5 Steps to Better Bean Salads (& a Punchy Black Bean Salad to Prove It)

August 11, 2016

As I paged through Steve Sando’s Heirloom Beans in search of something medal-worthy to bring to a lawn-games Olympics potluck, I came across a sidebar titled “Bean Salad Tips,” which opened with this: “We’ve all had them: the unfortunate bean salads. They show up at the potluck—all mushy beans and muddy flavors and not enough salt.”

Left, black beans a-draining. Right, the mix-ins. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

I know that salad. Shoot, I’ve made that salad. And so I studied Sando’s tips, which can be summarized as:

  1. Warm the beans before dressing them, because refrigerating them kills their flavor.

  2. Drain the beans well, because the pot liquor, while delicious, can make the salad taste watery. (And don’t rinse the beans either—simply drain the beans in a fine-mesh strainer for sufficient time.)

  3. Go big on the vinegar. Beans are rich and need a higher ratio of acid to oil than typically used for dressing salads. Use a 2-to-1 oil-to-vinegar ratio.

  4. Salt them like the road. Because beans are porous, they absorb seasonings and can handle more. A refrigerated bean salad, for instance, often needs re-seasoning before serving.

  5. Procrastinate. Make the salad on the same day no more than two hours before serving, and if possible, avoid refrigerating it. If you must chill it before serving, bring it to room temperature before serving.

For Sando, it’s not about the add-ins, but the beans. If you treat them well and season them properly, the foundation for a good bean salad is set.

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So last Saturday, about an hour before my potluck, I began making my salad, draining the beans I had cooked earlier in the day, roasting corn, and dicing vegetables. When the beans had drained sufficiently, I tossed everything together, seasoned aggressively with salt and a sharp oil-and-vinegar dressing. Just before heading out, I tossed, tasted, and added a touch more salt. And at the potluck, I proudly set my colorful bowl of beans on the buffet, then headed out to find my teammates—I was gunning for gold, if not in KanJam, but in beany buffet fare.

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

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Top Comment:
“I love black bean and corn salad. I was thinking about posting my recipe with a photo I took a while back. Made it for a holiday luncheon as a side and everyone loved it. I made it up as I went along LOL!”
— BerryBaby

Name your requirements—and tricks!—for a good bean salad in the comments.

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    Alexandra Stafford
I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


BerryBaby August 11, 2016
I love black bean and corn salad. I was thinking about posting my recipe with a photo I took a while back. Made it for a holiday luncheon as a side and everyone loved it. I made it up as I went along LOL!
Alexandra S. August 11, 2016
Sometimes those are the best! What were the other ingredients? Would be fun to try a new black bean-and-corn combo.
Jennifer August 11, 2016
I make a salad with black beans, corn, red peppers, cider vinegar, cumin, smidge of sugar, cilantro, and NO OIL. Everybody loves it and it keeps really, really well.
Alexandra S. August 11, 2016
Very interesting! A friend just brought a bean salad to dinner and it tasted almost like a salsa — lots of lime, very little oil. Going to try it. LOVE the idea of cumin.
Jennifer August 11, 2016
Alexandra S. August 11, 2016
Awesome! Thanks so much for sending. Going to make this immediately!!