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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.