Beans are a staple for many home cooks – they are inexpensive, delicious, nutritious, and store for long periods of time. Let’s explore some of the most popular types of beans available and how to use them.
For generations, people have been boiling, frying, and baking beans across the world.
They are a highly versatile food source that packs a lot of nutrition and is fairly easy to grow and store. Nearly every culture has cultivated beans in some capacity, and regional recipes vary widely.
But with so many beans available and a limitless number of recipes to choose from, home cooks may need some extra guidance on the subject.
Let’s do a brief overview of beans and the best types to pick for your specific cooking needs!
What are Beans, Exactly?
Beans are a type of legume. They are seeds from the flowering plant family Fabaceae, a category that also includes peas, lentils, and even peanuts. They typically grow in pods with more than one bean inside.
Beans, technically classified as a legume, also happen to be a seed, which is actually considered a fruit but are eaten (and referred to) as vegetables.
Beans have been a cornerstone of agriculture since the earliest civilizations, with historical records showing the cultivation and preparation of beans in prehistoric society.
From the high fields of Afghanistan to the Himalayan Foothills and the forests of Thailand, humanity recognized the value of beans early on and made them a staple.
Ancient poets like Homer even mentioned beans, chickpeas, and other legumes in their famous works dating back to the 8th century BCE, proving them to be a prominent food item.
According to the Bean Institute, these simple little vegetables have been a symbol of high status and nobility at certain times throughout history, such as during phases of the Roman Empire.
In fact, the famous Roman scholar Cicero was named after the Latin word for chickpea!
In English, the word “bean” has been around since before the 12th century in a range of West Germanic languages, used for crops like chickpeas, broad beans, and the Old-World varieties. The term was extended to include New-World beans following contact with the Americas, which is referred to as the genus Phaseolus.
As farmers and traders became aware of the huge profit potential for new and unique types of beans, they looked for ways to create genetically distinct varieties and with different properties, flavors, and textures.
That’s why we have more than 40,000 bean types today! Although there are only a few hundred that are commercially available throughout the world. Still, that’s quite a selection.
Not all beans are meant to be cooked and consumed in the same way, of course.
Castor beans, vanilla beans, coffee beans, and cocoa beans are just a few examples of crops outside the Fabaceae family and have a multitude of different uses.
For our purposes, we’re sticking to the edible legumes that we know and love.
More than 80 million metric tons of beans are produced each year, and the global market is growing at a consistent rate of 4% annually.
Since most bean types require moderate rainfall and a warm climate to grow, countries like Myanmar, India, Brazil, and Mexico are among the world’s biggest producers.
Popular Bean Varieties
Now that you know a little bit more about the history of beans, let’s talk about the different types.
Here are the types of beans we think are most important for your home cooking knowledge:
Also called the black turtle bean, these small and shiny beans are one of the most popular ingredients in Latin American cuisine, as well as Cajun, Creole, and Indian cooking.
Traditional “rice and beans” dishes from Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil often include black beans, and vegetarians love them for their smooth, meaty texture, mild flavor, and nutritional density.
And, with a lower glycemic index compared to many other high-carb dishes, they help reduce a spike in blood sugar that often happens after eating an energy-rich meal.
The most widely produced bean in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern US, the pinto bean is known for its “speckled” appearance and versatile culinary capabilities.
Pintos are typically the bean chosen to make refried beans, which involves soaking, boiling, and mashing into a paste on a stovetop pan. Use this recipe to make your own or try something a little more unique, like these drunken beans with poblanos.
Named for their resemblance to the human kidney, these red beans are meaty, flavorful, and packed with nutrition. They are a favorite for many chili recipes and Creole rice dishes.
Just be very careful when cooking with dried kidney beans – they come with toxins on the outer skin which can be harmful when ingested. Thorough rinsing, soaking, and boiling is key.
Italy’s most famous bean, used in recipes like minestrone and pasta e Fagioli, these large white beans are actually a sub-variety of kidney beans and are often referred to as white Italian kidney beans.
The big body and dense interior of these beans make them hold up nicely in hot soups, bean salads, and even roasted vegetable platters.
Great Northern Beans
Need a bean that will mind its own business? Great Northern Beans absorb flavors very well, meaning they will never steal the spotlight.
They have a meaty texture that works perfectly in soups, stews, and casseroles, and will not overwhelm any dish. Plus, they are an ideal size, slightly smaller than cannellini.
Similar in size, shape, and texture to black turtle beans, the ruby-red outer layer is the distinguishing feature for these famous beans.
Caribbean cuisine uses red beans often to make flavor-packed dishes with fresh seafood and vegetables, and they also work well in chilis if you don’t want to deal with kidney beans.
Why do lima beans get such a bad rap? Could it be the green color? The slightly mealy texture? Who knows for sure. If you are one of the skeptics, give lima beans a chance!
We admit, regular old boiled lima beans are not fantastic, but they can be used in many ways. We are big supporters of the lima bean in recipes like this classic southern Brunswick Stew, which is perfect on a crisp winter night.
This white bean type is native to the Americas and got its name from doing many tours overseas for troops throughout the 20th century.
You may not know that most canned baked beans actually use navy beans! They’re just covered in so much brown sugar and spices that you can’t see the shiny white coat underneath.
Yes, peas are beans. This ingredient is a southern favorite known for the unique pattern on the exterior and hearty yet soft texture.
They come with an earthy flavor, perfect when dished up with saltier foods like ham and bacon. Thought to bring good luck in the coming year, you’ll often find black-eyed peas served on New Year’s Day in Southern states.
You may also know them by the name chickpeas, or any of the other dozens of names they have worldwide. The garbanzo is one of the oldest and most widely appreciated ingredient on the planet!
The perfect mix of buttery and starchy, you should always have a few cans in the pantry to add additional protein to salads, whip together creamy hummus, or serve as a healthy snack.
These tiny, tasty, healthy little legumes are super popular in Indian cuisine, and they can be found in a huge range of colors to make some very pretty dishes.
If you’ve never worked with lentils before, try out this easy lentil soup recipe and you’ll fall in love! From there, you can try different stews, salads, and sides that use this great little bean.
You may not see soybeans loaded into cans alongside black beans and pintos at the grocery store, but once boiled, we usually call them edamame (you may have tried them at your favorite sushi spot).
Soybeans can be enjoyed on their own or mixed into a bean salad, and we see them used all the time in products like vegan milk, tofu, tempeh, and more.
Also known as broad beans, this is one of the earliest crops cultivated on the planet! They have a mild flavor and are versatile in all types of stews, soups, and salads.
To prepare them fresh from the farmer’s market is a bit of a hassle, but the rewards are great if you properly peel fava beans before cooking.
Michelin tells home cooks to quickly blanch the beans in salted water before cooking as normal.
A favorite in East Asia where they were originally cultivated, mung beans have a unique shape and texture from western varieties.
While they can be used in savory dishes like any other type, we also see them used throughout Asia as a dessert ingredient, slightly sweetened and formed into a paste.
If you want to try out these distinctive beans at home, toss them in the wok as a part of this tasty marmalade stir fry recipe with tofu and cashews.
Lupini beans are a popular Mediterranean ingredient that doesn’t get nearly enough love in the west.
A health food powerhouse with a similar nutritional profile to soybeans. Be sure to prepare them properly to avoid bitter alkaloids or enjoy them pickled for an easy and delicious snack.
How to Store Dried Beans
It is said to cook and consume dried beans within a year of purchasing. I, personally, don’t follow these guidelines and hold on to them much longer than that. That said, you’ll want to store your dried beans properly for the longest shelf-life.
- Transfer beans to a food-storage container with a tight sealing lid. I love my OXO Good Grips Storage Containers. They’re a little pricy but worth it (tip– the super small size is pointless unless you use them for spices, instead buy a bunch of medium to large containers).
- Do a quick scan and remove any broken beans or small pebbles.
- Keep containers stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
How Much Does 1 Cup of Dried Beans Yield (Cooked)?
In general, 1 cup of dried beans will yield approximately 2-3 cups of cooked beans. Different types of beans will yield slightly different results.
There you have it, the lowdown on the world’s most popular beans. Load up the pantry with bags of dry beans, canned beans, and even fresh ones if you can find them.
Then, try out our amazing bean-based recipes to put those babies to work!
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