(Almost) Grandma’s Three Bean Salad

I have been craving Three bean salad. Not the soggy, over-sauced, over-sugared stuff from the grocery store but the slightly crisp, perfectly balanced flavors of tangy and sweet that my Grandma-In-Law creates every year. In my mind there is nothing better than sliding up to a worn wooden picnic table lined with plates of freshly fried chicken, home-style potatoes, and fabulous Three Bean Salad (generally with Texas Sheet Cake for dessert). The smells, sites, and sounds of her fresh garden, apple and cherry trees, and chickens and cows, make these meals an experience for all the senses. One bite of a decent Three Bean Salad and I am transported back to the dairy farm where my family has spent every summer for 14 years.

This craving (not exactly sure if it’s a craving for the food or the farm to be honest) has had my mind set on Three Bean Salad for a while but I have been putting it off. Well, the BB Goddesses must have heard my cries because this week’s baskets supplied the perfect ingredients for a delicious Three Bean Salad. The conventional basket had lovely green beans and the organic basket offered both green and yellow beans. I had organic-basket-envy all day long as I drove from store to store trying to find fresh yellow or wax beans. In the end, I decided to use all green beans for my recipe and it worked out well.

Because I cannot leave a recipe completely alone (and I didn’t have Grandma’s actual recipe so I felt no particular loyalty) I made some minor modifications. I wanted to water-bath seal the salad so I made sure to stick with the same quantities of everything, but I was pleasantly surprised at how very flexible this recipe is. I am generally careful not to mess with canning recipes. I know they have been developed and tested using scientific methods that accurately balance acidity and pH levels to ensure they are safe. But, as I’ve gained experience canning and done some research, I’ve learned that there are some substitutions that can be safely made based on personal taste and items at hand.

Acid Choices- Vinegar must be 5% acidity. Lemon juice and lime juice must be bottled, not fresh (except in fruit jam which is already high-acid). You can always sub lemon/lime juice for vinegar, but you cannot sub vinegar for lemon/lime juice (vinegar is lower acid/higher pH). I really like altering the flavor of recipes by exchanging white vinegar for cider or lime juice.

Low Acid Veggies- You can substitute low-acid veg for each other, e.g. you can replace 1 cup of bell pepper with 1 cup of jalapeno or onion. So for the Bean Salad I was completely safe mixing up my types of beans and even the peppers or celery added (as long as I kept the measurements the same). You can’t increase the total amount of low acid veg in the recipe because that will lower the acid levels of the whole product. Having enough acid is important because too little will allow botulism to grow. This is very bad food poisoning that is usually undetectable in the jar, and in fact is the only kind of food poisoning that scares me.

Spices and Herbs- This is where creativity and personal taste (and your current pantry inventory) can really come into play. Spices can be safely interchanged or added to canning recipes. Adjust heat levels or flavors by tossing crushed red peppers into savory recipes (like I did for the salad). Add an unusual eastern flavor by tossing in ginger or all spice. Spices can be safely omitted from recipes with the exception of salt. Generally, salt is included as a preservative so unless the recipe you are using specifically says that the salt is optional be safe and leave it in. Herbs can also be added and interchanged- within reason. For example a tablespoon of fresh cilantro would generally be safe; a full cup would need some expert acid adjustment.

The original recipe calls for lima beans which I neither had, nor wanted to use (never seen those in Grandma’s jars) so my variation has a combination of kidney beans and chick peas (Home-canned, BB Garbanzos of course). Also, because I (foolishly) had not contributed for an organic basket, and my city seems to have some discriminatory thing against yellow beans, I used all green beans. Then, just for fun and a little kick, I added a bit of finely chopped garlic and some crushed red peppers to the brine. I did not want a lingering heat, just a bit of bite and those flavors worked well with the other ingredients of the brine.

The picture above shows fellow blogger Whitney D’s Three Bean Salad. She had plenty of the yellow beans (that smart girl did NOT pass up on the organic box) but she did not have red peppers or kidney beans on hand. That didn’t stop her. She used safe substitutions and made a lovely variation of the three bean salad. (Hers gets top billing because she has wicked awesome photo skills)

In the end I have 8 pints of delicious Three Bean Salad. I will admit it is not as good as Grandma’s, but without the smell of cows wafting over from the barn it’s hard to make an accurate comparison. It is good enough to satisfy my craving and pretty enough to give as gifts. So pull out those beans (in whatever combination you have on hand) and mix up a batch of “(Almost) Grandma’s Three Bean Salad”. Next step to completing my sensory memory- fried chicken and Texas Sheet Cake! Happy Cooking.

Three Bean Salad

Almost Grandma’s Three Bean Salad

Prep Time:

Cook Time:

Almost Grandma’s Three Bean Salad


  • 9 cups of fresh string beans cleaned and trimmed to 1" pieces (combo of yellow /wax and green is ideal but all of one works well)
  • 1 lb of canned beans drained and rinsed (any combination of lima, kidney, or garbanzo)
  • 2 cups sliced celery (3/4 inch)
  • 1 2/3 cups sliced red onion (1/4 inch)
  • 1 cup diced red bell pepper
  • Boiling water
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 T. mustard seeds
  • 1 t. celery seeds
  • 3 large cloves of garlic finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp (or more by taste) of crushed red pepper
  • 4 t. kosher, pickling or canning salt
  • 3 cups white vinegar
  • 1 1/4 cups water


  1. Combine the fresh beans and vegetables into a large saucepan.
  2. Cover with water and bring to a boil.
  3. Boil gently for 5 minutes to heat the vegetables through.
  4. Add the canned beans the last minute of cooking.
  5. Drain the hot vegetables and pack into jars leaving 1/2 inch headroom.
  6. In a separate saucepan combine the brine ingredients (sugar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, garlic, crushed red pepper, salt, vinegar, and water) and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  7. Reduce the heat and boil gently for 5 minutes.
  8. Ladle the hot brine into the jars.
  9. Bubble, wipe the jars, place the lids and rings, and put into water-bath canner
  10. Process for 15 minutes.


  1. JoAnn Williams

    Glad you enjoyed reading Lisa. This is actually a water-bath recipe. The high vinegar content puts the recipe in the category of pickle and is therefore safe to water bath. You can actually use any pot large enough to hold your jars covered with one inch of water. So maybe you can try it sooner rather than later!

  2. Mmm, that sounds delicious. I’ve only attempted one small batch of bean salad before and it was good. I love that you included all the rules and reasons for all the canning stuff. I’ll have to hunt down my pressure canner. My grandmother-in-law says she brought one to me, but apparently my husband lost it in the garage somewhere and I’ve never laid eyes on it.

Leave a Reply