Everything to know about the amazing butter bean

cooked beans
© Melissa Breyer

From how to cook butter beans to recipes and health benefits, here's the lowdown on the tastiest legume in the pantry.

Something funny has been happening over the last year or two; butter beans have shown up on the menu of my two favorite restaurants in Brooklyn. The first time I saw them I thought, meh, I don't want to order beans when I'm eating out. The second time I saw them, curiosity grabbed us and we ordered them. After the first spoonful went into my mouth, my culinary life was changed.

What the h-e-double-l?? How did a bean taste so velvety and buttery and substantial and delicate all at the same time? How did a bean hold so much flavor? They tasted familiar but unlike anything in my repertory. What was going on here?

I have been cooking dried beans regularly ever since I stopped eating warm-blooded creatures at the age of 12, so I thought I knew everything there was to know. But the sorcery of the butter beans left me stumped, so I went on a mission to figure out their mysteries. Here's what I know now.

dried beans© Melissa Breyer

What are butter beans?

First of all, the "aha" moment: Butter beans are lima beans. For anyone in the southern United States or in the United Kingdom, this revelation will come as little surprise since that's what they are called there. I know, you are shaking your head and thinking, "these are just lima beans, lady." But for the rest of us, lima beans now have a much sexier moniker. I would pass over dried lima beans at the market because I have childhood memories of giant pasty mush-bombs; and had "lima" beans been on the restaurant menu, I would have similarly passed.

I am not sure if there was an official rebranding campaign at work here – like how Patagonian toothfish became Chilean sea bass, or how prunes became dried plums. But for anyone associating lima beans with unsavory childhood experiences, I love that the alternative name may represent a modern take on the staple, one in which texture and flavor are amplified, rather than transformed into an insipid bean-shaped paste.

Butter bean health benefits

Like most members of the legume family, butter beans offer a remarkable array of nutritive qualities. Check out the impressive numbers below, from the USDA Nutrition Database.

PER 100 GRAMS OF COOKED BUTTER BEANS (about 1.5 cup or 3.5 ounces) – the highlights:

Calories: 114
Protein: 7.8 grams
Carbohydrates: 20.77 grams
Fiber, total dietary: 7 grams
Calcium: 17 milligrams (Percent Daily Value (DV): 2%)
Folate: 83 micrograms (DV: 21%)
Iron: 2.38 milligrams (DV: 2%)
Magnesium: 43 milligrams (DV: 12%)
Manganese: 0.516 milligrams (DV: 25%)
Phosphorus: 110 milligrams (DV: 16%)
Potassium: 505 milligrams (DV: 11%)
Riboflavin: 0.055 milligrams (DV: 5%)
Thiamin: 0.16 milligrams (DV: 14%)
Vitamin B-6: 0.16 milligrams (DV: 12%)
Zinc: 95 milligrams (DV: 10%)

How to cook butter beans?

soaked beans© Butter beans after an overnight soak. (Photo: Melissa Breyer)
Since one of the great beauties of butter beans is their texture, they do take a little care in the cooking realm. Not that much, but if allowed to overcook, they are not as forgiving as sturdier beans. Follow package directions, which will generally sound something like this:

CLEAN: Sort dried beans, remove foreign objects, and rinse.

SOAK: Soak by your preferred method (see more here). Soaking overnight may be easiest, but I like the shortened cooking time and tender results of a hot soak, which falls in between an overnight soak and a quick soak.

HOT SOAK: Put beans in a large pot with 10 cups of water per every 2 cups of beans. Bring to a boil and boil for three minutes; remove from heat, cover, and let stand at least four hours (if over eight hours, put them in the fridge). Rinse them well.

COOK: After soaked beans have been rinsed, add fresh water about two inches to cover. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to just a simmer. If you boil them too rapidly, they will split and fall apart. Stir them regularly and gently, add more water if necessary. Cooking time may take anywhere from an hour to three, depending on the age and brand of bean you are using. You want them to be soft and velvety, but not falling apart.

SEASONING: After doing a lot of research and a lot of home testing, I defy the "don't add salt to beans until they are done" maxim, and have never looked back. I add a little salt to the soak, and I add salt to the cooking water. If you wait until after beans are finished cooking to add flavor, you get unflavored beans surrounded by flavor, rather than flavor all the way through. I also add a smashed clove of garlic or two at the beginning of the cooking. You can add all kinds of other flavors – a hot pepper, bay leaves, peppercorns, herbs, onions, etc – but I find that salt and garlic are perfect for bringing out the best of the bean without overpowering it. (As for adding baking soda, some people swear by it, I notice no difference if I do or don't, so I don't.)

WHEN DONE: Actually, toward the end of cooking I usually add a handful of whatever fresh herbs I have in the fridge for the last bit of simmering; when done I taste for salt and add more if necessary, olive oil, and a lot of lemon, which tastes really good with this bean.

What to do with cooked butter beans

One of the unique pleasures of butter beans is their size. They are huge. Because of this, they make a particularly good stand-in for people looking to eat less meat. They are also the showstoppers of beans, in my opinion – so they can really star in a meal. Here are some ideas:

SOUP: A bean-soup type of soup, obviously. But you can also play around, for example, use them in place of chicken for a no-chicken chicken noodle soup. The easiest soup I have made is thick and simple, and goes like this: Once the beans are done, remove about a cup of beans and broth and the smashed garlic; puree them in a blender with olive oil or butter until smooth; stir back in; voila.

BRAISED AND BROTHY: Here is the recipe for Marlow & Sons' butter beans, one of the delicious dishes near me. A masterpiece.

STUFFED IN TACOS: Small loose beans often spill out of tacos; these big boys stay in place.

SMASHED FOR DIPPING: Think butter bean hummus.

SMUSHED IN SANDWICHES: Perfect stand in for cheese and/or meat in a plant-based sandwich.

ROOM TEMPERATURE AND DRESSED: The photo on top is beans dressed in olive oil with cilantro and mint, pomegranate seeds, slivers of habanero, and sea salt. It was sublime.

TOSSED IN SALAD: Instant texture and protein.

SWAPPED FOR PASTA: They are so substantial that they can be used in place of pasta; try pesto, marinara sauce, or for vegetarians, tossed in butter, parmigiano, and black pepper for a unique cacio y pepe.

And that's where I'm at with by butter bean journey. Do you have favorite uses, tips, or recipes? I am all ears, leave comments below.

Everything to know about the amazing butter bean
From how to cook butter beans to recipes and health benefits, here's the lowdown on the tastiest legume in the pantry.

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