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How Butter Beans Went From Gross to Glamorous

The unlikely “it” bean of 2023 has had a meteoric rise, thanks largely to vegan and vegetarian influencers who are embracing it as a main character, not a forgettable side dish

Dry butter beans spread on top of a backdrop of canned butter beans. Lille Allen | Eater

About six months ago, I started noticing food influencers on TikTok going gaga over butter beans. As an omnivore who loves meat and whose husband leans vegetarian, I often rely on TikTok for recipe inspiration, so the idea of substituting animal protein with beans wasn’t new or shocking. But reel after reel, all I saw were recipes extolling the modest butter bean. Initially, I chalked the deluge in my feed up to the nebulous “algorithm.” Yet even the bloggers and creators I follow on alternate platforms were gushing over these beans.

I was mystified. Butter beans — or lima beans, as I grew up calling them in the Midwest — are the most banal of ingredients, a boring bean relegated to the darkest corner of every home cook’s pantry. Why, then, were food influencers drowning them in luxurious sauces, crisping them up as a crouton substitute, and braising them as if they were a fine cut of meat? What the heck was going on?

Beans, broadly speaking, are having a moment. The dry bean market is expected to grow to $8.7 billion by 2028, while the canned bean industry raked in $5.65 billion in 2023 and is projected to be worth a whopping $15.5 billion by 2033, according to the market research firm Fact.MR.

Still, the prevalence of butter bean recipes among food influencers is surprising considering the bean’s divisive history in the U.S. To those from the northern half of the country, like me, lima beans are known as chalky, frozen, grassy legumes served as a side dish at Thanksgiving — possibly buttered and salted, probably ignored.

Southerners tend to have a warmer relationship to the butter bean. Scott Peacock, the celebrated chef and writer, says that for him and many other Southerners, butter beans bring nostalgia for hot childhood summers. “Nothing compares to a freshly cooked butter bean that was picked just hours prior,” he says, describing his mother’s cooking.

Despite his warm memories, Peacock notes that butter beans aren’t glamorous, and that’s part of their charm. “They’re so good because of their simplicity,” he says.

Steve Sando, founder of bean purveyor Rancho Gordo, used to subscribe to the Northerner’s view on butter beans. “I’m from California, and [butter beans] were off my radar unless they were frozen,” he says. “To me, they were the worst kind of punishment.” Once he went into the bean business, though, Sando’s opinion changed as he realized the depth of flavor the beans could have.

It seems Rancho Gordo customers also have a newfound appreciation for butter beans. Sando says the beans — which he sells as lima beans — are experiencing an “uptick” in sales. He declined to give numbers, but the brand’s Q4 shipment of beans includes purple-streaked Christmas limas.

Americans aren’t the only ones rediscovering butter beans. Across the pond, in Britain, they’re suddenly popping up everywhere.

“I didn’t realize how many people were noticing this trend,” says Georgie Mullen, known as @georgieeats on TikTok and Instagram. “But someone commented on one of my videos the other day: ‘Why is my feed all these British girls and butter beans?’”

Indeed, TikTok and Instagram are awash with mostly thin, white, British women swirling bread in bowls of saucy beans, scooping the contents, then muttering “so good” before launching into a breakdown of the recipe. The videos are all about embracing the humble bean as a main character, not a forgettable side dish.

Mullen has been a vegetarian (and now a vegan) her entire life, but she’s only recently been introduced to butter beans. “I used to use chickpeas more, but I feel like they got overused,” she says. Butter beans “hold their shape better than cannellini beans,” she says, “but are softer than chickpeas.” It’s no surprise her most viral recipe includes butter beans.

Sophie Waplington, another British vegan creator who posts as @sophsplantkitchen, has fond memories of beans. “It’s a very English thing,” Waplington says. “I think we have a very positive association with beans because of beans and toast.”

Butter beans offer Waplington’s more bean-wary viewers a way into vegan food: “They’re really tasty, you can cook them like pasta, and you can use the liquid in the stock for your recipes,” she says. It helps that her recipes are gorgeously shot, making butter beans feel decadent and not at all like protein building blocks.

Influencers and their sexy bean photography have created such a huge demand for the legumes that one brand is using butter beans as a marketing tool — despite not selling butter beans at all.

Bold Bean Co. is a London-based startup founded in 2021 by Amelia Christie-Miller, a personal chef who got furloughed during the pandemic. She began her love affair with beans as a college student in Madrid, when she opened a jar of them in her apartment after a night of partying and found them to be “absolutely delicious.” She says, “I became mad for beans.”

Christie-Miller sources beans from across Europe, jarring them so consumers can see the luscious legumes packed behind cheerful labels. The marketing worked: Bold Bean Co.’s jars of beans have become cult favorites in the British food space and are now carried by major English markets like Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.

When she started Bold Bean Co, Christie-Miller’s core business was chickpeas and kidney beans. She introduced beans labeled “butter beans” soon after, and thanks to influencers’ unabashed love for them, they’ve become key to the brand’s rising sales, which have jumped 50% since last year.

Yet Bold Bean Co.’s butter beans aren’t actually butter beans. Christie-Miller says she labeled Piekny Jas beans — which are also known as gigante, Handsome Johnny, or Royal Corona beans — as “Queen Butter Beans” to emphasize their creamy interiors.

“We’ve always been transparent that our ‘Queen Butter Bean’ is a different variety to the traditional butter bean,” she says. “That’s how the whole idea behind calling the bean a ‘Queen’ came about — to differentiate it, while making it accessible.”

Perhaps it’s deceiving, perhaps it’s smart marketing, perhaps it’s both. In any case, the strategy speaks to butter beans’ status as 2023’s “it” bean.

But if you strip away the social media hype and the marketing buzz, it makes sense that butter beans are having a moment. In an era of rampant inflation, they’re cheap. They’re creamy — er, buttery — and can easily be adapted to most any cuisine, texture, or shape you’d like. They are flexible in a way that most food is not, while also being palatable to pretty much every diet.

As Mullen says, “I used to think they were boring and bland. But beans are so much more.”

Tanya Basu is a reporter with The Morning Call. Her work has appeared in MIT Technology Review, The Daily Beast, New York, and elsewhere.