What are beans?
Snap a young, green bean and hear the sound of spring. The fresh bean pod is used in many cuisines, adding colour to Asian stir-fries, as a base for creamy French sauces or simply served dripping in melted butter. Dried seeds from the pod of the bean are also a staple food in a range of cuisines, from the spiciness of Mexican refried beans to the comfort of the humble baked bean.
Archaeological evidence from Egyptian royal tombs shows that beans were cultivated and used in ancient times. Christopher Columbus introduced other varieties of beans to Europe from the Americas. Seeds from the French or green bean were brought out to Australia on the First Fleet and planted on Norfolk Island.
For a taste sensation, quickly stir-fry green beans with some oil, garlic and chilli and add a few anchovies.
The most common variety of bean sold is the green bean. There are many other varieties: borlotti, snake, flat and butter (yellow) beans. Some of these are small and skinny, others yellow or red-brown. Most of the beans in Australia are varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris, except for broad beans, which are another species called Vicia faba.
Other varieties of beans such as kidney beans, black beans and navy beans are allowed to ripen on the plant so that the seeds become hard and dry. In this state, the beans are high in protein and can be stored long-term. They are soaked and cooked before use.
Of the varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris, only the borlotti bean is eaten both fresh and in the dried state.
Why beans are good to eat
Fresh beans are rich in vitamins (including vitamins A and C and folate) and minerals such as magnesium and iron that are required for the production of red blood cells.
- Dried beans are a useful source of protein, which is especially handy for vegetarians.
- Fresh and dried beans are also good sources of dietary fibre.
- Energy – 100 g of cooked green beans have about 90 kJ (about 500 kJ for cooked dried beans).
How are they grown and harvested?
Bean plants prefer to grow in areas that don’t get too hot or too cold. They are also sensitive to wind, so a windbreak around the plant is usually a good idea.
Depending on the variety, beans grow as a bush or as a climbing plant (where a pole or trellis is used). The bushes can grow from 30 to 90 cm, while the climbing variety can grow up to two metres.
The growing season for beans is short and you can usually harvest around 60 to 80 days after planting the seeds. Harvest your green beans when the pod begins to fill with seed but before the pod begins to bulge.
If you prefer to eat dried beans, leave your plants until the pods dry. The pods usually change colour and the beans inside make a rattling sound when you shake them. Squeeze the pods to open them and remove the dried beans from inside.
Choose bright-coloured beans that are not damaged. Younger beans are tastier than older beans (these have large seeds and swollen pods). To check for freshness, snap a bean in two – it should break easily with a crisp, snapping sound.
Although dried beans can be stored long-term, they can deteriorate with time. Choose beans that have good colour and glossy, unsplit skins.
How to store and keep beans
Wrap your fresh beans in a plastic bag and store in the crisper section of your fridge. Use your beans within three or four days.
Store dried beans in a cool, dry place. They can be stored indefinitely but will lose nutrients and flavour with time. Cooked dried beans can be bought in cans and you can store these until the ‘use by’ date shown on the can.
How to use
The pods of the green, butter and snake beans can be eaten, whereas broad beans are usually shelled before they are used.
- Briefly plunge cooked green beans into iced water after cooking – an easy way to retain their bright green colour.
- Toss cooked green beans with a little olive oil, feta cheese and mint – a simple side dish that goes well with meat, chicken or fish.
- Dried beans are usually soaked and then cooked – a quicker alternative is to buy them pre-cooked in cans.
- Once cooked, dried beans can be added to many other dishes where they will take up the flavours.
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Better Health Channel
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