Right about now, any can of beans in the cupboard is welcome. That’s even more true for black beans, a staple in all things Cajun and Mexican. Canned black beans offer not only a hearty hit of protein, but inspiration. Black beans can become soup, stew or a burger. They can be added to salad, rice, pasta or chili. (And yes, we know chili purists consider that sacrilege, but it’s delish.)
Cooking dry beans is the cheapest option by far, but canned beans are a fine alternative, especially when a dish calls for just a cup or two. In addition to great color and flavor, properly cooked black beans are a nutrition bomb, providing antioxidants — magnesium, manganese and zinc — that support heart health and reduce high blood pressure.
The best canned black beans are jet black, with skins intact. The flesh has a mild mushroom flavor and is deliciously creamy. Unfortunately, far too few cans of beans hit that mark. They’re poorly cooked, or over-soaked and drained, leaching flavor, color and nutrients. The worst look like miniature red beans and taste like chemicals.
Here’s the scoop on top-quality canned black beans that will upscale any dish — and the mushy, nondescript ones that should never have hit the can. Nutrition details refer to a ½ cup serving.
365 Organic No Salt Added Black Beans
The earthy, mushroomy flavor of fresh-made beans shines in these perfectly cooked beans. The beans and juice are black; the flesh and skins are pleasantly tender. 100 calories, 10 mg sodium, 6 g protein. $1.49 for 13.4 ounces at Whole Foods. (4 stars)
365 Organic Black Beans
While these beans don’t have nearly as much flavor as home-cooked, they do taste good. They’re creamy, rich in color and capable of working in both hot and cold dishes. 110 calories, 85 mg sodium, 7 g protein. 99 cents for 15 ounces (aseptic box) at Whole Foods. (3½ stars)
Sun Harvest Organic Black Beans
Rich black color and intact skins make these tender beans better than most, but they are notably bland. 110 calories, 130 mg sodium, 7 g protein. $1.25 for 15 ounces at Smart & Final. (3 stars)
Bush’s Best Black Beans
The huge hit of sodium in these beans might be problematic in some recipes, but the beans are incredibly pretty — large, expertly cooked and jet black. If salt isn’t an issue, these are a great choice. 100 calories, 460 mg sodium. 9 g protein. $1.89 for 26.5 ounces at Smart & Final. (2½ stars)
Signature Select Low Sodium Black Beans
Don a blindfold and these beans would get a tentative thumbs-up, as the skins are tough but the flesh is creamy. But they are red, not black. They look like miniature red beans. 110 calories, 140 mg sodium, 7 g protein. $0.99 for 15 ounces at Safeway. (1½ stars)
Trader Joe’s Organic Black Beans
The flesh inside these small, medium-black beans is creamy, but nearly every bean is busted open. These are fine for a puree — they’re halfway there — but they are far too mushy for many recipes. 110 calories, 130 mg sodium, 5 g protein. 99 cents for 15.5 ounces. (1 star)
First Street Black Beans
Seriously? Canned beans that need to be re-cooked are a total fail. These undercooked beans are gritty and not a bit enjoyable. 90 calories, 320 mg sodium, 6 g protein. 99 cents for 15 ounces at Smart & Final. (No stars)
Raley’s Purely Made Organic Low Sodium Black Beans
These are food. But the tiny red beans — yes, red, not black — have a strange, chemical aftertaste. 110 calories, 130 mg sodium, 6 g protein. $1 for 15.5 ounces. (No stars)
Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/tag/taste-off.