These chef-loved beans will be the best thing you eat all week
I tried Rancho Gordo's heirloom beans—here's how it went.
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In my opinion, beans are one of the most underrated foods. They’re an amazing source of plant-based protein, they’re economical, and they’re quite good for you, too—low in fat but high in fiber, B-vitamins, iron, and plenty of other nutrients. But many home cooks consider beans an ingredient to grab only in a pinch, or to keep languishing in the pantry for ages (see: that pound of dried beans you bought at the beginning of the pandemic and haven’t touched).
It’s safe to say that Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando would beg to differ. A buzzy bean grower and distributor in Napa, California, Rancho Gordo specializes in heirloom beans—that is, unique varieties of dried beans you would never find at the store, in countless shapes, sizes, and colors. Chefs and devoted home cooks everywhere seem to adore them, but at roughly $7 per bag, they’re more than twice the price of your average grocery store beans. Plus, they require extra TLC because you have to rehydrate them before cooking.
I tried three classic varieties of Rancho Gordo beans to see if they’re worth the time, effort, and price tag.
1. Rancho Gordo Midnight Black Beans
Black beans, also known as turtle beans, are one of the most ubiquitous beans in America due to their popularity in Mexican cuisine and provenance in countless Mexican-inspired fast-casual joints. Though Rancho Gordo sells multiple varieties, I cooked up the Midnight Black Beans, which appeared delightfully small even post-soak—I’d wager about half the size of a standard black bean.
I didn’t feel like going against the grain, so I prepared them with Mexican flavors in mind. I cooked garlic, tomato paste, and chili powder in vegetable oil, then added some dried chilis, oregano, and bay leaves to the pot before letting them simmer until cooked. When cooked, they remained their tiny selves, and the pot liquor resembled black sludge.
While it wasn’t exactly the Venus de Milo, these beans were immensely flavorful—as such, I chose not to fuss with them and served them with plain white rice, cilantro, pickled onions, and diced fresno chile. I thinned some of the sludge-y broth thinned with water and used it to flavor a second batch of beans to much success.
2. Rancho Gordo Garbanzo Beans
While garbanzos are not technically a New World crop like most of the beans Rancho Gordo grows, their popularity and the lack of quality in imported varieties inspired Sando to add them to their crop in California. I love chickpeas and especially love cooking them from dry so I can cook them the way I like them—pushed ever-so-slightly past their occasionally chalky from-the-can texture into creamy heaven.
I didn’t have any grand ideas for this dish, so I cooked them plainly with a few smashed cloves of garlic, plenty of black peppercorns, and some rosemary sprigs. This was just the trick: such a simple preparation let the quality of the bean itself shine through. I took about half the beans and a cup or two of broth to whip up the Roman soup pasta e ceci to rave reviews from my partner, and turned the remaining chickpeas into an ethereally creamy hummus for snacking.
3. Rancho Gordo Heirloom Cranberry Beans
Cranberry beans are a family of bean thought to be from Colombia and while there are multiple varieties, the ones Rancho Gordo sells are considered Borlotti beans. Aesthetically, they can only be described as jelly bean-like with a gorgeous pink and white speckled pattern.
I'd cooked black beans and garbanzos from dry before, but never cranberries, so I turned to the advice on the bag for guidance. While Sando’s recommendations are frequently Italian-inspired in nature—these beans create an unctuous pot liquor that works well with stews and soups like minestrone and paste e fagioli, according to him—I was craving a Mexican-style bean again, so I went rogue. I sauteed some minced garlic, chili powder, ground cumin, two dried chilies, and tomato paste, then added the beans, covered them in water, and plopped in an onion and set them to simmer.
They lost their stunning pink speckle once cooked (as most beans do—it’s just part of the experience), but the beans were unbelievably creamy, with a light, nutty flavor. They made a perfect foil to tortilla chips in chilaquiles, as well as a rich base for carnitas tacos once I refried them. I used the leftover broth to braise the pork, giving the meat an extra punch of flavor.
What can I cook with Rancho Gordo beans?
For those wanting to take the plunge into heirloom beans but unsure of what to do once they arrive, I highly recommend the Rancho Gordo cookbook, Heirloom Beans. Co-authored by Sando and Vanessa Barrington, the book contains nearly 90 recipes using the many varieties of beans for sale at Rancho Gordo, as well as descriptions of each, their origin, what they taste like, and how Sando might recommend preparing them.
And while it’s not specifically about heirloom beans, I’d also recommend Joe Yonan’s cookbook Cool Beans, because the more bean recipe inspiration, the better.
Are Rancho Gordo beans worth it?
Absolutely. I've never enjoyed eating any beans as much as I have Rancho Gordo’s beans. Beyond the excitement of working with a high-quality, fresh ingredients you might not even find at the hippest restaurants, there really is a world of flavor difference between an average grocery store canned bean and an heirloom dried bean.
Rancho Gordo’s enthusiasm for celebrating a commodity item like beans as a beautiful crop native to the Americas is infectious. And beyond the sentimentality, its products deliver on the fervent support the company gets from its followers. And while its heirloom beans are more expensive than what’s at the store, when cooked they amount to a couple pounds of protein-packed legumes that can be made into countless different meals—and still cost far less per pound than most cuts of meat.
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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.