”Butter beans” are the common name for Phaseolus lunatus, a legume considered by many to be a vegetable. They are often compared to the more common lima bean, and the two share many similarities — but most horticulturists argue that they are not, in fact, the same, despite their similar biological traits. They are very common in the cooking traditions of the American South, and also feature in many Mediterranean dishes.
There are two varieties of butter beans that cooks may find familiar. Cooks may use regular cream-colored butter beans or speckled butter beans. There are some slight differences between these two varieties of butter beans.
Butter beans are typically white or cream-colored, and are flat and slightly curved in shape. They typically measure between 0.25 and 1 inch (approximately 0.6 to 2.5 cm) in length. Some varieties are speckled with brown or deep purple spots, though most of the time these color aberrations are limited to home-grown varieties — the vast majority of commercially-available beans are uniformly cream-colored.
There are two theories for how the beans earned their colloquial name. The first relates to their color; most are the shade of fresh cream butter. The taste may also be the origin, as the beans have a smooth, almost buttery taste after cooking.
Speckled Butter Beans
As mentioned above, some butter beans are speckled with brown spots. Speckled butter beans differ in color and flavor from regular butter beans. Speckled butter beans have a darker, reddish color and a nuttier flavor. Speckled butter beans look and taste different from regular butter beans, but the preparation process is similar for both types of beans.
Relationship to Lima Beans
Butter beans are genetically very similar to lima beans, and there is some dispute when it comes to whether or not they are actually a variety of lima bean. Most limas are slightly larger with a green tint, though they are known to come smaller; sometimes, they are even white.
Horticulturists typically agree that lima beans were originally cultivated in the mountainous regions of South America, while butter beans come from the warmer climates of Mexico. They are genetically similar, and can often be used interchangeably in recipes. Most legume aficionados dispute the claim that they are one and the same, however.
Avoid Eating Raw Butter Beans
Wherever the beans originate from, don't eat raw butter beans. Raw butter beans can pose a threat to anyone who consumes them. Raw butter beans and lima beans contain a compound called linamarin. This compound turns into cyanide when consumed. This is part of the plant’s defense system, and the amount depends on where the plants are grown. Whatever the linamarin content may be, it’s best to ensure that you don’t eat the beans in their raw state.
Culinary Uses and Popularity
Butter beans are very commonly used in the cuisine of the American South. They are often boiled and served alone as a side dish, usually seasoned with little more than salt and pepper and a bit of butter. They also feature heavily in casseroles and bean pie dishes. Some cooks will also add them to corn bread, soups, stews, and chilis.
How to Cook Butter Beans
There are many butter bean varieties to choose from, so it’s important to note the distinctions between cooking styles for each type of butter bean. As stated above, cooks can opt for a simple side dish or cooks can include the beans in casseroles, soups, or stews. However you intend to use butter beans, avoid butter bean mush when you prepare butter beans according to the type of bean you’ve got.
How to Cook Canned Butter Beans
Canned butter beans are the easiest type of butter bean to cook or quickly add to dishes. Canned beans are typically precooked, so you won’t need to endure an arduous process of soaking or boiling. Canned beans can be warmed in several ways, including on a stove top on medium heat or in a microwave, or simply tossed without warming into any dish you’re cooking. Don’t forget to rinse canned beans first before adding them to salads or soups.
How to Cook Frozen Butter Beans
When you cook frozen butter beans, you only need boiling water. The process to cook frozen butter beans is very simple. Add the frozen beans to the boiling water and simmer for about ten minutes. Once the beans have simmered and softened, they can then go into any soup or casserole you’re preparing, or used as a stand alone dish. Cooking canned or frozen butter beans differs slightly from cooking dried butter beans.
How to Cook Dried Butter Beans
If you’re opting to cook with dried butter beans, you’ll need to prepare the beans well in advance. There are two ways to cook dried butter beans. First, cooks can combine the beans, water, and salt into a pot and simmer for six to eight hours. This process takes more time than cooking from frozen or canned butter beans, but it works for those with only dried beans on hand.
Some cooks may choose to soak dried butter beans overnight before cooking them. After you soak the beans, give them a rinse and simmer them for about an hour. With either preparation method of dried butter beans, the cooking time will be substantially longer than with other types of butter beans. Whether you’re cooking with dried, canned, or frozen butter beans, they’re available year-round.
Availability and Growing Season
Fresh butter beans typically reach their harvest peak in the late summer months. Gardeners usually plant them just after the last frost of the year, as they are quite sensitive to cold soil. The plants must usually be staked, as most will climb; they will usually produce seed pods by early spring and will develop into fully grown beans by mid to late summer. The seed pods are often reserved for the next season’s growth, though seeds are available from many nurseries and commercial garden supply centers, as well.
The beans’ popularity has led many commercial food production companies to package them and sell them year-round. Canned varieties are the most popular, though sometimes dried or frozen versions can also be purchased. Most cooks prefer to work with fresh beans, but wide commercial availability has made it easy to make butter bean recipes year-round.
Butter beans are generally considered quite healthful. They are high in vitamin C, vitamin A, and thiamin; they are also a good source of protein and are very low in calories and fat. Of course, these positive nutritive benefits can be overshadowed by the method of preparation — slathering the beans in butter or thick sauces can make for some highly caloric dishes.
Carbs in Butter Beans
Butter beans may not be the best choice of side dish for the carb conscious. While butter beans are a good source of protein and high in several vitamins, they are also high in carbs. This may not bother some cooks, but if you’re searching for low-carb side dish options, butter beans may not be the best choice for you. Butter beans are high in complex carbohydrates, so keep that in mind when preparing your menu.
Are Butter Beans Healthy?
Overall, butter beans offer a variety of health benefits that you may not find in other side dishes or soup add-ins. When you consider whether butter beans are healthy or not, don’t forget that while they’re high-carb, butter beans are low-calorie and nutrient-rich. As mentioned above, you can prepare butter beans in a health-conscious way to maintain their nutritional integrity. While butter beans are popular in dishes in the deep south, the versatility and health benefits of butter beans make them a great addition to any recipe. Whatever your recipe may be, consider butter beans for an added healthy boost.