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

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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.

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

South African Bunny Chow With Butter Beans
South African Bunny Chow With Butter Beans

Crisp & Crunchy

Heidi Swanson's Pan-Fried Giant White Beans with Kale
Heidi Swanson's Pan-Fried Giant White Beans with Kale

Braising the Bar

Braised Oxtail with Butter Beans
Braised Oxtail with Butter Beans

Speckled Rice

Rice with Favas and Dill (Baghali Polo)
Rice with Favas and Dill (Baghali Polo)

Softly Simmered

Neck Bones and Lima Beans
Neck Bones and Lima Beans

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

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Legume