Becoming Familiar With Black Beans

The black turtle bean is often called simply the black bean (frijol negro in Spanish, feijão preto in Portuguese). Black beans are a variety of common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). They share their species with green snap beanspinto beansheirloom beansGreat Northern beans, kidney beans, navy beans, cranberry and borlotti beans, flageolet beans, pea beans, pink beans, and yellow beans. These beans, along with corn (maize), and squash were the “three sisters” of Native American cuisine.

Common beans share the genus Phaseolus with tepary beans, runner beans, slimjim beans, lima beans, and spotted beans. All of these beans belong to the the family Fabaceae, along with edible-pod and mature peassoybeansfava beans, black-eyed peas, jicama, adzuki beanslentilschickpeas, peanuts, carob, and licorice. The family also includes broom, gorse, and kudzu.

The small, shiny black bean has a dense, meaty texture. Native to Central and South America, black beans have been a staple food source for over 7,000 years. They are popular all over Latin America, including Brazil, Cuba, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. It’s also popular in Hispanic, Cajun, and Creole cuisines in North America.

Mexican settlers introduced black beans into Texas well before 1815. From there, they spread into many of the Indian tribes residing in the lower Great Plains.

Prior to the war with Mexico (1846–48), the Turtle Bean was largely uncultivated in the United States except by a small circle of seed and plant collectors. The only exception to this was Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast where early contact with Mexico occurred. In those areas, the bean was also an important ingredient in the diet of slaves, hence its vernacular name pois à nègres in the French-speaking Caribbean. Along the hot Gulf Coast of Mexico, where the bean originated, it is known as frijoles de Tampico or simply as frijoles negros. Its counterpart from the cool Mexican highlands, also a black bush bean, is the Veracruzano that was introduced into the United States by soldiers returning from the Mexican War.

German botanist Georg von Martens noted that several German seed houses had tried unsuccessfully during the 1840s to introduce the bean into that country as an alternative to the failed potato crop, but concluded that “for us it was too black and too small,” not to mention that the growing season in much of Germany was too short for it. Round, black, and ugly, anything cooked with it turned a dark inky color. Yet as von Martens pointed out, the Turtle Bean was well known under many different names in many parts of the world because it had been widely disseminated by the Spanish during the 1600s. He recorded identical samples from Louisiana, Algeria, Brazil, Portugal, and Chile.

Under the heading of “Valuable New Vegetables,” the Horticulturist (1848) launched a campaign to introduce the bean to American gardeners under the enticing name of Turtle Soup Bean. The New York seed firm of Grant M. Thorburn & Company was most active in commercializing it, but other seed companies also followed suit. The U.S. Patent Office distributed seed to farmers in several parts of the country. Back Turtle Beans were not initially sold on their old merits as a dry bean, because resistance to black-colored food was very strong in that period. Rather, they were marketed as a snap or string bean, because the pods remained tender for a long time. Very few beans at the time could compete with it on that point.

An unknown creative cook transformed black beans into a soup with a little sherry. One of the earliest recipes for turtle bean soup was published in the Horticulturist. But it was Henry Ward Beecher’s recipe that became the most famous and indeed the most popular with period cookbook authors. This was the same Henry Ward Beecher whose articles on gardening in the Western Farmer and Gardener were collected and republished in 1859 as the best-seller Plain and Pleasant Talk about Fruits, Flowers and Farming. Jane Croly published his recipe in her Jennie June’s American Cookery Book (1874). Cornell University recently developed the Midnight Black Turtle Soup Bean, introduced commercially by Johnny’s Select Seeds of Albion, Maine.

Some cooks keep the boiled water of black beans (which acquires a black coloring), season it, and consume it as a soup (known as sopa negra, black soup), as a broth (caldo de frijol, bean broth) or to season or color other dishes.

Black beans are an extremely good source of antioxidantsfiberfolate, and molybdenum. Like all legumes, black beans contain phytates, which can prevent the absorption of minerals. Soaking and cooking helps remove the phytates and helps increase your absorption of nutrients by 50-100%.

Black beans can:

  1. Detoxify sulfites. Black beans are an excellent source of the trace mineral, molybdenum, an integral component of the enzyme sulfite oxidase, which is responsible for detoxifying sulfites. Sulfites are a type of preservative commonly added to prepared foods like delicatessen salads and salad bars. People who are sensitive to sulfites may experience rapid heartbeat, headache, or disorientation if they consume sulfites. If you have ever reacted to sulfites, it may be because your molybdenum stores are insufficient to detoxify them.
  2. Promote cardiovascular health. The folate in black beans helps lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is an intermediate product in an important metabolic cycle. Elevated blood levels of homocysteine are a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, or peripheral vascular disease.  The soluble fiber lowers your cholesterol levels by binding with bile, which contains cholesterol, and carrying it out of your body. Phosphorus in black beans helps maintain a steady heartbeat. Thiamine also supports proper heart function. The magnesium in black beans acts as a calcium channel blocker, which relaxes veins and arteries, reducing blood pressure and improving the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. The potassium is essential for maintaining normal blood pressure and heart function. Saponins in black beans lower blood cholesterol and decrease risk of cardiovascular disease. Kaempferol seems to prevent arteriosclerosis by inhibiting the oxidation of low density lipoprotein and the formation of platelets in the blood.
  3. Give you energy while stabilizing your blood sugar. Black beans provide steady, slow-burning energy, and their high fiber content prevents blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly after a meal. Phosphorus helps you efficiently use carbohydrates and fatsThiamine in black beans maintains your energy supplies and coordinates the activity of nerves and muscles. Magnesium helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. The iron in black beans is an integral component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from your lungs to all body cells, and is also part of key enzyme systems for energy production and metabolism. The vitamin B6  supports a wide range of activities in your nervous system and promotes proper breakdown of sugars and starches. Hemoglobin synthesis relies on the copper in black beans; without it, your red blood cells cannot properly use iron. Saponins in black beans lower blood glucose responses, and kaempferol has antidiabetic activities.
  4. Promote digestive health. The insoluble fiber in black beans not only helps to increase stool bulk and prevent constipation, but also helps prevent digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulosis.
  5. Fight free radicals. Black beans are an excellent source of manganese and a very good source of copper, two trace minerals that are essential cofactors of a key antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within your mitochondria (the energy production factories within your cells). Saponins in black beans prevent cancer cells from growing and mutating, neutralize free radicals to prevent disease. Kaempferol is a strong antioxidant that helps to prevent oxidative damage of your cells, lipids, and DNA, and acts as a chemopreventive agent, which means that it inhibits the formation of cancer cells. Delphinidin and petunidin in black beans are powerful antioxidants that can protect your body’s cells from damaging free radicals, and may prevent inflammation, atherosclerosis, cancer, and heart disease.
  6. Build strong, flexible bodies. A cup of black beans provides over 30% of the Daily Value for proteinPhosphorus in black beans helps in the formation of bones and teeth, synthesis of protein, and muscle contraction. Magnesium helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function and keeps bones strong. Copper is also necessary for the activity of lysyl oxidase, an enzyme involved in cross-linking collagen and elastin, both of which provide strength and flexibility in blood vessels, bones, and joints. Saponins in black beans stimulate your immune system by increasing the production of antibodies, fight bacterial and fungal infections, reduce inflammation, prevent dental cavities, protect against bone loss, and increase the effectiveness of certain vaccines. Kaempferol has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, neuroprotective, anti-osteoporotic, antiestrogenic, anxiolytic, analgesic, and antiallergic activities.
  7. Maintain your brain function. The thiamine in black beans is critical for brain cell and cognitive function. This is because thiamine is needed for the synthesis of acetyl choline, the important neurotransmitter essential for memory and whose lack has been found to be a significant contributing factor in age-related impairment in mental function (senility) and Alzheimer’s disease.

Nutrients in 1 Cup Cooked Black Beans

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

molybdenum

129 µg

172%

folate

256.28 µg

64.07%

fiber

14.95 g

59.84%

manganese

0.76 mg

38%

protein

15.24 g

30.48%

magnesium

120.4 mg

30.1%

thiamine

0.42 mg

28%

phosphorus

240.8 mg

24.08%

iron

3.61 mg

20.06%

copper

0.36 mg

18%

potassium

610.6 mg

17.45%

carbohydrates

40.78 g

13.59%

zinc

1.93 mg

12.87%

Calories

227.04

12.61%

vitamin B6

0.12 mg

6%

riboflavin

0.1 mg

5.88%

calcium

46.44 mg

4.64%

niacin

0.87 mg

4.35%

pantothenic acid

0.42 mg

4.2%

fat

0.93 g

1.43%

sodium

1.72 mg

0.07%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

Most grocery stores sell black beans either canned or dried. Dried beans often have the closest flavor to fresh. Canned beans are more convenient, but may contain additives or extra salt added to them to help preserve their color and flavor. If you use canned beans, find a brand that does not come in cans lined with a white, resin-based material that includes bisphenol A (BPA).

Organic dry black beans are available in the bulk section of many grocery stores. Make sure that the bins containing the black beans are covered and that the store has a good product turnover to ensure maximum freshness. Whether purchasing black beans in bulk or in packages, make sure that there is no evidence of moisture or insect damage and that they are whole and not cracked.

Store dried black beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry and dark place where they will keep up to 12 months. If you purchase black beans at different times, store them separately since they may feature varying stages of dryness and therefore will require different cooking times.

A pot of freshly cooked black beans can be used in a variety of recipes and will keep for five to seven days in the refrigerator, so I cook at least two cups of dry beans at a time. Cooked black beans can also be frozen in an airtight container and kept for up to six months.

Cooking black beans from scratch is simple. While it requires some planning, there’s very little hands-on preparation time. The first step to cooking the dry black beans from scratch is to measure out the beans and sort them. Measure two cups of dry black beans and pour them into a shallow bowl or tray. Discard any stones or abnormal, withered, or discolored beans. Next, measure three times as much filtered water as beans, in this case, six cups. Place the sorted black beans in a large glass jar or container and cover with the water. Allow the beans to soak for 12 to 24 hours, either covered or uncovered. At the end of the soaking time, the water will be very dark. Drain and rinse the black beans.

Beans that have been soaked require about three cups of water for each cup of beans. It’s fine to use more water and drain at the end. Check the water level during cooking so the beans don’t burn. Bring the water to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and let simmer. Pre-soaked black beans will take approximately 45 minutes to one hour to cook on the stove, or 3-4 hours in the slow cooker. About halfway through cooking, you can add about a teaspoon of epazote, a traditional central American herb that is said to help reduce gassiness. Other seasonings you can add at this time include bay leafchile peppers, chili powder, cilantro, coriander, cumin, epazote, garlicgingeronionoreganoparsley, savory, or thyme. Beans are done when they are tender. The black beans are now ready to be used in a variety of recipes.

Here are some serving ideas:

  • Make Black Bean Burgers
  • Include black beans with your other favorite toppings next time you make a stuffed baked potato
  • Make black bean chili
  • Use black beans in place of refried pinto beans in burritos
  • Blend cooked black beans with tomatoes, onions, and your favorite spices to create bean soup
  • Serve a Cuban-inspired meal of black beans and rice
  • In a serving bowl, layer black beans, guacamole, chopped tomatoes, diced onions, and cilantro to make a layered dip

Fun fact: the black beans at the fast-food chain, Chipotle, are vegan, so you’re likely never far from grabbing a quick vegan meal there.


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

14 thoughts on “Becoming Familiar With Black Beans

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