Real Food Encyclopedia | Shell Beans
You might know shell (or shelling) beans as “dry beans,” or just “beans.” What you might not know is that shell beans can be bought fresh (or very recently dried) at the farmers’ market, and they are incredibly delicious. Both fresh and recently dried shell beans blow canned beans out of the water. We promise you that their texture — creamier than any canned or supermarket dried bean — and fresh, nutty flavor will change the way you think about the humble bean.
Fun Facts about Shell Beans:
- Many of the beans we are familiar with in the US are of the same species, Phaseolus vulgaris (the so-called “common” bean). Cultivars of this species include many varieties you’re likely to find as fresh shell beans, including flageolet beans, cranberry beans (a.k.a., borlotti beans), black beans and cannellini beans.
- Black-eyed peas are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day in the Southern US (usually with a ham hock thrown in, for good measure) — they are said to bring luck and prosperity in the New Year.
- Heirloom vegetables often have colorful names, and shell beans are no exception: Eye of the Goat, Butterscotch, Snowcap and Tiger’s Eye are just a few of the hundreds of shell bean varieties still grown.
What to Look for When Buying Shell Beans
If at the market and looking at fresh shell beans, look for pods that are plump and bumpy —you should be able to feel the fat seeds inside. Some say that you should look for pods that are leathery (i.e., slightly dried out), but we’ve chosen shell bean pods that look fresh without a noticeable difference in taste in the final, cooked bean. More mature beans, found in drier pods, will take longer to cook. During shell bean season, at the farmers’ market, you can find both fresh shell beans and dried ones (where the beans rattle around in the pod). Both are great! Some farmers’ markets or specialty markets might sell dried shell beans that have been removed from their pods.
If you are at a more conventional market and are looking at bags of dried beans, try to see if there’s any date on them. If they are a mass market brand they might be quite old, good candidates for a long overnight soak. If they are small batch or local they might have a date on them, which is a nice indication that they are a lot fresher.
Sustainability of Shell Beans
Because they are a small-volume vegetable, fresh shell beans are not generally monocropped (the exception may be Lima beans) nor produced with intensive industrial agricultural methods, like excessive pesticide use. In addition, many heirloom varieties of shell beans have been selected for generations to be specially adapted to their environment, such as drought- or heat-tolerance. Mass produced dry beans are a bit of a different story, with various pesticides used. If you’d like to avoid pesticides, look for certified organic dried beans.
Shell Bean Cultivation
Many of the beans we are familiar with in the US are of the same species, Phaseolus vulgaris (the so-called “common” bean). Cultivars of this species include many varieties you’re likely to find as fresh shell beans, including flageolet beans, cranberry beans (aka, borlotti beans), black beans and cannellini beans (Phaseolus vulgaris cultivars are also eaten as snap beans).
Other species are distantly related, like the Lima (Phaseolus lunatus) and black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata, though previously classified as in the Phaseolus genus). If you’re especially lucky, you may even stumble upon fresh chickpeas (Cicer arietinum).
Shell Beans and Geography
India leads the world in shell bean production (mostly for dry beans), followed by Brazil, Myanmar, the US and China. In the US you can grow beans just about anywhere, but the mass-produced dry bean powerhouses are North Dakota, Michigan and Nebraska.
Shell Bean Seasonality
In most parts of the US, fresh shell beans are available at the market starting in the late summer through fall. Fresh shell beans can be hard to find and are unlikely to appear in grocery stores — your best bet to locate them is at your local farmers’ market.
Eating Shell Beans
Storing Shell Beans
Store fresh shell beans in a paper bag in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days. They tend to get moldy quickly, especially if there is any moisture clinging to the pods. You can also shell them in advance and store the beans in a container in the fridge for a day or three, but keep an eye out that they don’t mold or dry out.
Cooking with Fresh Shell Beans
Like their dried counterparts, most fresh shell beans must be simmered in liquid to cook them, but unlike grocery shelf dry beans, there is no pre-soaking necessary. Fresh shell beans usually take between 10 and 60 minutes to become tender — this will depend on how mature the seeds are and what variety you’re cooking. Different types of shell beans differ greatly in flavor, from the chestnut-y cranberry bean to the buttery Lima. However, pork, fresh herbs, garlic, tomatoes, chiles and greens are excellent companions to most varieties.
Fresh shell beans are delicious braised in an aromatic liquid, added to pasta or made into a gratin. Fresh shell beans can also be pureed, roasted (check out this roasted Lima bean recipe) and become the luscious stars of any salad they’re in (like this Senegalese black-eyed pea salad or the one below).
When cooking shell beans (either fresh or recently-dried), don’t add salt to the cooking water. It can toughen the skins. Instead, add salt to taste once the beans have been cooked.
Preserving Shell Beans
Fresh shell beans freeze exceptionally well — just shell them, freeze on a single layer on a cookie sheet, then transfer to freezer-proof bags. Freeze them in large batches to pull out and add to soups and stews in the winter.
Shell Beans Nutrition
Fresh shell beans are exceptionally high in protein (making them a fine meat substitute), folate, thiamin, fiber, iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc … you get the point. Beans are a super food. Many varieties, especially black beans, are also very high in anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory flavonoids.