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How Do I Choose the Best White Beans?

G. D. Palmer
G. D. Palmer

Several different kinds of common bean can be referred to as white beans, including navy beans, great northern beans, and cannellini beans. The best specimens of all varieties have smooth, cream-colored skin when fresh or dry, with no wrinkles, dark spots, or holes, and are light tan when cooked. The skin should be thin and delicate, while the bean inside should be relatively starchy with a light nutty flavor. These beans work best in stews, soups, and salads, accompanied by fresh herbs, meat, or dairy ingredients.

Navy, great northern, and cannellini beans are all slightly different in size and shape, but share their pale color and slightly nutty flavor. You can usually substitute one variety for another in recipes, though cannellini beans are somewhat larger than the other types and are used in traditional Italian recipes, while navy beans are almost as small as peas and are traditional in baked beans. Great northern beans are medium in size and texture, making them very versatile in cooking.

White navy beans.
White navy beans.

These beans can be purchased fresh, dried, or canned, with fresh beans producing the best results, dried beans costing the least, and canned beans providing the greatest convenience. If you buy fresh or dried white beans, look for specimens with an off-white to cream skin without holes, cracks, or wrinkles. Avoid discolored beans, which may be spoiled, as well as beans with a very tough seed-coat, as they may be difficult to cook. When buying canned beans, make sure that the can is intact without rust or dents.

Great Northern beans, a type of white bean.
Great Northern beans, a type of white bean.

All white beans can be cooked by boiling or simmering them in water, with canned beans cooking the fastest, followed by fresh and dry types. The bean is fully cooked when the skin becomes a pale cream to tan and is slightly transparent, covering a soft, starchy interior. The beans are undercooked if they remain crunchy or resist the bite, and are overcooked if they begin to lose their shape or disintegrate.

Cannellini beans.
Cannellini beans.

These beans work best in dishes that spotlight their tenderness and delicate taste, including salads, stewed dishes, and soups. Traditionally, white beans are often combined with sweet tastes such as brown sugar or maple syrup, meats such as pork or bacon, and fresh herbs like sage, bay, and rosemary. They also go well with butter or cream in some soups, and with alliums like onions and garlic. White beans work best in European and North American cuisines, but make a poor choice for chilis, refried beans, and similar dishes.

Discussion Comments


My question is how to select and purchase white beans which are less than one year old? I ask this question because my beans are never, ever soft. I have soaked white beans from one hour to 50 hours and cooking them over 36 hours in a pot of water, but they're always hard. So, now I am thinking the beans from the market are old when purchasing. So, how do I know if a bean is old?


My favorite white beans are the great northern. I like them because they taste good, they can be used in different types of recipes, they're not expensive and I can find them everywhere.

I'm sure there are white beans that taste even better, but I don't like spending a lot of money for beans. And I want to be able to find them at the closest grocery when I decide to make beans at the last minute. Unfortunately, some white beans are expensive or difficult to find.

Great northern beans are sold fairly quickly too, so I know that the bag of great northern beans I pick up will be fresh and easy to cook.


@fify-- Both navy beans and butter beans will work well for salads. Just make sure to soak them overnight and boil them fully, or buy pre-boiled canned beans.

Butter beans are my favorite because they don't fall apart even after boiling them for a long time. They remain intact. This is the best type of bean for salads and casserole because you want the beans to have a nice whole appearance and not become mushy.


Which type of white bean is best for fresh salads?

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    • White navy beans.
      By: BronxPhotog
      White navy beans.
    • Great Northern beans, a type of white bean.
      By: tfazevedo
      Great Northern beans, a type of white bean.
    • Cannellini beans.
      By: Bert Folsom
      Cannellini beans.
    • Assorted beans, including hyacinth or lablab beans on the top left and cannellini beans on the center right.
      By: tfazevedo
      Assorted beans, including hyacinth or lablab beans on the top left and cannellini beans on the center right.
    • White beans go well with onions and garlic.
      By: EM Art
      White beans go well with onions and garlic.