logo - Join me in the 1900s early C20th
Florence Cole as a child

Preserving runner beans
the old way: salting

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[Runner beans are also known as pole beans]

I know how women preserved runner beans in the early 1900s on the estate of Victorian terrace houses where my mother grew up. Not only did my mother do it herself when I was a child, I also did it in the 1960s when I didn't have a freezer. The method involved salting, and I know from experience how well it worked. The preserved runner beans seemed as if they would keep forever. Certainly they kept for months and tasted just as if they had been picked that same day.

See also slicing and stringing runner beans the old way and slicing and stringing runner beans the easy modern way.

In the early 1900s it must have been particularly useful to be able to preserve runner beans because they grew and cropped well in even quite small back gardens. Quite a number of families on the Victorian estate also had allotments which would have provided an even bigger yield.

The beans were preserved by salting.

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How to preserve beans by salting

If you would like to have a go at salting your own beans, the type of container is important. A plastic bucket is ideal, but in the early 1900s there were no plastics. So the women used containers made of glass or stoneware, ie a type of pottery that is dense, opaque and nonporous. China wouldn't do because the salt was said to take off the glaze; metal would give the beans a bad taste and unglazed earthenware, being porous, would allow the salty liquid from the beans to leak out.

Start by putting a layer of salt into the container. Any salt will do, but in the early 1900s, women used cooking salt which came in blocks. It was cheaper than table salt and had to be crumbled.

Then put in a layer of sliced beans, then another layer of salt and so on, making sure to finish with a layer of salt. Further bean and salt layers can be added as more beans become available. The salt draws the liquid out of the beans and immediately becomes damp.

Finally cover the container with a lid of some sort. The light needs to be kept out or the beans go brown, so if the container is glass, it needs to be wrapped in brown paper which was readily available in the early 1900s.

The salting needs about a pound of salt to 3-4 lb of beans, but in practice I am sure that the women just put in handfuls as seemed right to them.

Because of salt attacking glaze, it is important not to leave the container on a tiled surface. This was particularly important in the 1900s scullery where the floor was tiled. The beans were probably kept on a wooden shelf somewhere, possibly outside in a shed.

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How to use the preserved salted beans

To use the beans take a few handfuls from the container and rinse them in cold water. Long soaking apparently makes them tough. Then boil them, just like fresh beans but without adding any salt.

I can imagine that the preserved beans must have been a real treat in the early 1900s households as the only other green vegetables available in the the winter would have been types of cabbage.

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