Bean bewildered too long…

June 30, 2009

legumes and cerealsCulinary confession #76843.

I am deeply confused about beans. Dried ones, that is – I think I have a handle on the fresh green/flat/snake/broad variety. And I’m all over the lentil and the chick pea (kinda).

But for the life of me, I cannot fathom the difference between a great Northern bean and a haricot and a cannellini and a ‘white bean’ when I’m in the wretched grocer.

I have decided to get into dried bean cookery, when I have time, rather than going the canned route every time, especially when things need a longer cooking times and I don’t want them to fall apart.

But of course my search for haricots at the veg shop yielded only great Northerns, or ‘white beans’. Are these just differently named versions of the same thing? They sure look similar.

While we’re on the subject, a little while ago a friend asked me the difference between a fava bean and a (dried) broad bean, and I had no clue.

Are there actually really four million different kinds of beans, or are they just called different names in every region of every state of every country? Because when I see, on this helpful-looking site that:

“fava bean = broad bean = butter bean = Windsor bean = horse bean = English bean = fool = foul = ful = feve = faba = haba = haba”

I simply despair of ever getting to know my navy from my haricot from my cannellini, let alone my eye-of-goat bean from my black-eyed pea!

Is there some simple resource to turn to here? Do you have rules about when to use one bean in preference to another? Or an easy rule of thumb for substitution? Are beans that look very similar likely to be of similar density and cooking times and methods?

Or should I just give the whole beany game away and go back to the tinned ones – at least there are only five or six kinds of those!

Awaiting your expertise….

PS: If you stick with canned beans, you could do a lot worse than pop over to stonesoup for these excellent recipes – scroll to the end for extras. Stonesoup has it going on with beans in a can.


  1. That just sounds exhausting. I’ve steered clear in the past, I must admit, although I love beans and often crave the home-baked beans I had in India. Oh my god, they were good. But when I look at dried beans, my shoulders sag and I just can’t get excited. Hope others have all the answers you seek!

  2. Charlotte, I reckon you’re thinking WAY too much about this. They’re basically all kind of similar (ie a bit bland on their own but brilliant carriers of other flavours, very sustaining and ultimately delicious) so substituting one over another is rarely going to be a deal breaker – unless the authenticity police are doing their rounds. Just start cooking them from recipes and see where it takes you. And (broken record warning, sorry) get a pressure cooker! Oh, and the real beauty of cooking your own beans (apart from economy and ease of carrying home from shop and eliminating need to recycle cans) is you can use the cooking water (NOT the soaking water) in the final dish – and you really can’t do that with the icky tinny stuff from cans.

  3. Ah, OK, thankyou!! I hereby embrace freedom to ignore bean plethora! I am instigating a new regime, as of today – returned to writing novel (blechh) this morning and did a solid 1400 words. New rule is if I write well in the morning I get to cook in the arvo. So am off to make proper cassoulet for friend with brand spanker new baby boy. With PROPER beans.

  4. 1400 is a lot of beans, well done Ms Charlotte.

  5. (I’m sold on Stephanie’s pitch now myself… must experiment.)

    Well done, Charlotte, that’s a great return to bean-counting/stalk growing – and needless to say I love your reward system!

  6. My French mum has having a terrible time trying to find Lima beans in London… while I pine here for flageolets, the lovely pale green beans that are SOooooo delicious with roast lamb. You can get them sometimes at the Essential Ingredient, but nowhere else that I know of. Mum cooks them traditionally with French beans ( isn’t that confusing?!) and lots of finely chopped garlic and fresh parlsey. I like to drizzle mint sauce on them even though the sauce should really be going on the meat. No other bean tastes as good, I reckon. In France, they are available tinned in any supermarket, but they have not made the grade here… along with the other French thing I really miss: corn salad, otherwise known as mache ( with an accent on the A like a small hat) Sweet small leaves, much less harsh and chewy than all those curly or peppery things…

    • I think I’ve had those pale green flageolets here Caroline. John Newton gave me some that he’d bought at a Spanish deli in Liverpool St I think. Very jolly good they were too. Dried though, not canned.

  7. Now someone has just told me of these canned flageolets – you can get them in Melbourne apparently, in selected Coles supermarkets. I have promised the teller that they are available in Sydney – eek!

  8. […] lamb, mint and pea pie Becoming broad-minded… July 9, 2009 Having got my dried bean anxieties off my chest, I am happy to report that I am now running my fingers through those slippery little beauties at […]

  9. I was looking for haricot beans so I can cook a cassoulet, I have ended up with dried ‘white’ kidney beans, which are soaking as we ‘speak’, hope these will be OK. At least I now know that haricot beans are called by a few other names which will now be easier to find.

    • Good luck Lynda, am sure they’ll be just perfect. Since I wrote that post I’ve been going nuts with the dried beans as I barely care which are in what now – have got some soaked & cooked borlottis in a veg soup as we speak. Enjoy your cassoulet.

  10. […] result will be much better. I used whatever white dried beans were in the pantry (since I solved my bean dilemmas of yore I have given up caring what the difference may be between navy, cannellini, haricot & so […]

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