Green beans feature prominently at the American dinner table for holiday meals in the fall and winter. In anticipation of the holidays, we've put together a little primer for how to purchase them and the best ways to prepare them, while answering some common questions along the way.
What Are Green Beans?
Green beans are the young, unripe form of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), that grow either as "bush" (shrubs low to the ground) or "pole" beans (with vines running up poles). In their immature state, the beans housed inside green bean pods are small and underdeveloped—as with snap peas—so they do not need to be shelled; they can be eaten whole, pods and all. Green beans can be served raw or cooked, and because there's no shelling or de-stringing required, preparing them for recipes doesn't require a ton of knife-work.
No Strings Attached: What's the Difference Between Green Beans and String Beans?
Green beans and string beans are one and the same, but the "string" term is, for the most part, outdated. Green beans used to have characteristic fibrous "strings" running down the length of the pod that had to be removed bean by bean, just like snap peas. But thanks to careful breeding, they were eliminated in the 19th century. Today, only heirloom varieties of green beans tend to have strings.
What's the Difference Between Green Beans and Haricots Verts?
When shopping for produce in the United States, you may find bins of similar looking beans next to each other, one labeled "green beans" and the other "haricots verts". You wouldn't be wrong to find this a little amusing; after all, "haricots verts" is just French for "green beans." While the two are very similar, American green beans and haricots verts (or French beans) are different cultivars. Haricots verts are thinner and longer than American green beans, and are usually more tender. There aren't huge differences in flavor between the two; French beans have a slightly more earthy flavor, while American green beans lean a little more to the sweet and herbaceous side. For most recipes, haricots verts and green beans can be used interchangeably, but for recipes that call for cooked beans, you will just need to adjust cooking times according to their size.
What's the Difference Between Green Beans and Wax Beans?
Yellow wax beans are just green beans that have been bred to have none of Billy Madison's favorite plant pigment, chlorophyll. Beyond their color differences, wax and green beans are nearly identical in flavor and texture. Purple wax beans also taste pretty much the same as green beans, and their color comes from chlorophyll-masking anthocyanin, also found in purple cauliflower and Okinawa sweet potatoes. Unlike with purple sweet potatoes, this color is not preserved during cooking; purple wax beans turn green when cooked.
Bean Buying 101: Fresh or Frozen? Whole or Trimmed? How About Canned?
Green beans are at their best during their peak growing season: summer and early fall. Once picked, they quickly degrade in quality, becoming limp and wrinkled, losing sweetness and moisture in the process. Refrigeration doesn't solve this problem, and in some ways makes it worse; cold temperatures damage their plant cells and cause them to lose chlorophyll.
For this reason, it's best to use green beans as soon as possible after purchasing. If you have access to a greenmarket, unrefrigerated fresh green beans from a farm stand will almost always be better than beans from a supermarket that have been bred with more fiber to help them survive transportation by cold storage.
Fresh green beans are preferable to frozen, and both are vastly better than canned green beans. For recipes that feature green beans as the main ingredient (rather than something like a stew, where they might play a supporting role), use fresh green beans. Along with having better flavor, only fresh green beans maintain their characteristic crisp texture. Buy whole beans, and avoid pre-packaged and trimmed beans whenever possible.
Do You Need To Trim Green Beans?
No matter what color or variety of green or wax bean you end up with, you will need to give them a little trim before eating them. Do this just before you will be using them, as the trimmed ends will quickly dry out and shrivel up. The only part of the bean that always needs to be removed is the tip of the stem end (this is sometimes called "topping" the bean), where the pod was once attached to the rest of the plant. There is no practical need to remove the tail end of a green bean—the choice to do so is aesthetic. When you come across a recipe that calls for "topping and tailing" green beans, you can make the call if you want to make an extra knife cut, but I never bother.
To top your beans, sort them so that they are all oriented in the same direction. As I sort through a haul of green beans, I like to separate out intact beans from damaged ones. Even if you buy whole beans, there are often some that are torn at the stem end, along with others that are blemished and broken in other spots. Sorting them all right away makes the rest of the trimming process easier.
For the whole, undamaged beans, work in batches, gathering a handful at a time: Line up their stems and then trim them off with a knife. Discard the stems, and set the trimmed beans off to the side. With an organized set-up, you will breeze through this prep in no time.
For green beans with broken or already cut stems, you will need to re-trim them, as those broken ends are usually dried up and sometimes may have begun to discolor. Again, just line them up and trim off the ends.
Finally, keep an eye out for gnarly bits on any of your beans. Use common sense to trim off discolored and damaged parts. They're easy to spot.
Any unappetizing browning on the interior of the bean pod is bad news. As you can see in the photo above, you may come across green beans that arrived damaged, and have started to turn. These ones are beyond saving. Compost them and move on.
Can You Just Buy Pre-Cut Green Beans?
So if you have to trim green beans, can't you just buy the bagged pre-cut ones at the supermarket? No, please don't. As mentioned earlier, whole green beans already don't hold up well under refrigeration, and further damaging their cell walls by cutting them just makes it worse. If you've ever bought a bag of trimmed green beans, you know that those trimmed ends look pretty gross: all shriveled up, discolored, and dried out. And you end up having to trim those gnarly ends away again. So you've now paid more money for beans that are in worse shape, and you have to perform the same task that you were trying to avoid. Just buy whole beans; trimming them doesn't take that long.
Beyond Trimming: Some Other Green Bean Knife Cuts
They can be cut into 2-inch pieces for green bean casserole, with a little help from a ruler for those who like to be extra-precise (the cutting board in the photos is a sneak peek of a prototype of one we've been working on with the folks at BoardSmith, so stay tuned for that).
I like slicing raw or blanched beans straight across into small rounds or into slivers on a steep bias to add bright, sweet snap to salads.
Blanched beans can also be pulled apart lengthwise, if that's something you're into.
Blanching Green Beans
We have covered the truths and myths of beans and big-pot blanching before, but in case you need a little refresher, here it is.
When you want to cook green beans, but maintain their green color and some of their snap, blanch them in salted boiling water (you don't need a giant cauldron of water, just something large enough to keep them submerged) until crisp-tender, and then transfer them to an ice bath to halt the cooking process. This method of cooking maintains their bright color, develops new flavor compounds, and tenderizes the beans without turning them to mush.
Now go out and pick up some haricots for dinner. It's bean real.