Real Food Encyclopedia | Fava Beans
Fava beans, known in much of the world as “broad beans,” are one of the oldest domesticated crops. They are a fleeting spring vegetable — like ramps and sorrel and morels — that show up at the market and quickly disappear. Due to their double layer of shells, some cooks confess to finding the shelling process such a tedious, mind-numbing process that they only prepare them once a year. But read on for some amazing tips on how to avoid serious fava-generated orthopedic damage!)
Fun Facts about Fava Beans:
- Somewhere along the line, fava beans became associated with the dead. The ancient Egyptians “regarded them as unclean” (Egyptian priests couldn’t even look at one). Pellegrino Artusi, in his book “The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well” (published in the 19th century), says of Egyptian bean-eating, “[i]t was thought that the souls of the dead were enclosed in them and that they resembled the gates of hell.” The notion of beans containing the souls of the dead continued with the Romans, and fava beans, and beans in general, were (and still are) common funerary food in several cultures.
- “Favomancy” is a type of divination that involves throwing (fava) beans on the ground and interpreting the results.
- Fava beans were used to cast votes in ancient Greece.
What to Look for When Buying Fava Beans
Fava bean pods are usually large (typically six to twelve inches long), green and leathery. The beans themselves are generally large, like an overgrown lima bean, and light green, with a lighter-colored outer “shell” or coating that can become very tough as the beans mature. Other colors of fava beans exist, including purple varietals. Dried favas are also common in many cultures and can be tan colored, dark brown, white or purple.
When fresh favas are very young, they can be eaten whole, pod and all. Small fava beans also do not need their outer coat peeled and can even be eaten raw. Look for bright green, firm, plump pods with minimal blemishes (although some spotting on the pods are fine). Run your hand down the pod to feel the beans and pass on any pods with no beans. Smaller beans are sweeter, less starchy and take less time to cook. Avoid pods that are dried out, mushy or yellowing.
Sustainability of Fava Beans
Fava Bean Cultivation
Fava beans (Vicia faba) are in the legume family (Fabaceae), along with other New World bean varietals and peas. Fava plants grow upright on large stalks and do not climb, unlike most other beans, which tend to have a vining habit. They are grown in temperate climates throughout the world, but China, Ethiopia, Egypt and France lead worldwide production. A subspecies of fava, Vicia faba var. equina (“horse bean”) is grown primarily for animal fodder. Favas are also grown as cover crops, because they are cold hardy and, as a legume, fix nitrogen in the soil.
Fava Bean Seasonality
Fava beans are a cool weather crop, commonly found at the market in late spring through early summer. Some places may have a fall fava crop, as well.
Environmental Impact of Fava Beans
Favas are relatively uncommon and highly seasonal in the US. They do not appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, and we could find no evidence of the bean being monocropped here in the US, although there are a couple of very large growers, like Earthbound Farms (the largest organic growers in the US) and Ocean Mist Farms (the largest growers of artichokes in the US), both of which cultivate them in drought-plagued central California. They are susceptible to a couple of different pests and diseases, including black aphids, so check with your local fava farmer about his/her growing practices and pesticide use.
Eating Fava Beans
Eat your fresh favas as soon as possible. If you need to store them, keep them in a paper or open zip-top bag in your refrigerator for no more than 3-4 days.
Cooking with Fava Beans
Here’s a great video that shows you how to prep favas the traditional way, by blanching and peeling. And here is an amazing tip that has you briefly freeze your favas, making the second skin easy to peel. Or, you can roast them, as this mind-blowing article explains, roasting the beans in their pods makes that tough outer coating edible, eliminating the need for the blanch-and-peel that is so time consuming.
Fresh favas have a fresh, nutty taste that pairs well with bold flavors like mint, basil, onions, garlic and chiles. Favas are also excellent in dishes with their springtime friends morels, spring onions, peas and asparagus. Salty cheese (think pecorino, parmesan, feta or goat cheese) and favas are naturals together — check out this recipe for fava and pecorino salad.
They also taste delightful with pork, like pancetta, Serrano ham, chorizo or prosciutto. Sautée blanched fresh favas with onion or garlic and toss in with pasta; or make a spring-y risotto with favas and asparagus. Favas are an important part of Sichuan Chinese cuisine, forming the base of a chile bean paste called doubanjiang. Fresh favas can also be stir-fried.
Dried favas are eaten all over the world. Many countries have a dish similar to the famous Egyptian dish ful medames, stewed dried favas with parsley, lemon juice, onions and garlic. In addition, Egyptian falafel is classically made with dried fava beans instead of chickpeas. In China, the Middle East and elsewhere, dried favas are fried and tossed with salt as a crunchy snack. Mexican cuisine also employs dried favas — like in this dried fava bean soup.
Finally, favas’ connection to the dead is still represented in bean-shaped cookies called Fave dei Morti (Fava Beans of the Dead), usually baked for All Soul’s Day in Italy.
Preserving Fava Beans
Fava Bean Nutrition
Like most beans, favas are packed with protein. One cup provides you with over 25 percent of your daily protein needs. The beans are also excellent sources of folate, important for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, because it helps in the prevention of neural tube defects in the fetus. Favas are also good sources of manganese, copper, zinc, prosperous and potassium, and are even good sources of iron and calcium.
But fava beans are also the cause of a potentially deadly genetic disease called favism, which is a dangerous type of anemia caused by eating fava beans, or even by exposure to fava flower pollen. In susceptible individuals, naturally occurring chemicals in favas are converted to red blood cell-damaging compounds.