How do I choose the best white beans?

White white beans.

Several different types of common beans can be called navy beans, including navy beans, great northern beans, and cannellini beans. The best specimens of all varieties have smooth, creamy skin when fresh or dry, without wrinkles, dark spots, or holes, and tan when cooked. The shell should be thin and delicate, while the interior of the bean should be relatively starchy, with a slightly nutty flavor. These beans work best in stews, soups, and salads, paired with fresh herbs, meat, or dairy.

Great Northern Beans, a type of navy bean.

Navy, Northern, and Canelini beans are slightly different in size and shape, but share their light color and slightly nutty flavor. You can usually substitute one variety for another in recipes, although canelini beans are slightly larger than the other types and are used in traditional Italian recipes, while navy beans are about as small as peas and are traditional in baked beans. Northern beans are medium in size and texture, making them very versatile for cooking.

Cannellini beans.

These beans can be purchased fresh, dried, or canned; fresh beans produce the best results, dried beans cost less, and canned beans provide the most convenience. If you buy fresh or dried navy beans, look for samples with off-white to cream-colored skins with no holes, cracks, or wrinkles. Avoid discolored beans, which can spoil, as well as beans with very hard shells, as they can be difficult to cook. When buying canned beans, make sure the can is intact, with no rust or dents.

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Assorted beans including hyacinth or lablab beans at top left and cannellini beans at center right.

All navy beans can be cooked by boiling or boiling them in water, with canned beans cooking the fastest, followed by fresh and dried types. Beans are fully cooked when the skin turns light cream to brown and slightly transparent, covering a soft, starchy interior. Beans are undercooked if they become crunchy or resist biting, and overcooked if they begin to lose shape or fall apart.

Navy beans go well with onions and garlic.

These beans work best in dishes that emphasize their softness and delicate flavor, such as salads, baked goods, and soups. Traditionally, navy beans are often paired with sweet flavors like brown sugar or maple syrup, meats like pork or bacon, and fresh herbs like sage, bay leaf, and rosemary. They also go well with butter or cream in some soups and alliums like onions and garlic. Navy beans work best in European and North American cuisines, but they are not a good choice for chili peppers, fried beans, and similar dishes.

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