salt, onion, and herbs, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the beans are very tender but not falling apart, 45 minutes to 1-1/2 hours, longer if necessary. Start checking early because beans cook at different rates; if the water level gets low, add more. When the beans are cooked, let them cool in their liquid for about 15 minutes and then drain.

Quick tip: A pressure cooker can give you a head start on cooking the beans, but don’t fully cook them that way because it’s hard to control the final texture. Pressure-cook the beans for about 20 minutes, uncover, and then simmer until the texture's perfect.

Three tricks to make bean salads special
  • Make an extra-bold dressing that livens up the beans.
  • Include other ingredients to create more layers of texture.
  • Add the oil last, after the beans have soaked up the other flavors.
Dried beans are best, but csanned are fine in a pinch

I always have a few cans of beans in my pantry; they're an excellent ingredient to have on hand for impromptu meals: quick soups, pasta dishes, burritos, dips. But when it comes to bean salads, dried beans that you've cooked yourself are definitely nicer.

Dried beans give you better texture, and you can add your own flavors, like herbs and onion or garlic. It's a cinch to cook beans, but you do need to plan ahead because they can take a long time, and the exact timing can vary from bean to bean.

Canned beans need thorough rinsing. If you do need to use canned beans for these salads because you're pressed for time, by all means go ahead. (I like Goya; for other brands, see Sources, below.) Rinse them thoroughly to get off the slightly gloppy, salty liquid from the can and drain completely. Be gentle when youu  mix the ingredients, as canned beans tend to be fragile.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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