The Meaning Of Butter Beans Depends On Where You Live

It is a well-established fact that butter beans and lima beans are, in fact, two different names for the same legume. A white bean from the Phaseolus lunatus plant, butter beans are popular all throughout the world and can be found in a number of recipes from soups and salads to hummus. However, there are only a handful of places that actually call them butter beans.

Depending on where you are in the world, a familiar food could go by a completely different name. For example, over in Europe, the spicy green Americans know as arugula is called rocket, while eggplants are often referred to as aubergines. This veritable thesaurus of names can cause a decent amount of confusion for those unfamiliar with local vernaculars. This principle is applied globally to a number of foods, including butter beans.

So, the true difference between butter beans and lima beans is not so much to do with their molecular composition as it is to do with who is cooking or growing them. While the rest of the world can call them lima beans, Madagascar beans, butter peas, or chad beans, in the American South and the United Kingdom, you'll hear them called butter beans. And the reason behind it shouldn't surprise you at all.

The butter in butter beans

The bean itself originally hails from the South American nation of Peru. Though pronounced with a heavy "i" as opposed to "e", lima beans are named in honor of Peru's coastal capital, Lima. And while bean brands tend to base their official marketing on this honorific title, the "butter" in butter bean came about in a very straightforward way.

A raw, fully mature lima bean has an off-white, light beige color that turns completely opaque when cooked. This color, along with the fact that the cooked beans have a rich, buttery flavor and creamy texture, led to the legume's comparison with another staple: cow's milk butter. Now, there is nothing official stating this is why butter beans are referred to this way, but you have to admit it makes sense.

The United Kingdom and the Southern United States have been calling them butter beans for as long as anyone can remember. In the South, they are considered a staple ingredient and are used to make such iconic dishes as skillet beans with salt pork, and succotash.

The latter dish is said to have originated with the Native Americans, where butter beans were part of the trio of staple crops known as the Three Sisters, which included corn and squash. In the U.K., you're more likely to find them in a soup or stew or served alongside some type of meat like game, chicken, or sausages.