What are Great Northern Beans?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Great northern beans are a type of white bean that is very popular throughout North America. They typically have a delicate flavor and are somewhat small in size, making them ideal additions to soups, stews, and casseroles. A number of cooks will also prepare them on their own as a savory side dish. Though great northerns are their own independent type of legume, they share many characteristics with other white beans, like cannellini and navy beans, and can often be used interchangeably.

Dry Great Northern beans.
Dry Great Northern beans.

Basic Characteristics

Like most white beans, great northerns belong to the family Phaseolus vulgaris. They are distinguished primarily by their small size and uniform cream color, though the leaves and stalks of the plant also give some clues. Great northern beans are typically tall and spindly, with round flat leaves. They grow quite well in colder temperatures, and can withstand fluctuations in weather and warmth better than most other varieties.

Cannellini beans, which can be substituted for Great Northern beans.
Cannellini beans, which can be substituted for Great Northern beans.

When it comes to taste, the beans are usually quite mild whether raw or cooked. They typically have a smooth texture that “melts” when it hits the mouth. Many cooks find that the somewhat neutral flavor of the beans can serve as a good accompaniment to a range of other dishes that are both savory and sweet.

Some cooks choose to add beans to cornbread recipes.
Some cooks choose to add beans to cornbread recipes.

Common Uses

Great northern beans are perhaps most popular in soups and stews, as they tend to keep their form even after prolonged boiling. They also add a lot of bulk without altering the taste of the broth and can emphasize and accentuate the flavors of other more savory ingredients. Many cooks will add these beans to recipes as a way of “stretching” the dish, or making it go farther to feed more people. Soups with vegetables, rice, and meats like stewed beef or sausage can all benefit from the addition of this sort of white bean.

Like great northern beans, rattlesnake beans are popular in stews.
Like great northern beans, rattlesnake beans are popular in stews.

Cooks may also put them in casseroles, particularly those with poultry and vegetables. The beans often serve to bind other ingredients together, which can create a more pleasing and easily servable dish. They often prevent casseroles from getting too soupy, since they tend to absorb a lot of moisture.

Of course, it is also possible to serve great northern beans all on their own, often topped with butter or spices as a side dish. Cooks may also add them to homemade bread recipes, particularly cornbread; this gives the bread a mildly sweet flavor while adding a lot of moisture and density. The beans can also be whipped or blended to make a savory dip for crackers or toasted bread.

Where and How to Buy

Great northern beans are most commonly available in supermarkets and from farmers in the United States and Canada, mostly because this is where the beans grow naturally and are cultivated. It is generally acknowledged that the “great north” where the beans take their name is the upper-Midwestern United States, including states like North Dakota and Minnesota, and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. These regions remain the primary growing areas, though the beans are distributed commercially throughout both countries and can be found relatively easily.

Consumers can usually find the beans for sale in one of three ways. Fresh ones are usually held out as being the “best,” but their availability is often limited to farms and seasonal farmer’s markets. Most commercial shops sell the beans either canned or dried, and there are advantages and disadvantages to either option. Dried beans often have the closest flavor to their fresh counterparts, but must be reconstituted — a process that often involves hours of soaking and slow boiling. Canned beans are certainly more convenient, but may come preserved in chemical solutions or have extra salt added to them to help preserve their color and flavor. These additives aren’t usually harmful, but can take something away when it comes to flavor and nutrition.

Nutritional Profile

Great northern beans are typically regarded as quite nutritious. They are high in protein and dietary fiber, and are excellent sources of iron, magnesium, and folate, all of which are essential minerals. They are also very low in calories and contain very few natural sugars. The beans are a favorite among vegetarians, as they are often an easy way to replace some of the nutrients that might otherwise be lost when meat is omitted from the diet.


Cooks who cannot find great northern beans can usually substitute nearly any other white bean quite effectively. Cannellini beans are a good choice, as are navy beans. Even small lima beans will work in a pinch. The main goal is to find a bean that is similar in color, texture, and taste, and when it comes to the white bean family, there are many options. Availability often depends on season and geographic region, but there is almost always something in most marketplaces that will work.

Great northern beans can be a good addition to beef stew.
Great northern beans can be a good addition to beef stew.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


How long will a bean last?

I have some in a container that are 21 years old. Are they safe to eat?


What exactly are Great Northern Beans? Are they just a common bean known by a different name perhaps? --Vance


Cornbread is always a good companion for beans: great northern, white, navy, pinto... I admit I'm odd, though. I like them with ketchup. Yeah, I know. I'll eat them without it, but the ketchup adds a nice tang.


My favorite method for cooking beans is in a slow cooker. The beans get soft and creamy and make a good bit of flavorful broth, which is similar to a gravy. We put them in bowls and serve with cornbread.


Beans are easiest to master by using a pressure cooker.

Indeed, practically everything is better when made in a pressure cooker. Green beans, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, all from about six to 15 minutes of pressurized cooking. All nutrients are kept intact in the vegetables, not dissipated in the pan of boiling water you're usually cooking, or steaming, your veggies in.

Don't even get me started on baby-back ribs, beef ribs, corned-beef, pot roast, chicken, pork chops, all from about 30 minutes to an hour. I mean, really, have you ever heard of the tenderest pot roast you've ever tasted being ready in an hour?

Everything comes out with that 'falling-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth' texture and taste we're all dying for, but can't quite seem to achieve using regular pots and pans for braising, roasting, blah blah blah.

When it comes to beans, here's the method. I'm using one package (16-oz/1-lb) of beans from the supermarket – roughly two cups of raw beans.

Soak your beans overnight as usual. Drain the water, rinse the beans, put them in the pressure cooker.

Cover with water to two inches above the beans. Add a tablespoon of oil. This keeps the beans from foaming too much.

Lock the lid in place and turn the heat to high. When the pressure cooker starts steaming, (or the rocker starts rocking), is when you start your countdown. I pressure-cook my beans for 12 minutes, and let the pressure release naturally, (i.e., don't run the pot under cold water and don't use the steam-release valve). Voila! you're done. Perfect beans.

Now then, if you want gasless beans, *do* use the quick-release method of stopping the cooking as mentioned above.

Then, place the pressure cooker in the sink, (if it's not already there), open the lid, and add 1/2 cup of baking soda. That's what I use for every two cups of raw beans.

The action of the baking soda will astound you. Give the beans a stir with a wooden or plastic spoon while you watch the liquid foam up and spill over the sides of your pot. It's crazy!

But all that foam is all the gas being released that we release if we eat beans that haven't had this treatment. All the gas in the beans goes down the drain instead of being passed out of us! Never again will you suffer from terrible gas after eating beans if you use this method.

Once the baking soda action is done, (it takes just a minute or so), pour the beans into a colander or strainer and rinse. Then, set aside.

Because I use this method, I always cook my beans first and set them aside to add to my soup after it's done cooking. Neither I, nor anyone else in my family, will stand for eating beans that are not “gasless” anymore.

So, make the beans. Set aside. Then add everything else to make your soup to the pressure cooker, and cook on high for anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Quick-release the pressure, open the lid, add the beans back in, lock the lid, bring up to high again, and pressure cook for about five more minutes. And you've got great-tasting, gasless bean soup.


Hard water will cause the beans not to soften when cooking. I never soak GN's. I wash them, pick out the junk (sticks, stones), boil like crazy with ham, celery, carrots and salt till they are done. Great every time.


Also, if you added any salt or acidic ingredients before they were completely softened it will cause the beans to not soften any further. I have done this myself a couple times and almost gave up on soaking beans altogether concluding myself to be "bean" challenged forever.


The beans could have been old. It's best to check the "sell by" date if buying them specially but any beans that have been lurking at the back or the cupboard for more than a year may as well be thrown away as they will be difficult, if not impossible, to soften up with cooking.


Unless the beans are real old, you can cook them forever and they will not get soft.


Soak them overnight then cook for 2 hours on the stove. Boiling at first then simmer. They will be tender.


I have a recipe that calls for great northern beans. I followed the package directions to cook/soften them. I have now cooked them in the recipe in a slow cooker for 8-9 hours. The beans are on the hard side, not creamy or soft like most dried beans which become hydrated when cooked.

Is this the way great northerns are supposed to be, texture wise?

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