What is it?

Fava beans (Vicia faba) originated in North Africa and have been grown around the Mediterranean for thousands of years. They’ve been farmed for so long, in fact, that there is no known wild variety. As explorers traveled to Asia and the Americas, they brought favas (also known as broad beans, faba beans, and horse beans) with them. Cultivation spread quickly around the world, because the beans are an excellent protein and fiber source, the plants withstand cold well, and they make a great cover crop to fix nitrogen in the soil.

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While fava beans look a bit like lima beans, they’re less starchy and fuller in flavor: nutty and slightly sweet, with just a hint of bitterness and a discernable taste of cheese. Though popular in other parts of the world, especially the Middle East, where both fresh and dried fava beans are eaten, favas are still considered a specialty vegetable in North America. That’s too bad, because aside from being delicious, fava beans are incredibly healthful and quite versatile. Cooked until tender, they turn buttery and can be added to soups, salads, or pastas, braised as a side dish, puréed for a dip, or eaten plain out of hand as a snack.

Grown in large, fleshy pods that have a thick, cottony lining, each flat fava is encased in a pale, fairly thick skin, which becomes thicker and more bitter as the favas grow larger. Except when the favas are very young (1/2 inch or smaller), these skins should be removed (see How to Prep, below).

Kitchen math:

3 lb. fava beans in their pods = about 2 cups shelled and peeled favas.

Don’t have it?

Edamame have the same tender texture and bright-green color; they make a decent substitute for fresh fava beans.

How to choose:

When buying favas, choose pods with an even, grassy-green color and few or no brown spots. The pods should look and feel plump.Look for small to medium fava beans, which are more tender and sweeter than the starchier larger beans. Avoid those that have beans bursting out of them—this means they’re old. Leave the beans in the pods until just before cooking.

How to prep:

To shell and peel fava beans

First, break open the pods. Sometimes you can slide your finger along one side, opening the seam as you would a zipper, but other times you just have to break the pod apart in pieces.Blanch the favas in boiling water for one minute, drain, and then cool under running water. Or transfer the favas to a bowl of ice water.Favas have one wider, slightly flattened end with a scar where it was attached to the shell. Grasp the fava between your fingers with the scar facing up, and with the thumbnail of your other hand, tear into the scar end and peel back. Pinch gently and the fava will slide right out.

Peeled favas need to be cooked just until tender, anywhere from 8 to 12 minutes, depending on size and freshness. Most fava recipes call for braising, starting by warming the favas in a little oil or butter, then adding liquid and cooking until tender.

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How to store:

The fava pods can be stored in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer for up to 1 week. Shelled, blanched, and peeled favas can be frozen for up to 1 year.