Butter Beans vs. Lima Beans: What's the Difference?

Let’s end the confusion between these two commonly used beans. Are they interchangeable, or completely unique from one another?

bowl of lima beans
Photo: bhofack2/Getty Images

For many people, just hearing the words "lima beans" sends them into a spiral of disgust. It doesn't matter what the rest of the dish is, the cloud has descended and nothing else is getting through.

Change "lima" to the word "butter," however, and what happens? Suddenly, they're still paying attention. Maybe they'll even try it.

But is that all there is to it? Or are butter beans a completely different ingredient?

Is There a Difference Between Butter Beans and Lima Beans?

Other than what they're called and sometimes their color, butter beans and lima beans are exactly the same. Their species is called Phaseolus lunatus and the difference in their name is only a matter of geography. In the American South and the United Kingdom, they're butter beans. For the rest of the United States, they're typically called lima, after the bean's origin city of Lima, Peru, where they've grown for over 9,000 years.

What Do Butter and/or Lima Beans Taste Like?

These slightly curved legumes are buttery in flavor and have a creamy texture when cooked, which may account for the "butter" nickname (that, and the beige color they take on when mature). And if you come across butter peas, Madagascar beans, or gigante beans, you're also getting lima beans. The smaller variety, baby lima beans, are also referred to as sieva beans.

Butter/lima beans offer a very bean-like mild flavor and almost velvety texture experience, if you can place your childhood aversions aside. If it's the slightly starchy nature that deters you, try cooking them from the dried stage rather than from fresh. Americans tend to eat the beans when they're young, meaning fresh and green, as opposed to when the beans are considered "mature," meaning beige (or sometimes dried). On fresh, young beans, commonly called baby limas, I remove the outer skin from the pale green insides before offering them to my young daughter, as these skins are an off-putting texture to her baby palate. This skin becomes so tender on dried or canned beans when cooked, it's unnecessary to remove it.

Ideas for Cooking Butter or Lima Beans

Since butter and lima beans are the same, they can be used interchangeably in any recipe. In general, they can be used as you would use any other heirloom bean variety. Comfort dishes — like soups, stews, baked beans, and casseroles — as well as traditional dishes like succotash, Gigantes, and salt pork are probably the most common uses. But lighter dishes like bean salads or accouterments like dips or spreads are also great uses for these beans.

Simple Butter/Lima Bean Recipes to Try:

Adding butter or lima beans to anything with broth is always a good idea, as the beans plump up and become quite creamy and thick, taking on all the flavors in the liquid. It's for this reason I prefer to simmer my dried beans in whatever I'm cooking for longer, rather than soaking them overnight in water. Their unassuming presence is equally wonderful in dishes with bright citrus or bold sauces.

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