What Are Peas?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes


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Peas are the fruit and seed of a vine plant that is grown and eaten throughout the world. Though they are cooked and enjoyed as a vegetable, the green pods and orbs are technically the plant's fruits and seeds. Not only is this ingredient easy to cook and a simple side dish on its own, but you can also eat them raw, frozen, in soup or salad, or cooked into a variety of dishes. With so many ways to enjoy peas, it's no wonder they are a healthy food staple in many of the world's cuisines.

What Are Peas?

Peas are the green seed pod or small spheres inside the pod of the pea plant (Pisum sativum). While often eaten as a vegetable, botanically, the pod is a fruit since it comes from a flower and contains seeds. The whole pods and the seeds inside them are eaten of some varieties, such as snow and snap peas. For garden peas (also called sweet peas), the seeds are removed from the pod, which is discarded.

Peas are among the most widely cultivated foods in the world. Researchers believe that peas first grew wild in the Mediterranean basin before the Neolithic (or Agricultural) Revolution around 10,000 BC. At that time, peas were often left on the vine until they hardened as field peas (similar to the peas used in dishes like split pea soup). In England during the 17th-century, fresh garden peas became popular. These were younger, more tender, and considered high class, especially when you compared them to field peas.

Eventually, green peas became popular in the United States, and famously Thomas Jefferson grew them—30 cultivars to be exact. With the invention of canning and freezing, eating fresh and young peas became so easy most people don't realize they aren't consuming a mature plant. You can still get dried field peas for soaking and to put in soups, but most eaters prefer the bright green garden variety.

Peas are available fresh, frozen, canned, and dried. Today peas are in cuisines all across the world. From Indian curries to Swedish soups and Chinese stir-fries to Hungarian dumplings, nearly everyone in the world eats peas in some form or another. They are generally inexpensive and easy to prepare.

How to Cook With Peas

Peas are extremely versatile and can be used in many ways. When fresh, peas should be rinsed before cooking. Garden (or shelling) peas need to be shelled and the pod discarded. Left whole, snow peas get sautéed in many Asian dishes and are left raw then tossed into salads and pasta. Whole snap peas taste great raw as a fresh snack. Similar to beans, dried peas need to be soaked before cooking.

Cooking peas can be as simple as heating the green orbs until warm or adding them to casseroles, soups, and other dishes. Cooked peas can be mashed for baby food or puréed into soups. Whole peas are great alone, coated with butter, and boosted with Parmesan and a dash of pepper.

In many cases, frozen peas do not have to be thawed before cooking as they cook quickly under gentle heat. They are also beloved by kids in the summer and offer a healthy way to cool down, kind of like nature's tiny ice pops.


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What Does It Taste Like?

Peas offer a pleasing sweetness wrapped in a crunchy little ball. The different types will have varying levels of this nuance, with fresh sweet peas being the most candy-like. Shelling peas prove drier and taste best cooked. Snap and snow peas are sweet with a slight bitterness and can be eaten raw or gently heated. The best way to taste the true flavor of a pea is by eating fresh or frozen varieties. Dried field peas have a deeper flavor, warmer and less green. This is why this type of pea is best as a soup or in a stew.

Pea Recipes

Throw a handful of fresh or frozen peas into just about any dish you want. They blend in nicely with most flavors and pair well with a variety of vegetables. Peas also add small pops of color to many recipes.

Where to Buy Peas

Frozen and canned peas are the most common forms and easy to find in any grocery store. Fresh peas are sold by the pound and readily available in stores and at farmers markets during the spring and summer months. The vines are easy to grow and popular additions to backyard gardens. Early in spring, pea greens may be harvested and found in markets as well.

When buying fresh peas, look for pods with bulges in the center, which indicates that the green orbs inside are ripe and ready for eating. Avoid peas with discolored or mushy pods.

If you can, skip canned and go for bags of frozen peas instead. Both are convenient, but the canned version can get a little soggy. You may see some labeled petite peas, but don't be fooled as there's nothing special about this type; it's just a basic pea and as good as the next. It's good to check the date on the package. An old bag of frozen peas may have dehydrated peas inside, and those prove dull and unappetizing.


If you buy frozen peas, keep them in the freezer. Once opened, seal the bag after taking a portion to prevent freezer burn and put it back on ice. Canned peas have no special instructions, though, as many canned foods, it's best to keep them in a cool spot in the house. Opened cans can be emptied into a sealed container and kept in the refrigerator for a week. Fresh peas can be kept in the pods for around a week or two. After that, you need to shell them. As long as they stay cool, they will last for weeks out of the pods.

Fresh peas can be frozen for up to one year, either in the pod or just the seeds, depending on the variety. Before freezing, they need to be blanched for about two minutes then dried. Place them on a tray to freeze for a few hours, then pack into freezer bags or containers.


Basically, all peas look the same, but there are tons of types of this food. Mostly you want to differentiate peas by the garden variety, snow peas, and snap peas. The former is the kind of green ball pea you see all over, frozen in bags, gracing the cafeteria vegetable section, and in most foods.

Snow peas tend to show up in Asian cuisine and showcase the whole pod, which is tender and easy to eat, unlike the garden pea's shell. These whole peas are flat, and you can see the bump of the small seeds nestled inside. Snap peas can also be eaten whole, but this cylindrical ingredient tends to have baby seeds inside that are so small, you may not notice them. Munch on them as a healthy snack and enjoy the crunch.