Are mesquite beans the next gluten-free superfood?

Mesquite is mostly thought of as a shrubby, weedy tree that dots landscapes throughout the drier regions of the state, needing very little water or care to thrive. While some have come to value the wood for the flavor it imparts when firing up the smoker, that’s about the extent of the mesquite’s association with food. But that might be starting to change, as a comeback of sorts is beginning to grow.

In the same plant family as peas, mesquite pods were actually once a staple food of many indigenous peoples for thousands of years, across what would become the southwestern United States, the drier parts of Mexico and South America. In fact, Arizona’s Pima tribe call the mesquite the “tree of life” for its various uses. In addition to being used as a food source for people and wildlife, the velvet mesquite was also used in basket making, as medicine, and as a source of shade during the extreme heat common in the area.

All mesquites varieties (which share the same genus, Prosopis, produce edible pods late summer into fall. And when compared to most every grain, they are extremely easy to harvest and store. If that’s not impressive enough, the mesquite beans you’ve likely seen hanging from the tree’s thorny branches are not only tasty (when prepared the right way), they are a bit of a nutritional powerhouse when turned into flour.

Mesquite pods grow on a mesquite tree in Mesquite, Texas. The pods are ready to harvest when they are hard and golden.
Mesquite pods grow on a mesquite tree in Mesquite, Texas. The pods are ready to harvest when they are hard and golden.(Daniel Cunningham / Special Contributor)

Mesquite pods also make an appealing alternative for those who are trying to avoid eating grains or refined sugars. They are not only very high in protein (when compared to grains), they are gluten-free, low fat and rich in fiber. High in fructose, the diabetic-friendly sugar that can work to help maintain blood sugar while sweetening up a dish, they are also packed full of minerals and are high in calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, making for a nourishing ingredient that is starting to pique the interests of adventurous eaters.

Our Texas native honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) is arguably the best-tasting of the bunch. Living up to its common name, it is pleasantly sweet, offering hints of caramel, molasses, cinnamon, citrus and reportedly even conjuring up flavors that remind some of chocolate and coffee. The flavors can vary from tree to tree, so take a nibble before you begin to harvest.

Most often made into a meal or a flour, the sweetest part of the pods is the pith surrounding the hard seeds, but the entire pod is edible ― with a little work, that is.

Like American diet staples wheat and corn, mesquite does have one easily avoidable contaminant. During extremely wet weather, aflatoxin-producing fungi can inoculate pods, and that’s something we really want to avoid. By harvesting pods off the tree (and never off the ground) and by only harvesting during periods of dry weather, you can enjoy a safe and healthy meal.

The pod and the seed of the mesquite beans are edible and can be ground together.
The pod and the seed of the mesquite beans are edible and can be ground together.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)

How to make mesquite bean flour

Harvesting: Only harvest ripe pods that are beige (or have started fading from green to beige) on the tree. I have found the pods mottled with pink or purple seem to be the most flavorful. Taste for yourself. If you sample ripe pods from one tree that are bitter, move on to another tree. Flavors can vary quite a bit from tree to tree. Important: Do not harvest pods that have fallen on ground. 1 pound of beans will yield 1/2-to 3/4 pounds of flour.

Drying the beans: Place the beans evenly on a baking pan with a cooling rack and set in the sun to dry (2-3 days). You can also use a food dehydrator or vented oven set on the lowest setting until the beans are dry. The key is to dry the beans completely.

Be sure to discard any discolored beans with black moldy- or sooty-looking blemishes, beans that are still green, or any beans that otherwise look unappetizing. Some small holes are OK.

“Milling” the flour: A hammer mill or grain mill that is specifically designed to turn grains into flour is the best option. However, these are often very expensive and can easily exceed $1,000.

Another great option is a Vitamix or another high-powered blender. It takes a bit longer, but you can still get great results.

Sift ground mesquite pods with a strainer to get a fine flour.
Sift ground mesquite pods with a strainer to get a fine flour.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)

Here are instructions:

Break pods into 2- to 3-inch pieces.

Fill blender one-third to halfway full.

Pulse on low to medium speed until about half of the contents are a mealy consistency.

Rest any time the contents get warm (and sticky).

Sift the meal through a mesh strainer or colander.

Add larger pieces back into blender for the next batch and repeat.

This mesquite meal can be used, but for added utility I prefer sifting again through a tea strainer or finer mesh for a finer flour.

Wondering how to use it? To get started, mix with other flours for pancakes, muffins, cakes, cornbread or cookies: 1/4 cup mesquite flour + 3/4 cup wheat flour.

For savory dishes, use as breading for meat, fish or cheese. Straight mesquite flour can also be incorporated into your favorite gluten-free recipe.

Others prefer adding a scoop to give a protein boost to shakes and smoothies. Or you could even branch out and try mesquite molasses. The possibilities are endless.

Daniel Cunningham is a horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension in Dallas.

Mesquite pods
Mesquite pods(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)