What is the difference between Navy Beans and Great Northern Beans? Can you substitute one for the other in a recipe? I am here to answer all your bean questions! Texture, flavor, cooking uses, and a little historical context for true legume geeks like me!
My Love of Beans- I am exploring more about all kinds of beans and lentils, as legumes are my current obsession. My current reading list includes “Beans: A History” by Ken Aldala, “Cool Beans” by Joe Yonam, and "Bean by Bean" by Crescent Dragonwagon.
In my kitchen comparison “Navy beans vs Great Northern beans,” I made a batch of both beans from dried beans to use in a soup and used a can of each kind of bean in a White Bean Salad to compare texture and flavor. I also got the kids involved in a taste test.
I have structured this post in order of most relevance to the average (not bean-obsessed) home cook, starting with general information about culinary applications and nutrition facts. For my fellow legum lovers, I have followed with more history and cultural context about each bean. Concluding with the taste test judged by my 8-year-old daughter!!
Navy and great northern beans may share a similar flavor, but their distinct textures make them suitable for different cooking applications. With their thick skins and creamy texture, Navy beans are perfect for hearty and thick dishes like Boston beans, pork and beans, and navy bean soup.
They can withstand long cooking times without losing shape, making them ideal for slow-cooked stews and soups. Navy beans also work well in casseroles and bakes, adding substance and flavor to oven-baked dishes. When mashed or pureed, navy beans create a creamy consistency, making them an excellent base for hearty dips and spreads.
- Common Name: Navy Bean
- Aliases: Peas Beans, Small White Beans
- Texture: Soft and velvety texture
- Size: Smallest of the white beans
- Shape: traditional kidney bean shape
- Color: White
- Taste: Nutty, Buttery, and slightly earthy flavor
- Cooking Time of Dry Beans: 90 minutes after soaking
- Best Culinary Uses: stews, dips, and purees
On the other hand, great northern beans have a thin skin and tender texture that makes them ideal for delicate dishes. They retain their shape and offer a subtle, delicate flavor, making them perfect for minestrone soup and chicken chili. Additionally, they work well in cassoulets and lighter baked dishes, where their texture and taste can shine without dominating the overall dish.
Great Northern Beans
- Common Name: Great Northern beans
- Aliases: no common nicknames
- Texture: Meaty
- Size: Lager than navy beans and smaller than cannellini beans
- Shape: Oval-shaped beans
- Color: Off white
- Taste: mild, subtle flavor
- Cooking Time of Dry Beans: 120 minutes after soaking
- Best Culinary Uses: salad, soup, and chili
In summary, the choice between navy beans and great northern beans should consider the specific texture required for the dish. Navy beans excel in hearty and prolonged cooking, while great northern beans shine in delicate and shorter cooking applications.
However, both beans offer versatility and can be used interchangeably in various recipes, depending on personal preference and availability—many people with not notice the subtle differences.
If you check your cupboards and discover you don’t have either legume, have no fear. You can use several suitable substitutes to ensure your dish turns out just as delicious.
For great northerns, you can opt for pinto beans, chickpeas, or lima beans. These alternatives offer a similar tender texture and mild taste that work well in delicate dishes. On the other hand, if navy beans are unavailable, you can easily use any white or colored bean, such as white kidney beans or black beans. In a pinch, lentils can also step in as a viable replacement. With these versatile alternatives, you can confidently navigate any recipe and enjoy a satisfying and flavorsome meal.
Other types of white beans
Butter beans (baby lima beans) and Cannellini Beans are two more common types of white beans.
If your recipe calls for white beans, you can often use Cannellini Bean as an excellent substitute for Navy or Great beans. They are slightly larger, have a meaty texture, and have thicker skin. With nutty and early flavor work well in soups and cold salads.
Butter beans are a good size bigger than the other types of white beans- making them a more pronounced and less common substitution. While butter beans are less common, I am really falling in love with their buttery texture and robust flavor- don’t be afraid to try these as a substitute.
The USDA provides the following nutrition information for 1 cup serving of each bean thoroughly cooked (boiled) without salt. (1) (NOTE that if you are cooking them, you are likely going to be adding some salt for flavor- so if you are following a low-sodium diet, make adjustments to your recipes accordingly)
- Calories 140 kCal
- Fat .62 g
- Protein 8.23 g
- Carbohydrates 26 g
- Fiber 10.5
- Sodium 0mg
- Calcium 69 mg
- Iron 2.36 mg
- Magnesium 53 mg
- Potassium 389 mg
- Calories 208 kCal
- Fat .8 g
- Protein 14.74 g
- Carbohydrates 37.33 g
- Fiber 12.39
- Sodium 3.54 mg
- Calcium 120.36 mg
- Iron 3.77 mg
- Magnesium 88.5 mg
- Potassium 692.07 mg
Health Benefits of Navy Beans and Great Northern Beans:
Are navy beans good for you? Are great northern beans good for you? In short, YES! But let’s break it down. I have cited some studies about the benefits of eating these beans. See the complete list of references at the bottom of the post.
Carbohydrates and Fiber
Navy and great northern beans are nutritional powerhouses, offering a rich blend of carbohydrates and fiber. A single serving of navy beans provides approximately 140 kcal, with 26 grams of complex carbohydrates. Most of these carbohydrates are starch, making navy beans an excellent source of quick and sustained energy. In addition, navy beans offer an impressive 10.2 grams of dietary fiber per serving. This significant fiber content plays a crucial role in various aspects of health, such as stabilizing blood sugar levels, promoting feelings of fullness, and supporting a healthy digestive system (3).
On the other hand, great northern beans pack an even greater nutritional punch. With around 208 kCal per serving, they provide 37.3 grams of complex carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are primarily derived from starch, providing the body with a reliable energy source. Furthermore, great northern beans offer 12.3 grams of dietary fiber per serving. This high fiber content provides numerous health benefits, including blood sugar regulation, enhanced satiety, and improved digestive function. (3).
Less than 10% of people in the United States get their recommended daily amount of fiber, 25 grams of fiber for women and 38 for men (1). Both navy beans and great northern beans excel as sources of fiber, making them valuable additions to any diet.
Their nutrient-rich profiles make them a smart choice for supporting energy levels, managing blood sugar, and maintaining a healthy digestive system. Incorporating these beans into various dishes can be a delicious and nutritious way to enhance overall health.
White beans are a good source of protein. Each cup of great northern beans provides 14.5 grams of protein, and navy beans have 15 grams for the same amount. For this reason, many vegans and vegetarians use northern beans or other legumes to boost their protein intake.
While both Navy Beans and Great Northern beans are good sources of protein, they are not complete sources of protein- they do not have all nine essential amino acids your body needs. By pairing white beans with grains like rice, barley, corn, and wheat- which have complementary proteins- you can ensure you get all the essential amino acids in your diet. (4)
Health Benefits of Legumes
Great northern beans are legumes. Nutrition researchers have studied legumes for years because they are nutrient-rich, easily grown, and commonly consumed worldwide. Research suggests that increasing your intake of legumes, including beans and lentils certain health benefits, including significantly lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. (5)
Navy beans, also known as pea beans, have a fascinating historical context dating back to the early 1800s. They gained their name from extensive use as a staple food in the United States Navy during the 19th century. US Navy ships relied on these beans as a primary source of sustenance due to their excellent nutritional profile and ability to be stored for long periods without spoilage. As a result, navy beans became a crucial food item for sailors during their long voyages, earning them the moniker "navy beans."
Throughout history, Great Northern Beans have held a significant role as a staple food among Native American tribes. Over time, European settlers embraced these beans and carried them along during their migration across the continent. Presently, Great Northern Beans are cultivated in various regions worldwide, including the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Common Botanical Ancestor:
Both navy beans and great northern beans, along with various other types of beans like pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, and more, share a common botanical ancestor, the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). This versatile and widespread plant species was one of the earliest crops domesticated in the Americas and played a significant role in the diet and culture of indigenous peoples.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the cultivation of common beans dates back to at least 7,000 years ago in modern-day Mexico and Central America. With Europeans' exploration and colonization of the Americas, common beans, including navy beans, were introduced to Europe and eventually spread to other parts of the world.
The common bean's cultivation and dissemination were profoundly influenced by trade, exploration, and colonization, leading to their global popularity today. This historical context highlights the cultural and culinary significance of navy beans, great northern beans, and their common botanical ancestor in shaping food traditions and cuisines worldwide. (6)
More White Bean Recipes
The Taste Test:
In conclusion, in this navy bean versus great Northern beans battle, I put to the ultimate test- a kid taste test!
When I was photographing for this post-Annette, my 8-year-old daughter, asked what I was working on. I told her it was a "vs" post similar to the animal vs book we read at bedtime. It’s a fun book series; the kids really enjoy them. In each book, animals battle after you learn about each animal. (Tiger vs Lion, Rino vs Hippos, that kind of thing)
One of the animals is crowned the winner at the end of each book. So naturally, Annette asked who wins in my vs post between navy bean and Great northern beans. But how to decide who wins? Taste? Texture? Cooking versatility? Interesting botanical history?A taste test! And Annette volunteered to be the judge. (I tried to get Jack (6) and Mary (3) involved, but they were not having it).
And the big winner of the 8-year-old test is the Navy bean!!! I try to get her to explain why she liked the navy bean best, and it seems to be a texture thing for her- which tracks with the kid's pallet.
While the Navy Bean wins the kid's taste test, don't shy away from using all the different kinds of white beans. Here are some recipes to get started. This White Bean salad is a great way to use all the different types of whites in the same recipe so you can easily compare their texture and flavor.
White Bean Recipes:
- Kale and White Bean Salad with Pesto Dressing
- Broccoli Rabe salad White Bean With Sun-dried Tomatoes
- Farro with Blister Tomato and Pesto
- White Bean Salad with Shallots
- Simply Sauteed Butter Beans
- Navy Bean Cheeseless Pizza
- US Department of Agriculture -Nutrition facts Navy Beans
- University of Rochester Medical Center- Nutrition facts Great Northern Beans
- Filling America's fiber intake gap: summary of a roundtable to probe realistic solutions with a focus on grain-based foods
- Dietary Protein and Amino Acids in Vegetarian Diets—A Review
- Legumes: Health Benefits and Culinary Approaches to Increase Intake
- “Beans: A History” by Ken Aldala