Wait! Stop! Don’t Peel Those Fava Beans!

I’ve been singing this mantra for years, it seems, to absolutely no effect as Americans stubbornly persist in doing what no self-respecting Italian cook would ever do. What’s that? you ask. Peeling fava beans—that is, peeling the outer tender skin of each and every individual bean. What a waste of time! What a waste of flavor!

Where does this weird practice come from? I suspect from the French professional kitchen where chefs are constantly challenged to come up with new tricks and trucs to keep their enormous brigades de cuisine in operation. In Italy, where restaurant kitchens are run much more economically, no one has to dream up tasks—there are enough to go around and more.

But why do Americans insist on this? Every food writer except one (me) says you have to peel beans. Then they go through elaborate rigmaroles to show you how to do it. No wonder fava beans are not exactly popular despite their magnificent, slightly earthy flavor, so very different from string beans or limas. Every spring or summer I feel like climbing up in the pulpit and shouting: YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THAT—IN FACT, IT IS COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE!!!

You see, by removing the skin of each bean, you also unquestionably remove much of that very earthy flavor that makes these tender early-summer delights so, well, delightful. Without the skin, hmmm, you might as well be eating peas. (I think Elizabeth David said that but I can’t find where.) So leave the skins on, as British and Italian and Spanish cooks all do, and enjoy the earthy sweetness of fresh fava beans. And if the French want to persist with their fiddly chore, let ‘em do so but don’t be drawn into it in your own kitchen.

The English call them broad beans, which is what they used to be called, not surprisingly, in this country too before they somehow drifted out of favor, to return only recently under their Italian name of fave (fava in the singular which is seldom used). So why don’t we prepare them the way Italian cooks do? Don’t ask!

The illustration shows the right size for fava beans and maybe that’s the problem. Baby bean is for eating raw (as we do in Tuscany in the early spring, pairing small tender fava beans with fresh young pecorino cheese); mama bean could also be eaten raw as part of an antipasto, but mama and papa beans are at their best cooked. Anything bigger than papa bean, in my kitchen at least, gets chucked. Great big beans like that are suitable only for drying. Dried fave are an important winter store in the Mediterranean and make a magnificent pureed bean soup, especially if served with bitter chicory greens in the soup or on the side. But we’re concerned with fresh fave at this time of the year.

Baby bean brings up another issue: when they come across a pod the size of baby bean’s, my Middle Eastern friends don’t even shuck out the beans. They just top and tail and cut up the pods, as if they were green beans, and cook them right along with the shucked beans. (When I tell Italians about that they wrinkle their noses, same as you Americans when confronted with unpeeled beans. Chacun à son goût, babe!)

Whenever you make fave or broad beans, you need plenty of garlic, olive oil and fresh lemon juice. For a recipe, see my post on May 17, Springing for Fave: http://nancyharmonjenkins.com/posts/springing-for-fave/


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    17 Comments

    1. Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      Couldn’t agree more Nancy. We relished broad beans when I was a child in England and never considered peeling them. And the textural difference between skin and interior was very intriguing. And the Catalans, for whom broad beans, pork ribs, and blood sausage is a national dish, don’t peel them either.

    2. Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      I am with you!

      And I grow favas. Right here in Maine.

    3. Chandra
      Posted March 29, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for posting this! I just bought a bag of dried fava beans for the 1st time – – usually use canned. Wasn’t sure how to cook them, and found site after site advising to peel them not once, but twice. Ugh. Seriously? This blog entry came up because I actually googled “Do I really have to remove outer skin on fava beans?” What a great find your article was.

    4. Posted June 10, 2012 at 1:21 am | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing this information. I am making fava beans at home for the first time and I’m glad to see I don’t need to peel them twice. Most of mine appear to be Mama or Papa size. I hope to source some baby size beans in the near future to try them raw. One question–do you wash them before you cook them?

    5. Posted June 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Chandra, I did want to issue a clarification: When I talk about not peeling fava beans, I mean fresh beans. The dried ones, if they have the skins on, should have the skins removed. (Sometimes you can find dried peeled fave, but more often they have the skins on.) It’s easy to do: Soak overnight in water to cover, then the next morning the skin or peel should lift right off, sometimes with a little nudge from a paring knife.

    6. Jenn
      Posted January 10, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      I just came upon this post while searching to see if fave skins can be eaten. Every January I enjoy anticipating spring by starting fave (Windsor Broad) under grow lights to plant out in February. There is nothing more peaceful than sitting in the first spring sunshine on the patio, shelling the favas that grew during chilly February and March (at least in zone 7). Growing broad beans is easy and rewarding– they produce some of the first flowers of the season, dramatic cream and black blossoms. Not only shoul everyone eat the skin, everyone should also try growing these harbingers of spring!

      I’m so enjoying your blog and your philosophy of food!

    7. Posted January 11, 2013 at 3:37 am | Permalink

      Jennifer, that’s a lovely picture–you sitting on your patio in the sunlight shelling fava beans, what a peaceful prospect!

    8. Posted March 6, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      A colleague linked me to this site. Thnx for
      the details.

    9. Jennifer
      Posted April 22, 2013 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! You saved me the chore. We grew fave this year for ground cover, mainly. I didn’t want to waste them, but was dreading the prep. Now, I’ll probably go out and pick the rest of them.

    10. Mandy
      Posted May 19, 2013 at 12:13 am | Permalink

      Just received a large amount of Fava Beans through BountifulBaskets.org and the beans are huge in comparison to your pics!! By what I read you say to throw them away?? If not what recipe would you recommend I should use with them being that large? Any advice would be great since I have never had them before!

    11. Posted May 25, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Fava beans are something I really miss since we really don’t get many if any at all here. I still remember when I was a kid going to the public market with my mom and aunts and opened my first fava bean. I was immediately struck with how regal the shell itself is, it is a velvety lined and softly cushioned, almost the perfect place to grow.
      My mouth is watering just thinking of them, we used to make them boiling a little water onion and fava with a little salt and olive oil.
      Next time you get favas, look at the inside of the shell and yes we used to eat the tender shells as well.
      Helping businesses on the big island, Hawaii with there digital presence
      Ted

    12. Posted May 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      Mandy, I’m sorry your comment slipped past me while I was traveling and I didn’t see it till now. If it’s not too late, I’d say, no, don’t throw out those beans you bought. Instead cook them up for a soup or a puree, put the beans through a normal hand-cranked vegetable mill (not an electric food processor) and the mill will hold back the tough skins on your beans and leave you with a beautiful puree that you could thin with some light chicken or vegetable stock to make a soup, or simply mix with some nice olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe a spritz of lemon, and pile the puree on toasted slices of country style bread for a fine spring bruschetta.

    13. Shelley
      Posted July 12, 2013 at 1:39 am | Permalink

      What about when using the fava bean in falafil? Would you leave the shell or skin on them then, too?

    14. Posted July 12, 2013 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      You make falafel with dried fava beans, not fresh ones. When they are dried, the skin becomes very tough and leathery, hence should be removed for falafel. It’s very easy to remove the skins from dried beans–once they’re soaked the skins almost slip right off. Or you can sometimes find skinless dried beans which are fine for falafel. In either case, the beans must be soaked before grinding them up for falafel.

    15. Posted May 5, 2014 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      We call em broad beans in Aus too. I never understand some of the terminology going around.

    16. Posted May 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      They used to be called broad beans in the US but then they dropped out of favor and returned with Italian immigrants, hence given an Italian name–fava, or fava beans. What do Italians in Aus call them?

    17. Posted October 12, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Nancy!

      Yours is the second site saying ‘don’t peel’ and I appreciated your article BUT THEN, I read further that you amended your post with advise to peel the dried ones.! I’ve cooked the dried twice in my rice cooker and I think they taste fine without peeling! So…..

      best,

      Will

    3 Trackbacks

    1. By Pride Week: The Green Dinner | Cooking for 20 on June 11, 2012 at 2:33 am

      [...] the words of Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of several cookbooks on Mediterranean cuisine (emphasis mine): [...]

    2. By Don’t peel those favas! | Adinas Acres on April 18, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      [...] Don’t peel those favas! [...]

    3. [...] not require major surgery for extraction from their pod.  For a quick understanding of favas, read Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ blog post.  Nancy happens to be the author of one of my favorite cookbook, The New Mediterranean Diet [...]

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