Shell beans are easy to grow and easy to store, but may not be right for every garden. We'll share what they are and how to use them, and pros and cons of adding them to the garden.
What are shell beans?
Shell beans are beans grown for shelling. You eat the seed of the bean rather than the pod, like green beans.
You can eat the fresh shell beans in recipes like succotash, or preserve them as dry beans for later use. Fresh shell beans cook more quickly than their dried counterparts.
Some varieties include:
- Tiger's Eye (our favorite) – These have a rich, buttery texture.
- Silver Cloud Cannellini bean
- Vermont Cranberry beans
- Jacob's Cattle
- Red Kidney
- Black Turtle
- Borlotti beans (a type of kidney bean)
Runner beans can be eaten young as snap beans, or allowed to mature for use as shell beans.
How do you plant shell beans?
Plant shell beans after danger of frost is past and soil has warmed to 60°F (16ºC). Plant seeds about an inch deep. Avoid excess nitrogen in the soil, and water weekly if rains fail.
How you plant them depends on the type of beans.
If you have bush beans, allow 4 inches of space between plants. Plant in rows 8 inches apart.
For pole beans, plant in hills with 4 plants per hill, trained up a “teepee” style support. Alternatively, plant in double rows with a trellis between, spacing plants three inches apart.
See “Grow Pole Beans” for more details on growing beans and saving bean seed.
How Do You Eat Shell Beans?
Enjoy fresh shell beans from the garden or farmers market when the seeds inside are full and bumpy.
If you want to eat them fresh, pick them before the pod begins to dry out and get leathery. For dried beans, allow the pods to dry completely on the vine. You can store the beans for a couple of days in the refrigerator, but don't keep them too long.
To cook fresh shell beans, remove the seeds from the pods and rinse them in a colander.
Place the beans in a stock pot with enough water to cover them by about an inch. Add desired herbs, like bay leaf and garlic, but hold off on the salt until cooking is done.
Bring the beans to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until tender. Smaller, younger beans cook more quickly, older beans may take around 30 minutes or longer.
When tender, remove from heat and add salt to taste. Allow the beans to cool, and drain, if desired. Toss with butter or olive oil and additional fresh herbs, or add to soups, salads and other recipes.
To save fresh shells beans for later use, freeze cooked beans in an airtight container. You can also freeze the raw beans on a cookie sheet, and then pack them into an airtight container to add to soups and stews.
How to Use Dried Beans
To use my dried shell beans, I rinse them and soak them overnight with a little cider vinegar.
The acid medium (vinegar, whey) helps to neutralize the enzyme inhibitors (phytates), making beans and grains more digestible and nutrient-dense.
In the morning, I drain them and place them in a large stock pot. Cover the beans with water about two inches higher than the beans.
Bring the beans to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and slow cook for several hours, until tender. Proceed with the rest of the recipe, like homemade baked beans.
See “Bean and Lentil Recipes – More than 66 Recipes from Soups to Dessert” for dozens of ways to use your beans.
How Long do Dried Beans Store?
For best quality, use dried beans within one to two years.
Stored in an airtight container with an oxygen absorber, dried beans last for many years. As the years go on, however, they take longer to cook. Eventually, they're still edible, but never get very soft, even with extended cooking.
Pros and Cons of Shell Beans in the Garden
We grow shell beans every year, but they may not be a best fit for every garden. Here are some things to consider.
- Easy to grow
- Excellent keepers (see “Easiest Vegetables to Store“)
- Healthy bean plants add nitrogen to the soil
- You need a lot of plants to get enough beans for storage, because you don't use the pods, so these aren't great for small gardens.
- If you're growing the beans for dried beans, you only get one harvest per plant.
- If soil is high in nitrogen, bean plants won't produce well.
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Originally posted in 2009, last updated in 2021.