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

February 27, 2018

About five years ago, a community member threw into our hotline a stink bomb—a smelly, confusing query that left more than a few with their feathers ruffled. “What’s a good explanation,” the user asked, “for the difference between lima beans and butter beans?”

The responses poured in. Some were measured and informative:

  • They’re two names for the same kind of bean! They can be used interchangeably whether frozen, dried, or canned.
  • Both fall into the general category of broad beans, of which there are different strains. But certainly interchangeable.
  • They are the same bean. But I’ve found the “butter beans” labeled as such are typically the larger beans with a somewhat more mealy texture. Same bean, just labels. IMHO my preferred beans are the ones labeled as “baby limas.”

Others hinted that there might be a larger beany conspiracy at work here. That butter beans were but a PR scheme, a fool’s trap: The butter bean is a cruel, though theoretically more acceptable, attempt to lure you into eating lima beans, which are an abomination.

Shop the Story

Regardless, the vast majority of responses seemed to point to a confluence, two names for one bean, the Phaseolus lunatus. What, then, was the reason for this lexical discrepancy, this division of designation? It seems we have geography to blame. In the Southern U.S. and in the U.K., these cream-colored beans are named after the dairy product with a similarly rich consistency: butter. Meanwhile, the rest of the bean-eating world labels them limas. They’re flat and chewy, with a mild flavor and a coloring that ranges from pea-green to off-white. Whatever you call them, we’ve got plenty of ways to prepare them! Here are all the recipes for butter/ lima beans on our site.

A Bread Boat

Crisp & Crunchy

Braising the Bar

Speckled Rice

Softly Simmered

What do you call these beans? Let us know your preferred term in the comments.


Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Teresa Tyrrell
    Teresa Tyrrell
  • Jason Martin
    Jason Martin
  • Earl Kliethermes
    Earl Kliethermes
  • Sherrill Pulley Mulkearns
    Sherrill Pulley Mulkearns
  • Stephanie B.
    Stephanie B.
Valerio Farris

Written by: Valerio Farris

Former staff writer at Food52. Current anchovy eater.


Teresa T. June 29, 2019
Just learned what IMHO means!! LOL!
Teresa T. June 29, 2019
My experience is that butter beans are nearly larger.vegs compared to Lima beans, or baby Lima beans which are firmer and WAY better taste and mouth feel.its like the difference between hamburgers and steak!
Jason M. April 4, 2019
I find that butter beans (the more mature light-yellow variety) are richer and smoother when mixed with other beans in a bean stew with hamburger or sausage or in a typical beans and wieners dish. Try this one:

Mix one can each (drained) of butter beans, Garbanzo beans, white beans, and two cans of dark red kidney beans in a three quart casserole dish. Separately in a shallow pan, mix two cups of water, three-fourths cup of ketchup, a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, three-fourths cup of light brown sugar, a tablespoon of salt, a couple dashes of garlic powder, and two teaspoons of dry mustard powder. Boil down the sauce in the pan to caramelize the ketchup and brown sugar and reduce the sauce to a rich syrupy consistency. Poor over the beans. Stir in a package of sliced all-beef hotdogs. Put in preheated 350° oven for about an hour. Serves many as a side dish. Serves 6-8 as a main dish.

There are lots of variations on that dish. Come up with your favorite version and try it out on a fourth of July picnic or a Church potluck. Just remember to refrigerate your leftovers promptly....and leave the lid off-centered in the fridge until the dish is good and cold.
Earl K. September 3, 2018
The butter beans are always larger and pale yellow.
Teresa T. June 29, 2019
And not as foavory as baby limas .
Sherrill P. July 30, 2018
The people who think they are an abomination have not had them straight out of the garden! And if they are "off-white", they are WAY too old. Pick them when they are small and nicely green - nothing more delicious!
Stephanie B. February 27, 2018
Who are these people who think lima beans are an "abomination"!? I love lima beans, they're so creamy and mild.
Teresa T. June 29, 2019
Baby or "immature" are the best!