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What are Butter Beans?

Butter beans are a seed but are also considered a vegetable.
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  • Originally Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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”Butter beans” are the common name for Phaseolus lunatus, a legume considered by many to be a vegetable. They are often compared to the more common lima bean, and the two share many similarities — but most horticulturists argue that they are not, in fact the same, despite their similar biological traits. They are very common in the cooking traditions of the American South, and also feature in many Mediterranean dishes.

Basic Characteristics

Butter beans are typically white or cream colored, and are flat and slightly curved in shape. They typically measure between 0.25 and 1 inch (approximately 0.6 to 2.5 cm) in length. Some varieties are speckled with brown or deep purple spots, though most of the time these color aberrations are limited to home-grown varieties — the vast majority of commercially-available beans are uniformly cream colored.

There are two theories for how the beans earned their colloquial name. The first relates to their color; most are the shade of fresh cream butter. Taste may also be the origin, as the beans have a smooth, almost buttery taste after cooking.

Relationship to Lima Beans

Butter beans are genetically very similar to lima beans, and there is some dispute when it comes to whether or not they are actually a variety of lima bean. Most limas are slightly larger with a green tint, though they are known to come smaller; sometimes, they are even white.

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Horticulturists typically agree that lima beans were originally cultivated in the mountainous regions of South America, while butter beans come from the warmer climes of Mexico. They are genetically similar, and can often be used interchangeably in recipes. Most legume aficionados dispute the claim that they are one and the same, however.

Culinary Uses and Popularity

Butter beans are very commonly used in the cuisine of the American South. They are often boiled and served alone as a side dish, usually seasoned with little more than salt and pepper and a bit of butter. They also feature heavily in casseroles and bean pie dishes. Some cooks will also add them to corn bread, soups, stews, and chilis.

Availability and Growing Season

Fresh butter beans typically reach their harvest peak in the late summer months. Gardeners usually plant them just after the last frost of the year, as they are quite sensitive to cold soil. The plants must usually be staked, as most will climb; they will usually produce seed pods by early spring, and will develop into fully grown beans by mid to late summer. The seed pods are often reserved for the next season’s growing, though seeds are available from many nurseries and commercial garden supply centers, as well.

The beans’ popularity has led many commercial food production companies to package them and sell them year round. Canned varieties are the most popular, though sometimes dried or frozen versions can also be purchased. Most cooks prefer to work with fresh beans, but wide commercial availability has made it easy to make butter bean recipes year-round.

Nutritional Value

Butter beans are generally considered quite healthful. They are high in vitamin C, vitamin A, and thiamin; they are also a good source of protein and are very low in calories and fat. Of course, these positive nutritive benefits can be overshadowed by the method of preparation — slathering the beans in butter or thick sauces can make for some highly caloric dishes.

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Discuss this Article

anon326932
Post 42

Lima beans are the staple of northern Spain's best winter warmer recipe: Fabada Asturiana, a simply delicious stew with pork knuckle, blood pudding and chorizo. On the second day it achieves near divinity.

anon323539
Post 41

Heck I'm from Chicago. My parents are from Arkansas and Louisiana. Lima beans (green), speckled butter bean beige/purplish specks, butter beans (beige). Each has its own distinctive taste.

anon296246
Post 40

I've read all the comments. I grew up in southeast Louisiana and my grandparents grew speckled butterbeans. They are not lima beans, and I didn't see a word about them on this page. They are white, speckled with purple, larger than lima, and are grey when cooked. Delicious.

anon288616
Post 39

In the south, butter beans are yellow-to-white and lima beans are green, no matter whether they are fresh, canned or dried. Typically, butter beans are larger in size and make a thicker, richer "pot likker" than their green brothers and have a less "green", more buttery taste.

anon283785
Post 38

Butter beans and lima beans are the same thing. It's just that "butter beans" are picked at a less mature stage of growth so they are smaller and have a different color.

anon264372
Post 37

Butter beans are not the same thing as lima beans. Ask any Southerner. The taste and texture are totally different. Lima beans are bland and chalky. Butter beans have a silky mouth feel and a more savory flavor.

anon213541
Post 36

Here's my recommendation for a tasty healthy meal for one. A portion of boiled new potatoes, a grilled horseshoe gammon steak, half a can of butter beans, and a good dollop of parsley sauce. Delicious!

anon183486
Post 35

"If you look at your can of butter beans you will find that the ingredients call them "Lima beans". Not the cans I buy: They say butter beans.

anon171306
Post 34

If you look at your can of butter beans you will find that the ingredients call them "Lima beans". Calling them "Butter Beans" is a regional/marketing thing. There are different types of Lima beans: small and green, larger and white, etc. They are all Lima beans. The bigger white ones were referred to as butter beans and it stuck. Still Lima beans though. Travelers probably went home and started referring other Limas as butter beans. But last I checked butter isn't green. It's all Lima.

anon165513
Post 33

When is the proper time to plant butter beans? I live in East Texas.

anon161090
Post 32

Does anyone know if you can eat sprouted butter beans?

anon159826
Post 31

I was born and raised in England where we grew up on lima beans with butter served with liver and fried onions and pan gravy.

Lima beans are large and green when fresh. About 1 1/4 inches by 3/4 of an inch in size.

When dried they are a whitish colour - we soak them and cook them with canned tomatoes in the oven. The beans are then a beige colour.

anon138804
Post 30

I'm from Western NC and I love the really big limas, called (or labeled on a can) "Giant Limas". They are light yellow, almost creamy colored, and soft when cooked correctly. (I hate the small green limas). Some may call the giant pale yellow limas "butter beans", here but I think that either name is acceptable.

I eat them with Duke's mayo mixed in and like them either with a sliced or diced onion on the side and (non-sweet) cornbread, or just honey wheat loaf type bread. If cooking a meal, I really love them as a side with salmon patties or pan fried kielbasa.

anon127016
Post 29

Also from the south and agree that what we call Butter Beans were the large white/tan color ones and the limas the small green ones.

Butter beans cooked till they're soft with skillet corn bread (not the kind with sugar, that's a cake!) and a dab of mayo!

anon126114
Post 28

As a Yankee by birth and a southerner by conviction I will jump into the fray.

Lima Beans are green, slightly mealy and as stated you love them or hate them. (love the things) They come in two separate types: Large, light green Ford Hooks' which are my favorite and the small baby limas which to me are like eating gravel, because the hardness can't be cooked out.

Yankees who never go south of the Mason Dixon line have no clue what a butter bean is, let alone how to cook it.

Butter beans are white to pale yellow, larger, smooth and buttery and a favorite in the south. I love them both.

anon119381
Post 27

I am from Texas, Northeast Texas which is still part of the deep South. Lima beans are gigantic and mealy and the only time you would ever see them was in the school cafeteria in elementary school.

Butter beans are about the size of a dime and the texture and flavor are the best. We eat them either fresh or dried. I prefer dried for the texture.

I ate at the Paula Deen buffet at the casino in Tunica once and they had both preparations of butter beans.

anon112632
Post 26

You can't find butter beans dried or canned in texas.

I Would love to have dried butter beans.

anon110814
Post 25

can butter beans be eaten by an eight-month baby?

anon109220
Post 24

Re: whether lima beans taste like butter beans when cooked.

Nope, not even close. Don't know about your area but in mine BB's tend to sell out of larger stores and be gone for awhile, but will be available at relatively lower end places like Aldi's. You may have to scrounge around to find them. Go butter bean!

anon105295
Post 23

I live in Texas, but I've only ever had butter beans when I visit my grandmother in Maryland.

They are smaller than lima beans and I believe the pods of butter beans are less hairy than the pods of lima beans.

The best preparation of butter beans is butter beans and corn.

You make this in summer when the butter beans, corn, and tomatoes are fresh. Boil some water with fat-back pork, add salt and pepper, and cook the beans, tomatoes and corn (I don't remember the order you put them in). This is the best summer soup.

anon103554
Post 22

As a Southerner, I know most of you have this dead wrong. Of course, I do realize that "butterbean" has three definitions. The correct one is, as always, the Southern one.

There are, however, two misguided notions that are rampant among folks from other countries, like Up North and Texas, as well as those redcoats. I grow two varieties of butter beans (and over a hundred other veggies) for a living and I've been eating them for nearly fifty years, so I know a little bit about 'em. Butter beans are smaller than limas, much tastier and have a much better texture. People around here crave them and it is one of only two crops that people put in orders for a year ahead of time. I also ship these two crops to transplanted Southerners. (The other crop is green peanuts.) Our old' standby variety is 'Jackson Wonder'. It's the kind that you can buy seed by the pound down at the feed and grain. It's green when you pick it, and is gray when you eat it. I don't know what color it is after that, and I don't think we need to discuss that any further.

The not-so-common other variety is 'Violet's Multicolored'. Guess what it looks like? Yep. It's a climbing butterbean, whereas 'Jackson Wonder' is a bush type. By the way, I can glance across the room and see two bushels of green Valencia peanuts (the best kind for boiling) and a bushel of 'Jackson Wonder' butter beans. For those of you that want to grow some real butter beans, try Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

anon87296
Post 21

I'm from tennessee. if you plant butter beans, do they grow big enough that you have to stake them?

anon74778
Post 19

I am from TX but have lived in many places. What we southerners call "lima beans" are the young ones. A mature lima bean is huge, white, and much larger than a butter bean." They are also not sold in the south.

anon73576
Post 18

I would like to know if butter beans are poisonous, as is claimed in some parts of Nigeria.

anon68053
Post 17

I have to say this debate has gone on forever! Down in South Georgia we wait at the farmers market for the trucks to come up from Fla. with the butter beans. Now some folks may think they are a lima bean and I suppose just like different beers, they may look alike, but the proof is in the tasting!

anon65665
Post 16

I just measured a butter bean, it is 1 1/4" by 3/4".

They are creamy colored and not very thick.

I want to know where to buy seed to raise these

wonderful beans. We are able to buy them in one discount grocery. Help please

anon65337
Post 15

I'm sure that Tricia is a great cook, but her description of butter beans being the smaller one is definitely incorrect. I've lived in the South for 60 years and lima beans are the smaller green bean.

Butter beans may be a type of lima beans, but when eaten, they are large (typically 1.5-inch or more in length) and usually a creamy tan to light brown color.

As Anon49947 describes, they are best cooked with a hamhock or other pork product.

anon63980
Post 14

There is a distinct difference in lima beans and butter beans. I've lived in the South all my life and we used to be able to buy both fresh butter beans (harvested sometime in July) and lima beans. Also, we used to be able to buy small dried butter beans. The flavor of lima beans is ok but butter beans can't be beaten.

anon63376
Post 13

When I was growing up we ate butter beans too that were about the size a quarter and were white and the package read butter beans not lima beans.

Does anyone know where we can purchase the real butter beans, not lima beans?

anon61969
Post 12

There used to be an easy to find frozen big lima bean, green, not yellow and different in taste from "butter beans". I live in Los Angeles and these beans cannot be found anymore in any of the frozen food aisles of any of the supermarkets. I miss them!

anon61881
Post 11

I have been looking everywhere for Nalley's Lima Beans and Ham. Nalley's were stocked in supermarkets but I have not seen them, or any other canned lima beans & ham, for at least a couple of years.

The closest I have come to them is "Ellis" white beans & ham, and those have also disappeared. Anyone know where they are available anywhere near Salt Lake City, Utah, so I can buy them?

anon52835
Post 10

I was born and raised in the mountains of Virginia and we always thought of butter beans as a type of lima bean. The standard lima bean being large and green and used mainly in soups. The butter bean is very large and white and eaten alone or in casseroles.

anon49947
Post 9

Being a Texan born and raised, my experience with butter beans is as follows. To me, butter beans were the huge (1 1/2 to 2 inch bean), cream-colored when cooked and white when dry. They tasted very buttery and not at all like their "cousin" the much smaller, green limas. Loved butter beans best cooked with ham or "fatback" as my mother called salt pork, or as another poster said, "and white bread would be dipped in the bowl", for that wonderful bean juice/pot-liquor. In my family we never ate the smaller green (raw) limas and I didn't very often until I met my husband who loves them. Now we eat them every now and then but they are nothing like those great big ole buttery butter beans. Man, I've got to go find some to cook tonight!

anon49727
Post 8

I think the article got it backwards. I grew up in the south too and lima beans were little things that we hardly ever ate. But butter beans were big and lighter in color and very very good the way my Mema fixed them.

anon45051
Post 7

In the last couple of years I discovered canned butter beans quite by accident. I bought them by mistake in the supermarket when I was meaning to buy kidney beans. But it was a wonderful mistake, as I'd never had them before and they were wonderful. I particularly love them in a vegetarian meal when I make a salad with everything(i.e. salad veggies) in that I can find (usually more than five different veggies) and I add basmati rice with my own homemade french salad dressing, which is 'scrummy yummy' made with cold pressed olive oil and Bragg's organic cider vinegar, plus crushed garlic, salt, cayenne pepper, pinch of sugar, add the canned beans without the juice from the tin, mix it all up and voila! I'm always surprised at how fantastic it tastes and how light and healthy I feel after it. I'm not vegetarian but like a bit of vegetarian in between my other kind of proteins. I'm just wondering about the nutritional content of it though, since lately I've been researching manganese and wonder if it's the manganese in it that makes me feel so satisfied. Do others know that manganese is in tea and it's the manganese that makes one feel maternal in it?

anon42559
Post 6

Being born and raised in Texas, our butter beans were huge. They had that buttery taste and we cooked them with ham hocks or just plain salt pork. The bean that I saw all my life was dried and white and about the size of a quarter, they were a somewhat flat and thin type of bean.

We didn't eat the green limas much as most of us didn't like them. I do like them now. So, is the bean that I grew up with a dried giant lima bean or what?

anon40214
Post 5

Our family grows butterbeans in South Georgia. We always have the question of "is it a butterbean or lima bean"? I am so glad it was explained so well in your article. I love the butterbeans and there is nothing like fresh shelled butterbeans!

anon34360
Post 4

The butter beans I ate as a child in Ireland do not remotely resemble lima beans; not in size, not in color, not in flavor. I have never found an equivalent in the USA for the butter bean I grew up with - but I can still find them in Ireland.

anon22373
Post 3

I must enter my most vehement opinion: butter beans are NOT the same as lima beans! Well, at least not in south-central Virginia, where I grew up.

Personally, I have never found lima beans very interesting -- they have a mealy texture and a flavor that is at once bland and cloying and somehow suggestive of soap, and they are a decidedly unlovable vegetable, something you never yearn for, and are made to eat.

Butterbeans, however, are superb. My father grew them in his garden -- their vines snake up the beanpoles and grow quickly, and their pods should be picked while still young and small. The butterbean (surprise) has a sweet, buttery taste, and is inexpressibly tender. My parents would cook the beans alone, or sometimes with Silver Queen corn, and white bread would often be dipped into the bowl. This is one of the great southern dishes.

I suspect that my butterbean is the sieva type you refer to,but in a very young stage of development.

My enthusiasm for butterbeans as I knew them in my childhood is born of a sorrowful, sentimental knowledge that I will probably never taste their like again.

anon21258
Post 2

I'm curious to know why I can't buy the butter beans in our area. I can find the lima-so will the lima bean taste like the butter bean when cooked?

milagros
Post 1

Butter beans go under several names. They are mostly referred to butter beans in UK while in US they are more referred to as Lima beans. Other names include Bush, Climbing and Madagascar bean. Young pods with immature beans inside them can be prepared for a meal, when they mature, they are shelled and only the beans are eaten. Beans can also be dried and cooked for consumption.

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