Text and images are copyright. All rights reserved.
Unlike all the other pages on this website, which are about the past, this page is about modern ways of doing things - or, at least, one modern way of doing things. Why? It follows from a companion page, where I describe how people in the past preserved their summer crop of runner beans by salting. As a result a number of website visitors contacted me to ask the best way of preparing the beans first.
Rather than keeping repeating myself in emails, here is my quick method for stringing and slicing runner beans today - ready either for preserving them by salting or freezing or for using directly. It is not how people prepared their beans in the past using just a knife.
In my view it is not worth bothering with shop-bought runner beans because they are not sufficiently fresh. Whether or not this affects taste is a matter of opinion, but what is important is that they will have become floppy. This makes them impossible to slice by the simple and quick method described below.
It is much better to grow your own runner beans. This is not difficult and produces a large crop over a long period. If you must use shop-bought beans you will almost certainly need to resort to preparing them the old way - which is tedious with poorer results.
As runner beans string and slice most easily when they are firm, it is best to prepare them immediately they are picked. Provided that the weather is fine, I like to do this while still in the garden, sitting with a bowl for waste between my legs and a bowl for the prepared beans at my side.
I have to pick my runner beans every two days because they develop so quickly, and it is all too easy for them to grow so big that they become 'stringy'. This is to be avoided because it is embarrassing for the cook and unpleasant for guests who have to chew round 'string' and then remove it to the sides of their plates.
As runner beans are so prolific, they have an unfortunate habit of hiding amongst their foliage. So inevitably some are missed during picking. When these are spotted later, they are large and lumpy from the enlarged seeds inside. You have to be strong-willed then, and throw them away. Not only will they be stringy, they will also not go through the slicing gadget described below. If left on the plant, the plant will put its energies into developing the seed and stop producing more beans.
The method relies on the gadget shown in the pictures below which should be available from any hardware supplier. I have been emailed to say that some people have tried more sophisticated gadgets, but they are not recommended as they block up.
Start by snapping off the tips at both ends of the runner bean, using the thumb and forefinger. This is quicker than using a knife and quicker than using the blade of the gadget described below. I like to have a bowl between my legs to let the waste drop into, with another bowl at the side for the prepared beans.
The next step is to use a simple gadget for slicing and stringing. I have had mine for years - see the photo. (It is green whereas the modern ones seem to be white.) The gadget only needs rinsing under the tap after use to remove the bean juice, and can be left to dry in the air. A much smaller version without a handle is also available, which I have tried, but I find it too fiddly to hold and it does not have a facility for removing the 'string' at the sides of beans.
Push the bean through the hole as shown below. The grippers adjust to its size. This is where a floppy bean would disintegrate and clog up the gadget. As the bean goes through, the 'string' along its sides is separated off. I let it drop into the bowl for waste between my legs.
Once the beans are halfway through the gadget, I find it easier to pull the sliced part rather than continuing to push the unsliced part.
The gadget produces slices that are too long for the table. Although they can be cut into shorter pieces with a knife, it is far easier to take a sliced bean and 'wring' it, like a wet towel. This breaks the lengths up into short slices which can readily be placed in the other bowl and from there to salting, freezing or cooking.
If you grow your own runner beans, they will produce so many that you couldn't possibly eat them all fresh. I string and slice them as described above and then freeze them in small bags. I find that one small handful serves one person, but you will want to adjust the number of handfuls per bag depending on the size of your family or the group you need to feed.
Runner beans freeze really well, and it is wonderful in the depths of winter to pull a bag out of the freezer for green vegetables as fresh as the day they were picked. I like to thaw them a few hours in advance in a saucepan of unheated tap water as this gives an even thaw. Then cooking takes 20 minutes from boiling. I have never found microwaving satisfactory for runner beans as it seems to make them tough.