Fresh beans — variously known as green beans, snap beans, and string beans — come in a wide range of shapes and colors. They can be classified into two broad categories: edible pod beans and shell beans. Edible pod beans like green beans are called “fresh” (meaning immature), to distinguish them from shell beans, which are harvested once they reach full size and have large, mature seeds. Fresh beans can be eaten in their entirety because they have tender pods and tiny, almost invisible seeds.
The “green” in fresh green beans refers to their immature state at harvest, not their color. They can vary in hue from pale to deep green, from yellow to purple, and from mottled cream to russet. There are many delicious varieties of fresh green beans on the market. Although they belong to different plant species, they’re always eaten young, as whole pods with immature seeds. Fresh beans are also sometimes called string beans, because older varieties — rarely encountered today — had tough, fibrous strings along the margins of their pods that had to be pulled off prior to cooking. Modern green beans have been bred to be stringless, so this thankless task is no longer necessary.
The tiniest green beans are called haricots verts, a highly prized French specialty that can be as small as 2 inches long and as thin as a matchstick; at the other end of the spectrum, Chinese long beans can measure up to 18 inches. Italian green beans, also called Romano beans, are flat and broad, typically used in soups and stews; their more substantial texture and full flavor means they hold up to lengthy cooking.
Green, yellow and purple wax beans are all called snap beans because their tender, crisp pods snap when bent, and also because the flower ends are snapped off prior to cooking. Yellow wax beans are identical to green wax beans in taste and texture, although they have lower levels of beta carotene. Purple wax beans are an intriguing dark mauve color when raw, but they turn green when cooked. Another interesting variety that’s more available now is Dragon Tongue, yellow beans streaked with purple that are longer and flatter than green beans.
How to select and store green beans
When shopping for fresh beans, try to buy them loose instead of packaged. Farmer’s markets can be the best places to find a wide array of bean varieties. Choose brightly colored beans that snap crisply when broken (French haricots verts are the exception, because they’re not a crisp variety). When choosing yellow wax beans, look for those with a slight green tinge; they’re younger and sweeter than those that are completely yellow.
Avoid beans whose seeds you can see swelling though the pod; these beans are overly mature and will be tough and leathery. Likewise, avoid beans that are limp, shriveled or wrinkled.
Use your fresh beans the day you buy them, if possible. If you must, store them unwashed in a ventilated plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Tips for using green beans
To prepare fresh beans, wash them thoroughly in cold water, then snap or cut off both ends of the bean (in chef parlance, “topping and tailing”). If your fresh beans are very young, removing the tail (the fine point at the end of the bean opposite the stem) isn’t necessary.
Cook tiny beans whole. For longer beans, cut them into uniform pieces on the bias, 1 to 2 inches in length, for more even cooking. “Frenching” is a process that involves slicing beans lengthwise into halves or quarters, a very time-consuming procedure unless you have a gadget sold expressly for this purpose. Frenching is a technique most often employed with older beans; young snap beans lose their crisp texture and most of their flavor with this style of preparation.
Fresh green beans should be cooked very quickly until crisp-tender. In a large quantity of salted, boiling water, this can take anywhere from 1 to 8 minutes, depending on the beans’ size and freshness. For best results, test every minute or so to gauge when the beans are just tender, but not soft. Overcooking destroys the delicate flavor of fresh beans. To preserve their bright color, drain the beans immediately. If your beans will be used in cold dishes, plunge them into iced water to stop the cooking process. Just be sure to drain them once they’ve cooled so they don’t lose their flavor by soaking in water. Fresh beans can also be braised, roasted, grilled on the barbecue, steamed or stir-fried for delicious results.
Why choose organic green beans?
Green beans currently rank #24 on the Environmental Working Group's "Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” items that have been shown to carry the most pesticide residues when cultivated conventionally. So choosing organic green beans makes good sense — especially for children, whose growing bodies are so much more susceptible to environmental chemical exposures than adults’.
Organic produce is grown without toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, using sustainable farming methods that protect the environment and help keep pesticides out of our soil, air, water and food supply. Organic food is the healthiest choice for people and the planet — and we think organic tastes better, too!
WhatsOnMyFood.org from the Pesticide Action Network shows you searchable results for vegetables like green beans and a wide range of other organic and conventional foods. It’s an easy-to-use and empowering tool for learning about pesticide residues and their health effects for all of us.