Spilling the beans: a guide to the ultimate legume

by Esme Curtis13 January 2023

We should all be eating more beans. Delicious, good for us and good for the planet, beans are a great ingredient to learn more about. Read on to find out more about how to identify and cook different sorts of beans.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Smooth and shiny like tiny pebbles and marbled with streaks of white and pink, dried beans are surprisingly attractive for something with such a dowdy reputation. And, while it’s common knowledge that beans are good for us - high in iron, fibre and protein - they are also good for the soil. Fixing nitrogen as they grow, and an excellent form of green manure, beans are a great eco-friendly alternative to more resource-intensive forms of protein. But, despite being healthful, colourful and eco-friendly, beans have never quite attracted the frenzied following of nutritionally comparable foods. While ingredients like chia or quinoa have been rebranded as ‘superfoods’, powdered and blended into supplements and bars, beans have remained stubbornly uncool.

That being said, over the past few years the British bean frenzy has begun to grow. Although we are still far behind the US in bean-enthusiasm (American heirloom bean supplier Rancho Gordo sells over 225,000 kg of legumes per year, and has a 40,000 person waiting list for rare varieties), pulses can now be found in pretty much every aisle of the supermarket. From soybean pasta to puffed chickpea crisps and pea milk, legumes have been on the rise for several years. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has even launched a campaign called ‘Beans is How’, which aims - boldly - to ‘fix the future by doubling global bean consumption by 2028’.

However, it was March 2020 that truly put beans back on the map in the UK. Although, as a nation, we love baked beans (buying 2.5 million cans of Heinz Beanz every day) and hummus (we eat over 12,000 tonnes a year) we tend not to cook them from scratch. That changed during lockdown, when Brits went in search of shelf-stable foods. Suddenly, shoppers bought dried and canned beans like never before. And, as pandemic cooking has slowly evolved into cost-of-living-crisis cooking, it looks like beans are here to stay.

What are beans?
Bean
Bean

True beans are considered to be plants within the Fabaceae family. However, the word ‘bean’ is also used for pretty much anything that is vaguely bean shaped e.g. vanilla beans, cacao beans and tonka beans. The Fabaceae family includes pulses like broad beans, runner beans and chickpeas. It also includes some not very bean-like ingredients like clover and peanuts.

Rather confusingly, just because beans are members of the same species doesn’t mean they look particularly alike. Kidney beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans and many others are actually all varieties of the same species called Phaseolus vulgaris, also known as the common bean. On the other hand, the visually similar butter beans, haricot beans and gigantes beans are all from different species.

Read on to learn more about every kind of bean you can think of, plus some you might not have heard of yet.

Bean Variety Guide

Adzuki beans

Adzuki beans, also simply called red beans, are a small, red bean popular in East and Southeast Asian cuisine. The name comes from the Japanese word for the bean, azuki. They are also sometimes referred to as red cowpeas, but adzuki beans and cowpeas are actually two different species of pulse.

Adzuki beans can be black and brown (the brown form is often sold as brown chori in the UK), but the red form is the most commonly available variety. They are often mashed or simmered with sugar and used in sweet desserts like Korean patbingsu (shaved ice topped with sweetened red beans), Chinese hong dou tang (sweet red bean soup) and Japanese dorayaki (two small rounds of cake sandwiched together with sweet red bean paste).

Black-eyed peas

Black-eyed peas, also called black-eyed beans or lobia, are a type of cowpea that is particularly popular in West Africa and the Caribbean. They are used to make moin-moin or olele, as well as akara (black-eyed pea fritters). Honey beans or oloyin are a variety of black-eyed peas that are particularly good in moin-moin as they are naturally sweet. When split, the beans are known as peeled beans, and these are often used to make porridge or moin-moin.

Black gram

The key ingredient in dal makhani, this small, black relative of the mung bean is a key ingredient in Indian cooking. Black gram looks similar to black beluga lentils, but the two are not the same pulse. Black gram is also known as urad or urid dal in its white, split form, or urad bean in its whole black form. Urad dal is often ground to a flour to use in making dosas and idli.

Dal makhani
Dal makhani
Black turtle beans

Like kidney and cannellini beans, black turtle beans (known more commonly simply as black beans) are a type of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). They are also a key ingredient in South American cooking, used in everything from rich, Brazilian feijoada to comforting frijoles negros. Black turtle beans aren’t the same beans used to make Chinese black bean sauce or fermented black beans, however; those are both made from black soybeans.

Borlotti beans

Borlotti beans are also known as rosecoco beans, cranberry beans and crabeye beans. When fresh and raw they are white, speckled with a vibrant splash of pink. When cooked they turn a slightly duller brown colour. They are a type of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) and a staple of Italian cuisine. They are traditionally enjoyed in pasta e fagioli, trippa e fagioli and in salad with radicchio.

Borlotti beans in their colourful pods
Butter beans

Large, white and creamy, butter beans are a popular bean in the UK. They are very versatile, working well in salads, soups, mash and stews. Like kidney beans, they contain a toxin called PHA and shouldn’t be cooked in a slow cooker. In the USA, the bean is often eaten when it is bright green, young and tender. Generally, the immature, green beans are called lima beans, and the white, mature beans are known as butter beans.

Cannellini beans

Cannellini beans are in fact white kidney beans. As such they also contain the toxin PHA (although only about 1/3 of the amount found in red kidney beans) and should be soaked and boiled for 10 minutes before being added to a slow cooker. Cannellini beans are perfect for making into dips, serving in salads with tuna or braising slowly. They pair well with lemon and garlic.

Chickpeas

Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are delicious and highly versatile - well worth keeping in your cupboard. Although they are generally a pale yellow, chickpeas can also be a dramatic jet black (ceci neri). In Europe, the pale Kabuli chickpeas are the most popular type. However, in India, deep brown kala chana (also known as desi chickpeas) are widely available.

Hummus is probably the most popular way to eat chickpeas in the UK, but there are countless other ways to use this plump little pulse. You can roast chickpeas until they are crispy and use them to top salads and soups, or braise them until soft and creamy. Chickpeas are also hulled and split to make chana dal and ground into gram flour. In Italy, chickpea flour is used to make farinata or socca (a thin, savoury pancake) and in India it is used as the base for a variety of sweets, or mithai.

Chickpea
Chickpea
Fava beans

Fava beans are Britain’s original bean, and were a key food thousands of years ago during the Bronze Age. Although they have dropped out of favour in recent years, the UK still grows plenty of fava beans. However, we export most of them to countries where the pulse is more popular. Fava beans are particularly delicious in ful medames, a bean stew eaten in various forms for breakfast across the middle east. Fava beans and broad beans are actually two names for the same bean. However, the term ‘broad beans’ generally refers to the green, fresh form of the bean which has a tough skin on the outside, while ‘fava bean’ is used for both the fresh bean and the dried form.

Flageolet beans

Flageolet beans are in fact haricot beans that were picked while still young. They can be eaten fresh or dried, and pair particularly well with lamb. Flageolet beans can be white, green or red - the green colour coming from the fact that they were harvested while immature - but the dried, green beans will turn white once cooked. They are often used in cassoulet and soupe au pistou.

Gigantes beans

These Greek beans (also known rather confusingly as butter beans although they’re a different species) are most commonly seen in the dish gigantes plaki. This is a Greek dish of gigantes beans baked with tomatoes and sofrito. They are a large, white bean, bigger than butter beans, and come from the same plant as runner beans. Gigantes beans hold their shape well, and are great for dishes where you want the beans to stay whole rather than turn mushy.

Haricot beans

Like cannellini beans and red kidney beans, these small, white beans are a variety of common bean. Also known as navy beans, the haricot bean’s claim to fame is that it is the variety used by Heinz in their famous baked beans (which are actually simmered inside the tin, not baked). Haricot beans are perfect for homemade Boston-style baked beans as well as French cassoulet.

Lupins

Bright yellow lupins, also known as lupini beans, are a popular snack in the Mediterranean, Latin America and Middle East. They tend to be brined, like olives, and served as nibbles or street food. They are also increasingly available ground into flour, as a low-carb and high-protein alternative to wheat flour. However, the raw, dried beans are toxic and bitter prior to being properly prepared, so it’s much easier and safer to buy the beans pre-prepared and brined.

Moth beans

These pale brown beans are popular in South Asian cooking, and are roughly the same size and shape as mung beans and adzuki beans. When split they are known as matki dal. They are also often sprouted and used to make misal or misal pav, a Maharashtrian stew topped with onions, tomatoes, coriander, yogurt and crispy sev.

Vada pav
Vada pav
Pav bhaji
Pav bhaji
Mung beans

These tiny green beans are commonly eaten across Asia, in both sweet and savoury dishes. In South Asia they are often split (when they are called moong dal) and made into dal. The split form of this bean is bright yellow, and cooks up very quickly. In East and Southeast Asia the whole, green form of the bean is popular in desserts. In China they are often eaten as lu dou tang, a cooling and sweet mung bean soup, or lu dou gao, a mung bean cake. In Korea, split mung beans are ground into a flour which is used to make porridge and pancakes. Beansprouts are often made from sprouting mung beans, although they can also be made from sprouting soybeans.

Pinto beans

Pinto beans are a medium-sized brown bean, particularly popular in Mexico, Brazil and the USA. They are most famously used to make refried beans, but also work well in chilli and feijao tropeiro, a Brazilian dish of pinto beans, sausages and cassava flour.

Red kidney beans

Red kidney beans, like adzuki beans, are also known simply as ‘red beans’. Red kidney beans - like haricot beans, borlotti beans and cannellini beans - are a variety of the common bean or Phaseolus vulgaris, and are delicious in chilli con carne, red beans and rice and bean burgers.

It’s very important to never cook dried red kidney beans in a slow cooker, or to eat them undercooked. They contain particularly high amounts of phytohemagglutinin, a toxin also known as PHA or kidney bean lectin found in several types of beans. PHA is only destroyed if the beans are cooked at 100°C, and the low temperatures of a slow cooker can actually concentrate the toxin in food. To prepare them safely, soak kidney beans in water for at least five hours, then discard the cooking water. Boil the soaked kidney beans in fresh water for at least thirty minutes.

Soybeans

Soybeans are incredible, and have been used in just about every way you can imagine. Fermented into tofu, tempeh, black bean sauce, miso, soy sauce, dou fu ru and more, soybeans are a core component of East and Southeast Asian cuisine. They are also enjoyed green and fresh from their pod, when they are typically referred to as edamame. However, unlike other beans on this list, they are rarely cooked from their dried form and eaten whole. Black bean sauce and fermented black beans are both made from black soybeans, which are also used to make black soybean milk.

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