When you set about making an old-fashioned bean dish, you'll likely reach for white beans. White beans have been used for centuries as a nourishing staple, even today when fresh foods are always available it's comforting to have a bag or can of white beans on hand. You can get standard white navy beans in packages or cans at your supermarket, or you can look for a tastier alternative such as Great Northern beans.
Types of White Beans
In France, small white beans from Tarbes are the traditional choice for the famous peasant dish, cassoulet. Italians favor cannelini, a white kidney bean. In the U.S., the most familiar white bean is the navy bean or Boston bean, so called because it was the staple food of the Navy at one time. All of these are low in fat, high in protein and remarkably versatile in the hands of a capable cook.
Great Northern Beans
Great Northern beans are a variety that's grown in many parts of the country, and has a dedicated following among food enthusiasts. It's a mid-sized bean, larger than the navy bean but smaller than cannelini or kidney beans. They can be canned, but it tends to make them soft. You're more likely to find them sold in dried form at your supermarket. Great Northern beans have a delicate flavor and a smooth, creamy texture when cooked.
Navy beans are the most common form of white bean grown in the U.S. In the early 1990s, they accounted for approximately 80 percent of the total dry bean crop, according to Michigan State University's extension service. They're a small, pea-sized bean, with a relatively thick skin. Their flavor is not especially delicate, but they are versatile and can be used for soups, side dishes, dips and baked beans. Navy beans have a justified reputation for creating gas.
Canned White Beans
Unless you're specifically shopping for an alternative, almost any can of white beans you purchase will contain navy beans. Commercial processing works wonders with navy beans, softening their relatively thick skins and giving the cooked beans a smoother texture than you'd get at home. Canned beans also eliminate hours of tedious soaking and simmering, which were done at the packing plant when the beans were canned. On the down side, canned beans can become mushy from overcooking, and they're usually high in sodium from being salted. Drain them thoroughly under a colander before using them.
- "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen"; Harold McGee; 2004
- "Professional Cooking"; Wayne Gisslen; 2003
- The Cook's Thesaurus; Beans; Lori Alden; 2005
- University of Wisconsin Extension; Field Bean; L. L. Hardman et al.; May 1990
- Michigan State University Extension; Harvesting Michigan Navy Beans; Timothy M. Harrigan et al.; June 1992
- Purdue Horticulture Alternative Crop Guide; Robert L. Myers, Ph.D.; 1999