Photo: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Tina Bell Stamos; Prop Styling: Christine Keely

No dish celebrates the bounty of the late-summer garden better than succotash. When done right, this colorful mix of corn, beans (typically lima beans or field peas), and other seasonal vegetables is more than just a side—it can upstage the rest of the potluck spread. But sadly, we've all encountered plenty of anemic steam table versions of the recipe at restaurants where the ingredients have, well, suffered.

While succotash is inherently flexible—it's a resourceful way to use up a surplus of corn or show off a precious handful of field peas—certain types of produce work better than others. Zucchini and yellow squash can water down the contents, so we omitted them from our recipe, along with bell peppers, which have a stronger flavor that can overwhelm the other ingredients.

One general rule of thumb to remember for succotash: Don't bother with canned vegetables. In-season produce has a much better texture and more vibrant flavor. We found that it doesn't really matter whether you throw in fresh or frozen beans—either choice will taste great. On the other hand, for the sweetest corn, make sure it's fresh. Bacon is a key ingredient in many Southern variations of this side item. We prefer center-cut slices because they are meatier than regular cut and also render just the right amount of bacon fat, which is used to sauté the vegetables.

WATCH: Southern Succotash with Rice

Many succotash recipes call for a splash of heavy cream; it forms a thin sauce that helps tie the dish together but can muddy the bright colors of the ingredients. Our Best-Ever Succotash replaces the cream with butter, which adds richness while still keeping the vegetables vibrant and glossy.

The last rule of this Southern classic is that it shouldn't sit around. It's best served immediately, while the crumbled bits of bacon on top are crisp and the thinly sliced basil is fragrant. Fortunately, it's pretty hard to resist.

Cook it Right

Corn
Fresh is a lot more flavorful than frozen. Don't overcook the kernels; you want them to retain a little crunch.

Tomatoes
Cherry tomatoes add a burst of sweetness and acidity. Stir them in at the very end so they hold their shape and juiciness.

Lima Beans
Fresh or frozen baby lima beans are both fine for this dish. If using frozen, do not thaw them before adding to the pan.

Make it Meatless

While pork is a traditional ingredient in many Southern variations of succotash, it's certainly not essential to this side. For a vegetarian option, follow the recipe but omit the bacon and replace the drippings with 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Still want a hint of spice? Sprinkle the finished dish with a little bit of smoked paprika.

Secret Succotash Ingredients

Okra
This in-season vegetable is a delicious addition to the dish. Choose smaller pods, and cook them until tender-crisp to prevent a slimy texture.

Butter
Unlike heavy cream, butter (we prefer the salted kind) delivers rich flavor without making this side item too heavy or turning the fresh produce dull and gray.

Basil
Many versions of this recipe call for soft herbs such as tarragon, chives, or parsley, but we prefer the more classic taste of fresh basil.