Sometimes when you read a recipe, it simply calls for “white beans.” But when you head to the grocery store, you probably won’t see jars, cans or bags labelled so simply. No, you’ll find a bewildering world of things labeled great northern white beans, navy beans cannellini beans and more. These aren’t just different names for the same type of bean–each of these is actually a distinct varietal. So which one should you pick up for your next recipe?
Cannellini beans are the largest of the three, with thin skin and a smooth, silky interior. They’re often used when you want the bean to retain their shape, like in salads or other recipes where beans are kept whole. They’re very common in Italian cooking. In contrast, navy beans are most popular in American recipes, like baked beans, and often work best when the bean is pureed or cooked to a very soft consistency.
But if you’re looking for just one bean to keep on your pantry shelves, you’ll want to go with the great northern white bean. With its nutty flavor, firm flesh and medium size, great northern beans work in almost any application. Bean salad? Perfect. Baked beans? Fabulous. Bean dip? That nutty taste will give it a little something special.