Black beans are an inexpensive source of protein. Unlike animal-based proteins such as meat and eggs, beans also are high in fiber. Not all black beans are alike, however. Some are better than others. The best black beans are sold dry, have a smooth appearance, remain whole when squeezed and come from a store or shop that has a lot of turnover in its stock. By looking for these key features, you can make sure you're getting your money's worth.
As a general rule, the best black beans are dry beans. Canned beans are convenient, but they aren't the best choice unless your primary consideration is convenience. Beans that come in a can have already been cooked, which often leaves them mushy or overdone. Many of them also contain high levels of sodium or preservatives that you might not want. By buying black beans dry, you control how much cooking they undergo, and you get to choose how much salt, seasonings or other ingredients get added to them, so you know exactly what you're eating.
Good-quality beans also have a certain look. They should have a smooth, firm appearance and resist pressure when squeezed. Cracks or wrinkles on the surface of the beans indicate advanced age or rough handling, both of which degrade the quality of the beans. Mushy beans or those that change shape when you apply pressure to them have been exposed to moisture, so they might be rotten and unsafe to eat. Even though cooking will kill mold, it will not eliminate any toxins that the mold has already produced.
High-quality beans should also have good kernel integrity, which means that the majority of the beans should be whole. A few broken beans are the natural result of the processing and sorting that the black beans undergo at the plant. If the majority of the beans are broken, however, it means they've come from a less-than-fastidious packager. Broken beans are a problem because the exposed surfaces absorb water faster than the skins. This alters the cooking time and makes it difficult to avoid mushy beans.
Lastly, the best black beans will be young beans. Like all beans, dry black beans grow harder as they age. Beans that have been stored more than a year will never properly soften no matter how long you cook them. Not all jurisdictions require expiration dates on dry beans, so it is best to buy your beans from a store or shop that sells a lot of beans. A high turnover rate means the beans will not have been sitting in the store for a long time.