What Are Butter Beans?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Butter Beans aka Lima Beans

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Butter beans, also called lima beans and sieva beans, are the seeds of the plant Phaseolus lunatus. They are available fresh, frozen, or dried, and are sold in both younger and mature forms. 

What Are Butter Beans?

Butter beans are large, creamy beans that are filling and nutritious. These legumes originate in South America and are used in a wide variety of dishes. They're available fresh during the late-summer growing season or as fresh-frozen or dried beans year-round. 

Fresh young beans (sometimes called baby limas) have a thin skin surrounding a pale green bean that can be removed after cooking or left intact, depending on the application. Mature, dried butter beans have a thicker, beige-colored skin that becomes tender when fully cooked.

How to Use Butter Beans

Dried butter beans are a dependable pantry staple that can be used in soups, stews, braises, casseroles, dips, spreads, and salads, just to name a few applications. They can also be cooked on their own and served with a simple dressing of butter, salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice. 

Dried butter beans can be boiled and then simmered on the stovetop or braised in the oven over a few hours. They can be soaked for several hours or overnight to shorten the cooking time. Butter beans are also an excellent option for crock pot and pressure cooker recipes. Fresh or frozen butter beans can be cooked much more quickly, typically in around 30 minutes, and are best prepared on the stovetop.

Butter beans should not be eaten raw because they contain a compound called linamarin that breaks down into poisonous cyanide when the bean is chewed or damaged. Wild butter beans have a higher concentration of this compound, but beans cultivated in the U.S. are regulated to contain very low amounts. Boiling butter beans for five to 10 minutes reduces the amount of cyanide.

What Do They Taste Like?

Butter beans have a smooth, creamy texture and mild, buttery flavor. They hold sauces and soak up the flavors they're cooked with well. Fresh butter beans will have a slightly grassy, more vegetal flavor than cooked, dried beans.

Butter Beans Recipes

Where to Buy Butter Beans

You'll find dried butter beans, often labeled as lima beans, in the pantry aisle of most grocery stores and supermarkets. They're also available precooked in cans in the canned goods aisle. Baby or mature lima beans are also available frozen in the freezer aisle. 

Fresh, never-frozen, butter beans are harder to come by and are typically only available in season, typically late summer to early fall in the United States. Look for them at farmers' markets and farm stands during this time of year. Fresh beans may be sold already shelled or still in their green, fuzzy pods, which must be removed and discarded before cooking. 

Butter Beans vs. Lima Beans

While they're all the same bean botanically, butter beans have different names depending on the region. In the South and in the United Kingdom, they're typically referred to as butter beans. Elsewhere in the U.S., they're known as lima beans (named for Lima, Peru, the bean's point of origin).

Storage

Store dried butter beans in an airtight, food-safe container and keep them in a cool, dry place. Use them within one year of purchase. Beyond that point, dry beans lose moisture and may take longer to cook. 

Frozen butter beans can be kept in their original packaging in the freezer for up to nine months or vacuum-sealed in a deep freezer for up to 14 months. If you plan to freeze your own fresh lima beans, blanch for two to four minutes, depending on the size of the bean. Shock, strain, and cool before packaging and freezing.

Nutrition and Benefits

One cup of dry beans contains 40 grams of carbohydrates, nine grams of dietary fiber, and 12 grams of protein.

Article Sources
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  1.  Waite-Cusic, J., 2019. Should I worry about the cyanide in lima beans? Oregon State University Extension Service

  2. SNAP-Ed Connection. Lima Beans. U.S. Department of Agriculture