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Several different kinds of common bean can be referred to as white beans, including navy beans, great northern beans, and cannellini beans. The best specimens of all varieties have smooth, cream-colored skin when fresh or dry, with no wrinkles, dark spots, or holes, and are light tan when cooked. The skin should be thin and delicate, while the bean inside should be relatively starchy with a light nutty flavor. These beans work best in stews, soups, and salads, accompanied by fresh herbs, meat, or dairy ingredients.
Navy, great northern, and cannellini beans are all slightly different in size and shape, but share their pale color and slightly nutty flavor. You can usually substitute one variety for another in recipes, though cannellini beans are somewhat larger than the other types and are used in traditional Italian recipes, while navy beans are almost as small as peas and are traditional in baked beans. Great northern beans are medium in size and texture, making them very versatile in cooking.
These beans can be purchased fresh, dried, or canned, with fresh beans producing the best results, dried beans costing the least, and canned beans providing the greatest convenience. If you buy fresh or dried white beans, look for specimens with an off-white to cream skin without holes, cracks, or wrinkles. Avoid discolored beans, which may be spoiled, as well as beans with a very tough seed-coat, as they may be difficult to cook. When buying canned beans, make sure that the can is intact without rust or dents.
All white beans can be cooked by boiling or simmering them in water, with canned beans cooking the fastest, followed by fresh and dry types. The bean is fully cooked when the skin becomes a pale cream to tan and is slightly transparent, covering a soft, starchy interior. The beans are undercooked if they remain crunchy or resist the bite, and are overcooked if they begin to lose their shape or disintegrate.
These beans work best in dishes that spotlight their tenderness and delicate taste, including salads, stewed dishes, and soups. Traditionally, white beans are often combined with sweet tastes such as brown sugar or maple syrup, meats such as pork or bacon, and fresh herbs like sage, bay, and rosemary. They also go well with butter or cream in some soups, and with alliums like onions and garlic. White beans work best in European and North American cuisines, but make a poor choice for chilis, refried beans, and similar dishes.