fava beans

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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    37 Comments

  • Reply Rachel Laudan July 21, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    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.

  • Reply Mister Meatball July 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    I am with you!

    And I grow favas. Right here in Maine.

  • Reply Chandra March 29, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    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.

  • Reply Kate June 10, 2012 at 1:21 am

    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?

  • nancyharmonjenkins
    Reply nancyharmonjenkins June 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    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.

    • Reply Gertrude October 30, 2015 at 8:15 am

      Thanks for the clarification. I’ve had these dried fava beans in my cupboard for longer than I’d like to admit, and have not used them because peeling them after they cooked for eons was not an easy task. I think I even soaked them before, but never thought to peel them before I cook them. I’m sure the firmer texture of the uncooked bean will make it a lot easier to peel. Plus, it’s nice to go straight into making the recipe after cooking them for so long.

    • Reply HimalayanChef May 8, 2016 at 11:17 pm

      Thnaks. That’s a very important clarification. If one is making Pugliese fave puree from dried beans, the peeling seems to be essential

  • Reply Pride Week: The Green Dinner | Cooking for 20 June 11, 2012 at 2:33 am

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

  • Reply Jenn January 10, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    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!

    • nancyharmonjenkins
      Reply nancyharmonjenkins January 11, 2013 at 3:37 am

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

  • Reply mining tender March 6, 2013 at 3:44 pm

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

  • Reply Don’t peel those favas! | Adinas Acres April 18, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    […] Don’t peel those favas! […]

  • Reply Jennifer April 22, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    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.

  • Reply Mandy May 19, 2013 at 12:13 am

    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!

  • Reply Ted May 25, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    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

  • nancyharmonjenkins
    Reply nancyharmonjenkins May 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    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.

  • Reply Whole wheat pasta with fava beans, dill, and mint | June 22, 2013 at 9:17 pm

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  • Reply Shelley July 12, 2013 at 1:39 am

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

    • nancyharmonjenkins
      Reply nancyharmonjenkins July 12, 2013 at 1:53 am

      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.

  • Reply Perth Copywriting May 5, 2014 at 3:33 am

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

    • nancyharmonjenkins
      Reply nancyharmonjenkins May 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm

      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?

  • Reply Willard Morgan October 12, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    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

  • Reply Kat R. December 5, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    I am Russian and I was pretty disappointed when I could not find raw fava beans in the store in USA. I do get them from time to time at the international market though. Eating them raw is very common back home, especially among kids. And I still love doing that. Lots of flavor, protein and iron!

    • nancyharmonjenkins
      Reply nancyharmonjenkins December 5, 2014 at 8:21 pm

      Katerina, thanks for your comment. I’d love to know how fava beans are prepared in Russia. Is it traditional to peel the individual beans before using? And are they more commonly used fresh or dried?

  • Reply Vaiva May 12, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    In Lithuania, my parents were growing them by the fence in the garden. We used to work in the garden all day and then cook huge pods of broad beans in water with salt. When cooked, we take pod by pod and snack on the beans. They were young, still green, not dried, so there was no need for peeling the skins.

  • Reply ThePrez May 27, 2016 at 9:31 am

    Here in Japan, it seems to be common to say that the black “end” — for lack of a better term… this is the portion where the bean was actually connected to the pod I think — needs to be removed from the skin. Any experience with that?

  • Reply Samia L. August 4, 2016 at 11:23 pm

    I guess I’m going to make everybody angry, but I find that young fresh broad beans (mama & papa size) are way nicer in terms of taste & texture when you, yes, go to the trouble of removing those skins. It is worth it.

    Chacun a son gout, right?

  • Reply Olga September 11, 2016 at 11:24 am

    My first time cooking fresh favas, and I am so happy I found your article. I love cooking, but prefer fast meals that come out delicious, as opposed to slaving on the kitchen for hours. I enjoyed your writing and followed you on Facebook, which I rarely do. Now please excuse me – I am off to cook those beans using your recipe that looks wonderfully easy and delicious!
    Cheers
    Olga

  • Reply Christina vL March 11, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Broad beans cooked in their pod, mmm, this soft hairy inside pod does nt look appealing to me. Broad beans need to be eaten when quite young, out of their pods naturally but inside their shell. They are delicious. When older they get bigger, yes, and also more unpallatable. Bigger ones good for stew etc. And what to do with all those DRIED beans? (apart from saving some for next years allotment). How to shell these? How to cook. Any tips anybody? Btw, the scent (perfume) of flowering broadbeans is magnificent too. Worth growing for this reason alone…

    • Nancy Harmon Jenkins
      Reply Nancy Harmon Jenkins April 19, 2017 at 10:10 am

      thanks for your comment, Christina. In Mediterranean kitchens, dried broad beans are a valuable addition to the winter pantry, and turned into wonderfully filling soups. Without the tough outer skins of the individual beans, which come off easily after overnight soaking, they will collapse through cooking into a thick puree. In Puglia, that puree is served with steamed bitter chicory greens and often pickled red onions, a great combination.

  • Reply Amy Berliner April 23, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    We always peeled our fava beans at the mama and papa phase and we are Italian. However, I had a Portuguese friend who showed me that you didn’t need to do that if you got the pods when they were at the baby fava stage. She cut off the ends and cooked them with linguica, tomato, onion base, add chicken stock and braise. Then she cracked some eggs in the broth to poach. I swapped the linguica with Pancetta and my Sicilian father likes them better cooked that way! You can teach old dogs new tricks 🙂 We also toss them in olive oil and salt and BBQ them. Then you can eat the pod and all!

    • Nancy Harmon Jenkins
      Reply Nancy Harmon Jenkins May 1, 2017 at 11:44 am

      What a great idea, Amy Berliner. I’m going to try this next time fave beans show up in my market.

  • Reply Mike May 7, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    We grind dried favas in our recipe for GF flour- great waffles. Usually we use Bob’s Red Mill brand, and those beans are relieved of their “unsavory” peels (quote on the packaging, maybe Bob’s French?). However we could get only unpeeled beans with our last order, and could not find guidance on the internets. So we experimented by first making a test batch of popovers- which, for obvious reasons, do not quite pop over- but they tasted just fine. Waffles this morning were great! Unpeeled favas are maybe even a little better, the skins perhaps added more depth to the savoriness, but maybe it was just that the flour was fresher!

  • Reply Sophia June 15, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Hi, When working with dried fava beans (with their skins), I’ve found that even after soaking and cooking the beans, the skins remain rubbery. Would you recommend peeling the beans when working with dried fava? Thans in advance

    • Nancy Harmon Jenkins
      Reply Nancy Harmon Jenkins September 14, 2017 at 2:15 pm

      Better late than never: yes, I would recommend soaking the dried beans, then peeling them, and then cooking. Tedious but worth the effort.

  • Reply Laney August 5, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    I just bought fresh fava beans for the first time. My mom is Italian and my mom and grandma used dried favas often, but I wanted to try the fresh ones. I am confused by how to prepare them as most recipes say to blanch them to remove the skins. …So if I’m not removing the skins, do they still need to be blanched? I have an idea to add them to a pasta nero di seppia e gamberi dish.

    • Nancy Harmon Jenkins
      Reply Nancy Harmon Jenkins September 14, 2017 at 2:17 pm

      Sorry, Laney, I’ve taken a long time to reply and you’ve probably cooked the beans by now. But no, even though most recipes say you must peel the individual beans, if they are young and tender it is decidedly not necessary. And you don’t have to blanch them ahead of time. I’m following what cooks in Italy, Spain, and Greece do. You only peel the individual beans when they are big and fat and tough. Unfortunately, since that’s mostly what we get in this country, our young chefs have turned to peeling them. That’s fine in a restaurant kitchen with plenty of staff but most home cooks don’t have that luxury. And don’t need it if the beans are young.

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