Green beans are the most popular holiday bean, but I suspect that’s because we smother them in creamy soups and fried onions. I have eaten and enjoyed many a green bean casserole, but my favorite bean to have on the holiday table is the lima bean (also known as “the butter bean”).
Lima beans are polarizing. My mother—who loves every other edible plant except celery—cannot stand them (because she is wrong), but she is the only anti-lima member of the immediate family. Everyone else is an enthusiastic supporter, because we have taste. When cooked correctly, they have a velvety, almost creamy texture and nutty, savory flavor. Undercooked lima beans, however, are terrible. They’re mealy, nearly chalky, and not at all fun to eat. Judging by what I have been served in many restaurants, I think that the vast majority of lima bean haters have never had fully cooked lima beans (except my mother—she really does hate them no matter how cooked they are).
Lima beans aren’t flashy. They don’t need bells and whistles (or soup and onions). If simmered long enough, their pot liquor becomes thick and creamy, thanks to their high levels of starch. They’re warm, comforting, and extremely filling, which makes them a fantastic addition to the Thanksgiving table if there are vegetarians or vegans in attendance (or if you’re trying to consume less meat).
When to soak your lima beans
Cooking beans is not hard. Rinse them, cover them in water, simmer them until they are soft. That is really the entire process. Soaking them in water the night before decreases the cooking time (and maybe gas??), but it’s really only necessary with old beans, which will take forever if you go the simmer-only route. Starting with lima beans that have been purchased within a year or so and soaking them overnight will ensure your beans cook up as quickly as possible, but I always start them an hour earlier than I think I need to, as they can be unpredictable. If you’re nervous about them getting done in time to serve with the turkey, you can cook your limas the day before Thanksgiving. They reheat on the stove like a dream.
When to salt your lima beans
This topic is widely debated amongst bean cookers. Some only salt at the end, believing that salting at the beginning will prevent the beans from softening, but the bean eaters at Epicurious found that salting early actually resulted in more tender beans. I have always seasoned my beans early, because they absorb liquid as they cook and I want them to absorb flavorful liquid. Plus I am in the Southern habit of tossing a ham hock into the pot, so there’s already a good bit of salt in there even if I don’t add sodium chloride crystals.
How to make lima beans feel special
Any lima bean can be delicious, but special occasions call for special beans. Finally, after many years, I succumbed to the bean peer pressure and ordered the Christmas Limas from Rancho Gordo (the beans with a cult following). They are huge, visually stunning, and have a lovely chestnut-like flavor that’s a little bit milder than other limas. I also really like Camellia brand lima beans, which have a hearty, buttery flavor and velvety texture. If you want a bean that will keep its shape, reach for a baby bean—they don’t mush out like the bigger boys. (Though I personally like mushy lima.)
Even if you grab a bag of generic limas from a big chain grocery store, you can make them taste amazing without too much trouble, which is the beauty of the bean. Cooking them in a flavorful stock, or adding a ham hock, smoked turkey wing, or parmesan rind adds depth and umami, and I usually toss some sort of allium in there, like half an onion, a whole shallot, or a bunch of smashed garlic cloves. I also add a pinch or (seven) of salt depending on how flavorful my broth is, or whether or not I’m using a ham hock. I also enjoy a bay leaf.
How to cook lima beans
As I mentioned earlier, it is not hard. You will need:
- Water or stock
- Add-ins such as: Ham hocks, half and onion, a whole halved shallot, smashed garlic cloves, a smoked turkey wing, a parmesan rind, bay leaves, or any other herbs you enjoy.
Rinse your beans with cold water and pick out any shriveled-looking specimens as well as anything that is not a bean. If you purchased your beans over a year ago, but within the last few, go ahead and soak them for a couple of hours. If you can’t remember when you purchased them, go ahead and soak them overnight. Want to cook some beans this week, but don’t know which day? Go ahead and start soaking them now, and leave them in the fridge until you’ve picked selected your bean evening (beanvening). If you are want to serve lima beans on Thanksgiving (and you should), buy fresh, fancy beans, or start soaking some older beans the day before. Just purchased beans don’t “need” a soak, but soaking them will shave at least half an hour off the cook time, if not more.
Add the beans and their soaking water to a pot, along with your hocks, rinds, alliums, and/or leaves. Add more water or stock until everything is covered with at least two inches of liquid. This is especially important with the large limas, which absorb a ton of liquid while cooking. If you’re using plain water or unseasoned stock, add a teaspoon of salt for every pound of beans. Bring the beans to a boil and let boil for 15 minutes, then reduce to a bare simmer and cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar to allow for some evaporation. Add hot water if beans start to poke out—just off boiling from a kettle is best.
Simmer until soft and creamy, but not completely mushy. Taste the pot liquor and try biting into a bean after an hour or so, and season with more salt if needed. If you slice into a bean and see a lighter, white section or sliver in the center, the bean is not done. It’s okay if a few start to mush out—it’s far better to have a few mushy beans than a bunch of undercooked ones. (I cooked some Christmas limas last night—without any pre-soaking—and they were done in two hours.)
Once the beans are soft and velvety, serve them. They don’t need much more than fresh pepper, but a little green onion wouldn’t be a bad idea. Heck, you could even try some fried onions. It’s Thanksgiving, after all, and I don’t see why green beans should get to have all the fun.