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Dry Your String Beans Into “Leather Britches”

Dry Your String Beans Into “Leather Britches”

While freezing, canning, and even pickling are all effective methods for preserving your abundant green bean yield, did you know you can also air-dry them into “leather britches”? While this time-tested and cost-effective method is relatively unheard of, it’s gaining a new wave of popularity with new gardeners and homesteaders alike. It requires no electricity or fancy kitchen appliances, and saves you some much-coveted freezer space. With peak green bean season upon us, why not give this easy technique a try?

What Are “Leather Britches”?

String beans hanging for drying into “leather britches.” Photo courtesy of Must Love Herbs via Instagram.

Also known as “fodder beans” or “shuck beans,” (because they were dried “in the shuck,”) drying string beans to “leather britches” was commonly used down South in old Appalachia. Back before canning and modern refrigeration was readily available, drying was the most popular method for preserving produce, helping to stretch harvests through the long winter months. The beans were then cooked up into dishes that became a traditional part of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s meals (we include the recipe, below!).

And that funny name? The beans were called “leather britches” because they look leathery and shriveled when they are done drying.

Drying Green Beans For Later Use

Making leather britches the old Appalachian way generally involves stringing them with a needle and thread—similar to stringing popcorn or cranberries for garland—and hanging them to dry. Alternatively, you can simply place your green beans on a screen and set them out in the sunshine, taking them in at night, until they are adequately dried. Resist the temptation to reach for the dehydrator, if you have one—it’s the slow air-drying process that cures the flavor associated with leather britches.

How To Make Leather Britches: Method

Equipment Needed:

  • Sturdy string (kite string or clean, unwaxed dental floss) in 2-3 foot pieces
  • Darning/large sewing needle
  • 2 lbs. of garden string beans

Step 1Choose Your Beans

Use green beans that are tender and ‘snappy’ as they tend to rehydrate better later. Leather britches were originally made from “greasy beans, a family of heirloom green beans with smooth, shiny pods. However, any sturdy, non-fuzzy green bean (termed “greasy beans”) will dry well. A good heirloom variety works best, as they have larger beans and thicker skin.

Step 2—Prepare Your Beans

Rinse and and thoroughly dry your string beans. Snap off the stem ends. Leave the other sharp pointed tip intact. You can cut them in half or keep them whole.

Step 4—Stitch Your Britches

Thread the needle with the string and create 2- to 3-foot long ropes; tie a bean to the end as an anchor (the technique is explained in the video, below). Then thread through the middle of each green bean, and slide it down the string. Beans should be spaced slightly apart.

Step 5 —Hang Them To Dry

Hang your string of beans somewhere dry such as an unused room, back porch, a pantry, or even your kitchen. Hanging them in a smokehouse or above a wood stove adds a smoky taste your leather britches. Some people find that hanging strings in a dry, dark, cool place dehydrates them best, while others prefer to hang them in the sun. The most important thing with placement is proper air circulation and low humidity, which can cause spoilage.

How To Tell When They’re Ready. . .

Allow beans to dry until they are completely void of moisture—this may take 2 months, or longer, depending on your air circulation and climate. Dried beans will shrink become leathery and brittle. If they rattle when shook, they are probably done!

Don’t let their resemblance to old shoelaces turn you off. The method of slowly dehydrating green beans coaxes out some unexpected flavors. Once you cook them and eat them, you’ll see that the drying process creates a deep flavor and meaty texture.

Storing

Once dried, you can unstring your beans and store them in a clean jar or airtight container. Alternatively, you can just toss them with some salt and store them, string and all, in a flour sack, pillow case, or paper bag. Adding a dried pepper to the sack may help to keep out insects. Store your leather britches in a cool, dry place until ready to eat.

Leather britches should last through the winter, and even longer, making them a healthy addition to your fall and winter pantry.

Cooking Your Leather Britches

Cooked Leather Britches made with yellow string beans. You can also use “greasy” beans.

When you are ready to cook and your leather britches, be sure to give yourself ample time. The beans not only need time to rehydrate and get tender, but the cooking process is slow to achieve the best flavor, to develop a savory potlikker (the broth left behind). But they are well worth the wait! Two pounds of green beans, dried, will serve 4 cooked as a side dish.

“The drying of the beans develops so much umami, it’s mind blowing … The potlikker that comes off these beans tastes like roast beef!”

–Chef Sean Brock

Appalachian Style Leather Britches

Ingredients:
Dried green beans (as dried, above)
Water
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
2 inches square salt bacon, bacon grease, ham hock, or oil for a vegetarian option.

Directions:
Wash the dried green beans in a colander. Place in a pan with enough water to cover the beans and let stand overnight.

The next day, pour off the water and rinse beans. Place them in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Add the salt, 3 cups of water, and seasoning meat or oil. Cook over medium heat for roughly three hours. Check for doneness after a couple hours, adding more water if needed.

After fully cooked, add some salt, pepper, or even a tad of sugar to taste. Leather britches tend to swell up as they cook, so be careful how much you cook up. A little goes a long way! The cooking liquid improves the longer it’s allowed to simmer.

Serve It With Cornbread!

This traditional Appalachian dish is wonderful served alongside some hot corn bread and sliced raw onion.

Tell Us

Have you ever preserved your string beans with this method, and have you tried leather britches? Tell us in the comments below!

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  • Pansy Wiggins says:

    Did method many time all ways excellent!just wondering what beans you planted was taught that used only Ky white half runners they are hard to find now days I haven planted in since I moved to Florida pa out 5 yrs ago I sure would love to have a mess to eat Love the arrival

  • Myrna Hostetler says:

    I grew up in Harlan county Kentucky and my grand
    mother would do these every year. They were delicious.

  • Kelley says:

    We have made these with greasy beans for the last couple of years. My wife calls them shucky beans. They have a taste that is fantastic… not green bean and not dried bean but with a meaty, umami taste. Saved them for Christmas dinner. Hung the strings in the attic which seemed perfect; dark, hot and dry in late summer. I have a few leftover greasy bean seeds planted this year and hope to do the same. I bet that just about any green bean would turn out good but the greasy beans have more bean than the usual ones.

    • Mary says:

      Where can I get the greasy bean seeds from?

    • Kelley St Charles says:

      Click on the “greasy bean” link under Kelley. This is a group called Sustainable Mountain Agriculture out of Berea, KY. Great descriptions, history, stories, seed saving tips and quick response to orders. They are interested in preserving, not profiting, from heirloom seed stock with a focus on Appalachian beans.

    • Tina Pannell says:

      When putting the greasy beans on the string to dry do you still need to pull the strings off of the beans?

  • Diantha says:

    Can you please publish a recipe for cooking pinto beans? My mother made the best pinto beans but mine are either swollen up too much and mushy or not cooked enough. Her’s always had a lot of liquid (potlikker maybe?) with the beans to sop your corn bread in. What am I doing wrong?

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Diantha, did you soak the beans overnight first before cooking? Then change the water and cook them until tender. Drain. Pressure cookers work great.

    • Diantha Litwer says:

      Hey, Susan — I did pick out the little stones and soak the beans overnight. And I did change the water before cooking them. I don’t have a pressure cooker or crockpot, I just cook them in a big pot on the stove over medium heat. I just don’t know. Maybe my pot is too small or they need to cook at a higher or lower heat.

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hmm… let me see if I can find some tricks for you. Stand by!

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Ok, here’s what I found out: Pinto beans should only be soaked 6-8 hours otherwise they’ll get mushy, and only cook for about an hour on simmer.

  • Sandra says:

    They are delicious and you are so right… served with cornbread and onion they are beyond delicious!! My great aunt in Virginia and grandmother in North Carolina would have them when I was home. I have made them also and will make some this fall as the beans are almost ready for picking!

  • Nikki says:

    We’re from the mountains of southwest Virginia and have always dried our green beans. We have strung them before but mostly would string and break them, spread them out on a towel or sheet and dry them outside in the sun. I usually use the white half runner beans. We never called them leather britches, we just called them a big pot of dried beans.
    The last few years I have dried them in a dehydrator. They taste the same and is much faster.

  • Elaine says:

    I am 71 years old and my dear Mother was from Bristol, Va. She got a friend of mine and me all settled in with needles, thread and of course beans. We thought what we were doing was fun “sewing up the beans” LOL. I was pretty young maybe 7 or 8 at the time. and what we were doing wasnt at all work. I vaguely remember her cooking them but I dont remember her cooking the green part only the beans. But as I am sitting here thinking about it it does seem to jog my memory about there being some of the green in what she fixed. If I had some again to eat maybe that would sharpen up the old brain cells better. But thank you all for talking about this and bringing back sweet memories to me.

  • Donna Boone McLellan says:

    I remember my Grandmother Crouse, in the mountains of NC-Alleghany County, telling me to go to the attic and bring down 3 strings of “leather britches” for supper! The strings of “leather britches” would be hanging from the attic rafters from nails specifically put there to hold each year’s supply of “leather britches.” She would season them with ham hocks which she and Grandpa would have in the smokehouse. We lived on what was raised on the farm: garden, cow, pigs, chickens and sheep. A spring house held old mason jars filled with sausage, vegetables, etc. Only memories remain of a delicious staple that feed us in my childhood! 😉

  • Janice says:

    OMG, I WAS RAISED ON THESE! THEY ARE DELICIOUS!

  • Clara says:

    I’m 82 years old and I helped my mother string up beans many times. These old recipes of preserving food is needed now as more and more people are prepping during troublesome times. Thanks for posting these recipes.

  • Deb says:

    I never dried them but I did salt cure them for several years. I look forward to trying this.

    • Larry Montgomery says:

      You are in for a real taste treat just remember to cook them slow . My great grandmother used to fix them at least once or twice a month

  • Emily Jewell Johnston says:

    These are a traditional food in my family. Southern WV’s and Kentuckians will know these as a staple product from start to finish in garden to table. I hope this tradition continues on for generations to come.

    • Donna Boone McLellan says:

      Enjoyed your comments about “leather britches.” They were certainly a staple in the mountains of NC as well, but I’m sad to say that they are just a fond memory of mine as I have not had them since leaving Alleghany County, NC over 40 years ago when my grandparents died.

    • Larry Montgomery says:

      I live in southern WV and we have been doing this as long as I can remember an I am 69 years old. My great-grandmother was born in the 1800’s and she used this method until her death. And I might add they are not good they are GREAT.

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