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Canned Black Beans

Published February 2010

How we tested

Most canned black beans have three main ingredients: beans, water, and salt. So how different could they taste? Plenty different, we found out when 22 test cooks and editors from America’s Test Kitchen sampled six national brands—three of them organic—in a blind test. We tasted them plain (drained and rinsed), and also in a test kitchen recipe for black bean soup.

The results neatly separated into three brands we like and three we don’t. Predictably, our tasters had a strong preference for well-seasoned beans. All brands add water to the beans, and all but one add salt (an organic brand adds a small amount of kombu, a salty seaweed). The three brands that scored the highest all have more than 400 milligrams of sodium per half-cup serving; the three low-scoring brands, all of them organic, contain much less sodium (between 15 and 140 mg). Simply adding salt to the organic brands didn’t help: The texture was still mushy and the seasoning superficial.

Texture was important, too, as tasters disliked mushy beans (again, the three organic brands). The difference between firm and mushy beans hinges on a balance between chemistry (in the form of salt and other additives) and process (how hot and how long the beans are cooked during canning). Aside from adding flavor, salt accelerates the softening of beans by breaking down the pectin in the cell walls. So you need salt for good flavor, but too much can make the beans mushy. This is why two of our salty, highly ranked brands, add calcium chloride, which counteracts the softening power of sodium by strengthening the pectin in the cell walls of the beans. So how does our winning brand achieve firm beans with lots of salt and no calcium chloride? That’s proprietary manufacturing information, we’re told, but odds are that to preserve more of their firm texture, they quickly processes their beans with less heat than the other brands (the three organic brands are dramatically overcooked).

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*
Done in 281 ms! 61.385 KiB - 7.5% = 56.776 KiB