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Are lima beans and butter beans the same thing?

We set out to solve a kitchen mystery.
Butter beans and ham. [MICHELLE STARK   |   Times]
Butter beans and ham. [MICHELLE STARK | Times]
Published Jul. 31, 2019

It started simply enough.

Bon Appétit posted a photo on their Healthyish Instagram account, a vibrant dish of butter beans, heirloom tomatoes and basil. A real chef’s kiss recipe idea, perfect for summer.

Only problem: I had no idea what a butter bean was. Or where to get it.

I went to the grocery store. The recipe called for dried beans. The only large, white beans I could find were lima beans. They looked suspiciously like the beans in that Instagram photo.

I bought two bags, emptied one into a saucepan, covered the beans with water and let them soak overnight. A couple of hours later, I took a peek. The beans’ translucent skins had started to slough off, and the still-hard insides were splitting in half.

I Googled.

Are butter beans and lima beans the same thing?

Are dried lima beans supposed to shed their skin?

From “Lima beans are more than just related to butter beans, they are the same thing.”

According to Food52: “In the Southern U.S. and in the U.K., these cream-colored beans are named after the dairy product with a similarly rich consistency: butter. Meanwhile, the rest of the bean-eating world labels them limas. They’re flat and chewy, with a mild flavor and a coloring that ranges from pea-green to off-white.”

Wait. Lima beans are the butt of every joke about a disgusting thing your mom forced you to eat as a child. Butter beans are creamy and elegant and tossed with heirloom tomatoes.

And yet.

The next day, I went back to the grocery store and found a can of butter beans. Ingredients: butter beans, water, salt. They were oval-shaped, larger than black or pinto beans, and slightly off-white. Straight from the can, they were bland, tender and rich.

I cooked the dried lima beans. Most of them fell apart or turned to mush in the process, but some remained whole. I placed a couple on the counter next to the canned butter beans. They were indistinguishable. I tasted one. Bland, tender and rich.

I took to Instagram to share my bean findings and immediately got some feedback.

Jen Jacobs, who owns Tampa Bay bakery Wandering Whisk Bakeshop, said she loves butter beans. She has never cooked them, though. Her preferred method of butter bean consumption: finding them in grocery store olive bars. They’re usually soaked in olive oil, or mixed with red peppers — perfect for snacking.

She, too, has thought they look a lot like lima beans.

Illene Sofranko, who runs the St. Petersburg-based Urban Canning Company, said “lima beans and butter beans were a huge staple for my Appalachian family.”

Oh, so they’re different?

“They are the same. But there’s different varieties! Calling them butter beans is the Southern name. The younger the bean, the greener it is.”

That explains why the frozen “butter beans” I also found at the grocery store were bright green, and much smaller, than their canned white counterparts.

(Plus, Sofranko suggested I order heirloom beans online the next time I want to cook from the dried state, so they hold up better during the cooking process.)

I reached out to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Alicia Whidden, a fruit and vegetable horticultural agent in Hillsborough County, was out of the office but responded with a helpful note: “Both beans are the same species but lima beans are green and butter beans are traditionally speckled at least until cooked.”

I cooked the limas and the butter beans together in the same skillet, with some diced onion and garlic in a fair amount of bacon grease. Whatever they were called, they were delicious.


Butter beans can be a powerful tool in your cooking arsenal. Plump and creamy when fully cooked, they do in fact have a butterlike texture that is very appealing. Butter beans don’t have a ton of flavor, so they’re best when pumped up with some fat, particularly bacon or ham. Their creaminess also means they blend well, making bean dips or spreads a breeze.

Pan-Fried Butter Beans

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 (15-ounce) can butter beans, drained, rinsed and patted dry

2 cloves garlic, peeled and bruised, or more to taste

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 pinch red pepper flakes, or more to taste

Salt and ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Heat olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Cook and stir beans into hot oil until slightly golden and crispy, about 10 minutes. Stir garlic, rosemary, red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper into beans; continue cooking for about 5 minutes. Drizzle vinegar over beans and toss.

Source: Adapted from

Ham and Butter Beans

1 tablespoon bacon grease or butter

½ cup diced onion

¼ cup diced carrot

3 cloves minced garlic

1 cup chopped smoked ham

1 (15-ounce) can butter beans, drained and rinsed

1 cup chicken broth

Kosher salt

Black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

Heat bacon grease or butter over medium heat. (I cooked a couple of pieces of bacon in the skillet, then removed and used them for another purpose and left the grease behind.)

Add onion, carrots and garlic and saute until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Add ham and beans and cook for about 5 minutes or so until ham and beans have some color on them.

Add chicken broth ½ cup at a time, stirring well after each ½ cup, then season with salt and black pepper to taste, garlic powder and red pepper flakes.

Bring to a low boil and reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until most but not all of the liquid has evaporated. Serve.

Serves 2.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Beans on Toast

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing

3 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 medium white or yellow onion, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 medium stalk celery, finely chopped

1 pound dried heirloom beans, picked over and rinsed

2 teaspoons kosher salt

8 large slices crusty bread, cut ½ inch thick

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Flaky sea salt and ground black pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic, onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft and fragrant but not browned, about 8 minutes.

Add the beans and enough water to cover by about 2 inches. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil; cook for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer (bubbles just barely breaking the surface), partly cover and cook until the pot stops smelling like the aromatics and starts smelling like the beans, 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. Add more water if necessary to keep the beans fully submerged. Gently stir in kosher salt and continue cooking until the beans are creamy in texture but not bursting, 10 to 45 minutes more.

Drain the beans, reserving the tasty cooking liquid for another purpose, such as a base for soup or a vehicle for egg poaching. You can store leftover beans in their cooking liquid in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Toast the bread and then butter each piece. Spoon about ½ cup beans onto each piece of toast and coarsely crush with a fork. Divide the remaining whole beans among the toasts (about ¼ cup per toast). Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 8 pieces of toast.

Source: New York Times