Butter Beans

A bowl of butter beans with chow chow and green onion

Butter beans — butter beans are used to make the soup bean dish called butter beans. These dried limas are cooked with smoked pork and/or ham until the sauce starts to thicken, hence the name “butter” beans. Like white beans, butter beans represented prosperity and were often prized dishes when served. Butter beans only refers to dried limas. Fresh or canned limas are called “lima beans”.


I might have found another southern food item as contentious as cornbread or barbecue- the question being just what is a butter bean. According to the wikipedia quote above butter beans are dried lima beans, but nearly half of the sites I referenced creating this recipe emphatically said that no, butter beans are the baby green lima beans. Honestly, the recipes are pretty much the same no matter which type you’re using. You maybe cook the fresh ones for a shorter period of time, although southern cooking often cooks vegetables for what seems like an excessive amount of time so even the fresh butter bean recipes called for an hour or more of cooking. Even among the dry lima camp I saw disagreement about whether they are the small variety or the large one. This time around I tested the recipe with small dried limas. If you try fresh beans please let me know how it turns out.

Yes, butter beans is actually what this type of bean is called (depending on which type you think it is), not the fact of their being cooked in butter. But wait, isn’t there quite a bit of butter in this recipe? Well, yeah… “Creamy” seems to be a common adjective connected with the various soup bean recipes, and apparently the secret to attaining that quality is cooking the beans with some sort of fat. Most of the soup bean recipes rely on bacon drippings or fatback, but a surprising number of butter bean recipes also included butter. When you first add it it looks like an alarming amount of fat floating on the broth, but the beans do absorb it.

I went with a quick soak method on this recipe. You bring your beans to a boil, shut the heat off and let them soak for an hour. In the meantime you start developing flavor in the cooking broth with some bacon fat, onion and spices. This also gives your ham hocks a head start on softening, so they’ll be ready when the beans are. I added the salt in this stage, but for the final recipe I’ve left it to the end, because between bacon, ham hocks, chicken broth, salted butter and added salt this was just on the edge of too salty. Taste it when it’s done and add salt to taste.

Butter beans supper, with hoecakes, fried potatoes, kilt greens and macaroni and tomatoes.

Since this is another variation on the soup beans recipe, I’ve once again included recipes for a number of common side dishes. As usual I served the beans with chow chow and green onion.

This time around I went with regular hoecakes, as opposed to the lace hoecakes I made a few weeks ago. I think both the lace hoecakes and the cornbread I posted last week are each more delicious on their own, but these are the perfect accompaniment for dipping in the beans and sopping up juices. They are thick enough to actually soak up some liquid, and have only a touch of sugar, so they aren’t too sweet to pair with the other elements of the meal.

Fried potatoes are delicious. Traditionally they’re made with leftover boiled potatoes, but it is quite possible to start from raw potatoes and create fried potatoes without boiling them first.

For the green vegetable slot I made kilt greens. No, that’s not a Scottish tartan pattern. It’s Appalachian for “killed greens”, a.k.a. wilted greens, a.k.a. hot bacon dressing.

Finally I made macaroni and tomatoes. At first glance this sounds pretty boring if you’re used to Italian pasta sauces, but somehow a couple teaspoons of bacon fat, some salt and pepper and butter transforms pasta and plain canned tomatoes into a cheap but delicious dish.

Butter Beans

Serves: 8
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 2 ½ hours
Total: ~3 hours

1 lb. dry lima beans
25 oz. green baby lima beans, fresh or frozen
5 slices bacon
½ cup onion, diced
3 ½ cups chicken stock
2 ⅔ cups water
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 ⅓ teaspoon garlic powder
1-2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon cajun seasoning.
2 smoked ham hocks
1 ¼ cups smoked ham, diced
5 ½ Tablespoons butter
Kosher salt, to taste

1 Tablespoon bacon fat, in place of bacon. 
⅓ cup celery, diced
¼ cup carrot, diced
½ teaspoon dried thyme

Place dry lima beans in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to sit for an hour. (Soaking is not necessary for fresh or frozen beans.)

Meanwhile place your bacon in a large dutch oven or soup pot. Place over medium heat and cook until fat is rendered and bacon is nearly crispy. Remove bacon and drain on paper towel. Chop and set aside somewhere where sticky fingers won’t eat it all while the beans cook. Drain excess bacon grease, leaving 1-2 Tablespoons in the pot.

Add onion to bacon grease in pot and sauté for about 5 minutes, until beginning to soften. Add chicken stock, water, seasonings and ham hocks. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, covered, while beans soak. 

Once your beans have soaked for an hour drain them and add them and the butter to the pot with the ham hocks. Continue to simmer, uncovered until beans are tender and broth is nicely thickened, 60-90 minutes more. Check every 20 minutes or so to make sure the beans are still submerged, and add small amounts of additional water if needed. Try not to stir the beans very much, especially towards the end of cooking, to avoid breaking them up. About 20 minutes before serving remove the ham hocks and allow to cool until you can handle them. Discard the skin and bones, chop the meat and return it to the pot, along with the bacon. Taste and add salt as needed.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Lorin Black says:

    Thank you!


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