Plant science at the dinner table: black beans

Michigan is the nation’s second largest producer of all dry beans, and first in the production of black beans.

Bowl that is full of corn torilla chips and black beans.
Black beans and Black bean chips, photo by Dixie Sandborn

As the weather chills and we settle into frosty mornings, I often think about warm pots of chili, simmering stews and family time. Whether it’s movie night, game night or cheering the Spartans on to victory, family time at my house includes Mexican, Cuban, Haitian or other spicy foods. I enjoy spicy food year-round, but I particularly like it when the weather turns colder.

Mexican or Caribbean cuisine makes me think of black beans. Beans are a staple in diets around the world and offer protein in high amounts to people who generally do not eat animal protein in sufficient quantities.

I particularly like pinto, kidney, and black-eyed peas, but black beans are hands down my favorite go-to bean. Black beans are medium to small, oval-shaped beans with a shiny black coat. They have a small, white eye or spot called a “keel.” Black beans have a creamy white interior and meaty flavor.

Michigan is the nation’s second largest producer of all dry beans, and first in the production of black beans. Mexico is Michigan’s largest export market for black beans. Go to Michigan State University Extension to read more and learn about Michigan’s production of dry beans.

Phaseolus vulgaris is the genus and species for beans. The beans we eat—green, navy, kidney, black etc.—are types of beans.

Black beans have become the fastest growing market class of beans, which means people are eating a lot of black beans. Black beans are showing up in some very interesting products on the market including hummus (traditionally chickpeas), chips (traditionally corn) and even pasta (traditionally wheat).

Fun facts about black beans

  • Beans belong to the Fabaceae family.
  • The Fabaceae family is the third largest plant family on earth.
  • The Fabaceace family has 670 genera and nearly 20,000 species of trees, shrubs, vines and herbs.
  • Common Michigan trees that belong to the Fabaceae family are redbud, smoke tree and locust.
  • The fruit of the Fabaceae family are called legumes (peas and beans).
  • Peas or beans fruit in a pod that splits along both sides, as well as alfalfa, clover, indigo, mesquite, mimosa, and peanuts.
  • Black beans are also called turtle beanscaviar criolla and frijoles negros.
  • Black beans are rich in protein.
  • Black beans are native to the Americas.
  • Black beans date back over 7,000 years when they were a staple in the diets of Central and South Americans.
  • Michigan State University has developed the “Zenith” and “Zorro” black bean varieties. Most black beans grown in Michigan are these two varieties.

“Black beans have been steadily gaining popularity among U.S. consumers since the 1980s when they were virtually unknown,” said Karen Cichy, research plant geneticist with the USDA ARS and adjunct associate professor at MSU’s department of plant, soil and microbial Sciences. “Not only are Americans eating more black beans in the traditional boiled or canned form, but black beans are also making their way into many new products such as hummus, crackers and pasta. In 2016, 164 new food products were launched in the U.S. containing black beans and the trend continues in 2017.”

Slow Cooker Black Beans recipe

Here is a Cuban-inspired black bean recipe I enjoy and hope you do too. This is delicious, easy to make, inexpensive and filling.


  • 1 pound dry black beans
  • 2 slices of bacon
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, fresh
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 lime (juice from lime)
  • 2 medium onions
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


  • Soak beans in 4 quarts of water overnight.
  • Pour off 3 1/2 cups of the soaking liquid and reserve. Drain and discard remaining soaking liquid. In a 3-quart saucepan, sauté bacon until it begins to crisp, about 5 minutes.
  • Add onions, bell pepper, cumin and 1/2 tsp salt. Continue cooking about 5 minutes longer, until vegetables are softened.
  • Stir in garlic and oregano and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add water, beans, bay leaves and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil.
  • Pour into a large crock pot and cook on HIGH for 3 to 4 hours or LOW 7 to 8 hours. If the beans have any crunch to them, cook them longer.
  • Remove and discard bay leaves. Add cilantro and lime juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.

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