9 Ways To Upgrade Canned Beans

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Canned beans seem like a ubiquitous ingredient. Somehow they are always in the pantry, but sometimes it can be challenging to come up with a use for them. Even if you are someone who eats beans all the time, you may find yourself in a rut, making the same recipes over and over again.

We reached out to several experts for some input on ways to upgrade canned beans so that you can find great uses for the beans in your pantry. We spoke to Chef Yumna Jawad, who is the founder of the popular blog Feel Good Foodie. Jawad's first cookbook, "The Feel Good Foodie Cookbook," is set to release in May 2024. We also spoke to Chef Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack, an Emmy-winner producer and writer, as well as the founder of the food blog Muy Bueno, which aims to make Mexican cuisine accessible. Finally, we spoke to Chef Sarah Hill, the mind behind Real Food with Sarah, a blog that brings fun, delicious, and easy cooking to its readers. Thanks to these experts, we have nine amazing tips on how to enhance canned beans into delicious side dishes, snacks, and meals.

1. Add onions and garlic

Sautéing onions and garlic might be the simplest, most basic way to make your canned beans explode with flavor. They are Chef Sarah Hill's absolute favorite ingredients to add to beans; she told us that "some sautéed or roasted garlic adds a great depth of flavor that enhances the taste of beans."

Just adding garlic and onions will already accomplish a lot in terms of flavor, but if you want to ramp things up even further, try adding in some other flavors. Chef Hill's recommendation, after adding your sautéed garlic and onions, is to try "squeezing in fresh lime juice for a citrus kick, adding simple spices such as paprika, cumin, and chili powder, and adding some fresh chopped cilantro." Chef Yvette Marquez likewise loves to add sautéed onions to her beans, though her approach is slightly different. She told us, "For whole beans (pinto or black), I usually sauté chopped onion, tomato, and jalapeño to add some spice, but keeping them light and simple and then sprinkle with fresh cilantro."

2. Turn your canned beans into refried beans

Chef Yvette Marquez's specialty is Mexican comfort food. It makes sense, then, that her number one go-to recipe for canned beans is to whip up some quick homemade refried beans, such as these from Mashed. She told us, "I refry them in olive oil and simply mash them." Marquez was adamant, however, that while refried beans are delicious when made with canned beans, that does not mean buying pre-made refried beans. "I would NOT recommend buying canned refried beans," she told us, "They usually have too much sodium and spices."

Once she has fried up her beans and mashed them, Marquez is presented with a blank slate to flavor with spices of her choice. While you can add any spices and flavorings that suit your preferences, Marquez told us how she does it. "I always have homemade salsa on hand, so I add a couple tablespoons of salsa to the beans for a bit of spice. I sometimes add some crema Mexicana and shredded cheese if I want them creamy and cheesy." If she wants something heartier, she will "cook up some chorizo and then add beans and mash them in for chorizo refried beans." Homemade refried beans are great enjoyed on their own, or as Marquez suggested, "They make a great topping on dishes like Huevos Rancheros or a classic side dish to Mexican entrées."

3. Crisp them up in a pan

Canned beans, when drained of their liquids and fried in a pan with oil and spices, can become a deliciously crispy snack. Chef Sarah Hill told us that her favorite beans to buy canned are "black beans, garbanzo beans, and cannellini beans." One of her favorite uses for garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, is to roast or fry them as a snack. Chickpeas, especially when fried or sautéed in a pan, can change their texture and become pleasantly soft or deliciously crisp, depending on how much oil and other ingredients you use.

Another bean that Hill loves to pan-cook is the cannellini bean. She told us that cannellini beans are "super versatile." One of her favorite ways to cook with cannellini beans is to saute them in a pan with greens. Beans and greens like chard or kale, when sautéed together, make an extremely hearty and delicious side dish — or even a full meal, when enjoyed with bread or a different carb.

4. Make them into a dip

Another way that Chef Sarah Hill loves to use canned beans is to make dips. She recommended garbanzo beans specifically, telling us that they can be "made into different types of hummus." Another bean that she loves using to make into a dip is cannellini beans. Chef Yumna Jawad also loves using canned beans in particular for dips. It makes things much easier, she tells us, saying, "They work better for salads and dips because they are cold and soft and can be used instantly without the need to cool or reheat anything."

Making hummus or any other bean dip is incredibly easy. You simply take the soft beans and add them to a food processor or blender with whatever spices and ingredients you need. For hummus, you simply need garbanzo beans, olive oil, tahini, water, lemon, and spices, such as in this delicious lemon hummus recipe.

5. Toss them into any salad

The beautiful thing about beans is that they can be added to an immense number of different dishes to enhance the flavor, texture, and protein content of a meal. One category of food that is often enhanced by the addition of beans is salads. Salads, be they pasta salads, traditional green salads, or bean salads, serve as a great vessel for soft and delicious canned beans. Chef Sarah Hill told us that garbanzo beans "can be added to green salads" or "pasta salads," being as versatile as they are.

Chef Yumna Jawad also loves using canned beans in salads. She prefers canned beans over dry beans for salads because they come already soft and cold, meaning that they can be just tossed into a salad without much effort. One of Jawad's favorite types of beans to buy in cans is kidney beans, which she uses to make a Protein Bean Salad. Mashed has its own version of a hearty kidney bean salad, made with zesty apple cider vinegar and sweet honey.

6. Add in simple spices

This tip is so straightforward that you might not even think of it, but adding in some simple spices to your canned beans can enhance their flavor immensely. As Chef Yumna Jawad told us, "Canned beans are like an empty canvas that can be doctored with spices, oils, and vinegars." We asked our experts about what kind of spices they like to use for beans, and they provided us with a wide variety of delicious options. Chef Sarah Hill told us that she loves "adding some chili powder and salt to enhance the flavor." This option provides a spicy, deliciously salty kick.

Chef Jawad, who was born in Africa to Lebanese parents, told us that her favorite spice to add to beans is cumin. The chef said, "It's my favorite spice because it's so versatile since it's used in many different cultures, including Indian, Arabic, Mexican, North African, Mediterranean, and even Chinese!" Cumin is also a popular additive to beans in many cultures, Jawad told us, because "it can actually help reduce gas caused by eating beans due to its carminative properties and antioxidants." So cumin is not only a delicious, versatile option to add to beans but also offers some health benefits.

7. Roast them

Perhaps not enough people think of roasting their beans. Roasted chickpeas have gained popularity in recent years, such as these spicy roasted garbanzo beans, but pretty much any bean can be tossed in the oven with some oil and spices and come out deliciously crispy. Chef Yumna Jawad told us why she likes roasting her beans, saying, "Baking and roasting them can make them more crunchy and airy." Roasting beans at a high temperature changes their texture, crisping them up. This can be incredibly fun, especially if you want to change it up from the typical soft (but still delicious!) texture of canned beans.

Jawad painted a delectable picture, telling us that warming up her beans in this manner "instantly makes them more exciting and makes me forget they were sitting in a cold can minutes before." Where do you start if you want to roast canned beans? Try baking any type of bean on a baking sheet with your preferred flavors and spices at around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and discover a new way to enjoy the ingredient.

8. Add in a splash of acid

Adding a splash of acid, whether that is in the form of citrus, vinegar, wine, or buttermilk, can beautifully brighten up canned beans and counteract their fatty denseness. Chef Yumna Jawad told us that her single favorite ingredient to add to canned beans is "Lemon or anything acidic." The chef explained her reasoning, telling us that "Lemon juice balances out the starchiness of the beans and prevents them from becoming too heavy. The acidity also brightens any dish with beans by contrasting the fresh flavor with the cooked flavors."

Chef Yvette Marquez also loves adding acid to her beans, although as a Mexican-American chef, she is partial to alternate acid options. She told us, "I think fresh lime is great to serve with beans, so everyone can drizzle with fresh lime juice to their liking. I also love a drizzle of hot sauce." Hot sauce, though its primary purpose is to add a kick of spice, is often vinegar-based and therefore also adds a kick of acid when added to a dish.

9. Braise them for a soft, buttery bean

The last tip for delicious, easy ways to upgrade the canned beans that are just sitting in your pantry is to braise them. Braising something simply means to cook it quickly on high heat, and follow that up with a long, slow simmer on low heat, either in the oven or on your stovetop. This method of cooking produces a product, be it meat, a vegetable, or beans, that is rich in flavor and unbelievably tender.

Chef Yumna Jawad told us the reason that she loves braising her beans "to change their structure and temperature." She also told us that braising your beans "can make them more buttery and soft." Who doesn't love a soft, buttery bean, right? White beans, which are already soft and buttery, can be an excellent type of bean to braise, such as these creamy braised Great Northern beans.