We tasted them to find out.
Dried beans are one of those pantry staples that I didn't think much about until recently. If there was a choice between bags of beans at the store, I would go with the cheapest one. I figured that dried beans are dried beans, right? How much different could they taste?
But then I read an article in The New Yorker about Rancho Gordo, a company that specializes in locating and selling rare heirloom beans. I knew that I had to try them. As someone who believes strongly in buying fancy butter when I can, I wondered if I had been overlooking an ingredient that had a lot more potential to be delicious than I gave it credit for.
So I decided to do a taste test between Rancho Gordo's heirloom beans and the average bag I would pick up at the super market. I purchased Rancho Gordo's midnight beans, which will run you $5.95, and a bag of Goya black beans, which go for $1.09 at my local supermarket and likely less in parts of the country that are not New York City.
Watch: How to Make Black Beans in the Instant Pot
The Cooking Method
I usually cook dried black beans in my Instant Pot, or as a component to another meal like black bean chili or black bean tacos. But for the purposes of this test, I decided to cook the beans very simply. I soaked both types for two hours the morning I was cooking them. Both pots of beans had yellow onion diced and sauteed in olive oil, bay leaf, and water. I brought them to a boil and then down to a simmer, covering the pot with more hot water from the kettle if the liquid started running low. At the end of the cooking time, I seasoned both batches with salt and pepper. That's it.
The first difference I noticed was how much quicker the heirloom beans cooked. That's not a big surprise—Rancho Gordo beans are fresher, meaning that they've been harvested and dried within the past year. Your average dried bean could be sitting on the supermarket shelf for much longer. Fresher dried beans take less time to cook. In this case, the Rancho Gordo beans were done around the two-hour mark, whereas the supermarket beans took about four hours to fully cook.
What surprised me most wasn't the difference in flavor, but the difference in texture. The Rancho Gordo beans had a creaminess that I hadn't experienced in a dried bean before. By comparison, the Goya beans felt a little mealy. The Rancho Gordo beans also seem to cook more evenly. They also seemed to distribute the flavor of the onion and bay leaf more evenly throughout the bean, whereas the supermarket beans seemed to have pockets of flavor.
But is it really worth spending almost six times as much money on a bag of beans? That depends on your budget and how much you love beans. I ate the heirloom beans plain over rice, and then later, with an egg over them on a tortilla for breakfast. But the supermarket black beans were perfectly serviceable—I have plans to add more spices to them and work them into soups and casseroles over the next few weeks. If you want the bean to be the star of the show, and you're willing to put down another $5 for a bag then yes, I'd absolutely recommend trying Rancho Gordo. If you're not particularly sold on beans, they might even convince you to change your mind. But if all you can fit into your budget is what's available at the grocery store, your chili is still going to be delicious.