What to CookSalad

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

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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. Photos 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.

Black Bean and Roasted Corn Salad
Black Bean and Roasted Corn Salad

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.

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.

Black Bean and Roasted Corn Salad

Black Bean and Roasted Corn Salad

Alexandra Stafford Alexandra Stafford
Serves 8 to 10 as a side

Brining and cooking the beans

  • 1 pound dried black beans
  • 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 onion, halved
  • Few sprigs thyme, optional
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed

Bean salad

  • 4 cups cooked black beans
  • 2 ears corn, kernels removed
  • 2 red bell peppers, finely diced
  • 1 to 2 jalapeños, diced (seeded if sensitive to heat)
  • 1 medium red onion, finely diced
  • 4 scallions, finely sliced, white and light green parts
  • 1 small bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the corn
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt to taste
Go to Recipe

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.

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

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Bean, Lunch, Weeknight Cooking, Tips & Techniques, Dinner, Faster