I love this time of year in Appalachia! There is something special about going to the farmers market or the roadside produce stand and seeing a mountain of fresh picked beans. Maybe it’s because beans have such a deep cultural resonance in this region, maybe it’s because this is when we start preserving the harvest by making things with whimsical names like “leather britches” and “dilly beans”, or maybe it’s because when I see those heaping piles of beans I know that winter will be a time of plenty.
Beans: Preserving the Harvest
Bean preservation starts with the seed.
These are one of the wonderful crops which stay true to their type with little human intervention, so they are the easiest for a budding seed saver to grow, process, and replant. Processing them is easy too, because mother nature provides all the tools you need.
Step 1 – Grow some beans!
Step 2 – Don’t pick them. It’s best to let beans stay on the vines until they have dried in the summer sun, this ensures the beans will be fully mature and have the highest germination rate for the following year.
Step 3 – Okay, now you can pick the beans. I like to wander through my bean patch with a basket picking the dried beans using kitchen shears to snip them off the dry vine. If you have a large field you might benefit from what I call an orchard bag or apple picking bag.
Step 4 – String the beans. This doesn’t mean you want to put them on a string (that comes later in this article). Most heirloom beans have a string in the pod that helps seal in the flavor of the bean. To get that pod open you will need to “unzip” the pod.
Step 5 – Shell the beans. Separate the beans from the pods. Make sure to get everything off, leaving little bits on them could cause some problems with storage later.
Step 6 – Dry the beans. I spread mine out on a baking sheet and leave them under a fan to dry out. If you are working with a large batch you can spread them out on a table or if you have a fancy drying rack with screens, use that. Regardless of the equipment, you want to give the seeds a last chance of drying thoroughly. I mix them about once a day just to ensure air is reaching every side and keep them out of direct sunlight as they no longer have their protective hull. You want your beans bone dry to prevent mold or spoilage; and never dry them in a food dehydrator or an oven – this can kill the seed.
Step 7 – Store your beans. Beans are one of the more stable seeds so a mason jar in a cool dry place like a pantry or the back of a cupboard can be fine. Some folks like to seal them in jars and refrigerate them or put them in ziplock bags and freeze them. It’s your choice, do what feels best for you and enjoy planting them again next year.
Canning and Pickles – Introducing the Dilly Bean
“The first dilly bean I ate made willy nilly silly
Yeah I can eat them room temperature and I can eat ’em chilly
Better than candy, better than ice cream
Oh I how love to eat dilly beans” Flannery Brothers
Canning and Pickling is a whole topic in and of itself. We aren’t going to cover the specifics of this process, but rest assured when you are canning pickles the process is fairly simple and straight forward. Here is a great resource on canning at home from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
AIMS Wild and Heirloom Dilly Beans
2 1/2 lbs of Heirloom Greasy, Cutshort, Half-runner, or Pole Beans (I am using the Tarheel Bean from Haywood / Jackson County North Carolina) – whole not snapped.
2 1/2 cups of apple cider vinegar (We make our vinegar from the apples in the orchard) You can use store bought or substitute white vinegar – I like the zip of apple cider.
2 cups water
1/4 cup sea salt
For each jar add:
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 bunch of fresh Dill (not the seed)
1/2 tsp dried chili peppers (this year I am using the Fish Pepper an 1870’s African – American Heirloom from the Chesapeake Bay), broken into small pieces or crushed
1/2 tsp of peppergrass seed (Lepidium virginicum)
1/2 tsp mustard seed (I’m using Cherokee Blue Mustard)
After stringing the beans, trim them so they will fit in the jars you are using while leaving about a half inch of headroom. We recommend using pint jars for this recipe. Pack the herbs and spices into the jars with the beans on top and set the jars aside.
Bring the vinegar, water, salt to a boil on the store in a non-reactive pot or pan.
Once the liquid has come to a boil; pour it over the beans in the jar, filling them to within 1/4 inch of the top.
Wipe down the rims of the jars, place the caps on, and secure the rings to finger tightness (seriously, don’t over-tighten the lids.)
Process in a hot water bath according to the processing times for your elevation. Allow them to cool completely, remove the rings, label, and store in a cool, dry place. They should be ready to eat in about 2 -3 weeks and store for at least a year.
“Leather Britches full of stitches”
Leather Britches are one of the most widely used bean preservation methods in old time Appalachia. When cooked, they have been said to taste like the best smoked meat you’ll ever eat and host that mysterious culinary flavor – umami. It is a simple method of preserving that only requires a dry place to hang them and a needle an’ string.
To get started… you want to pick a mess of cutshort, turkey craw, or runner beans; well most any green bean will work but you want to pick them when they are at the “snap” stage. Too old and they will be tough, bending when you try and snap them; too young and you won’t have a bean in them.
You will want to wash your beans. Snip off the stem end of your beans as you get ready to wash them, leaving the beak side intact. After washing them, drain them in a colander until dry.
Break out your darning needle! After your beans have been prepared it is time to stitch them together. I like to use a natural fiber string like jute or hemp, the main consideration is that the string is able to hold the weight of the beans. Begin threading the beans by passing you needle through the center of your first bean – kind of like stringing popcorn.Loop the string around the bean and tie a knot. Now just continue stringing your beans on the string until you feel like you are done, tie a loop on the end and voila.
Drying your leather britches… If you are fortunate enough to have a wood stove, this is the ultimate in old time drying methods. The strung beans would be hung up behind the wood stove with the belief that they would capture the smokiness of the wood fire as they dried. In a popular restaurant around here, they have dried their leather britches over an open pit smoker. Most folks hang them in a dry attic from the rafters, in a closet, in the kitchen; really it’s a matter of preference. Play around with it, try many batches hung all over – then come back here and let us know what you learned. The most important thing is airflow and circulation. You want your beans to be able to dry out to a leathery consistency, get wrinkled, and last you all winter.
What Now!? Cooking Leather Britches couldn’t be more easy. Fill a pot full of water, add some salt, a little fat back, and the beans. Cook them low and slow throughout the day and enjoy with a little rice, collards, and cornbread. Reserve the pot likker for use in making stews or to replace water when cooking grains – the stuff is incredible!
If you aren’t the type to eat meat, no worries. Cook your beans the same as above, minus the pork, adding onions, garlic, and either butter or light olive oil to capture the aromatic flavors.