Broad beans, also known as fava beans, are an easy to grow, high yielding bean that is versatile in the kitchen after some simple and fun preparation. This is my personal experience of growing, cooking and eating broad beans in my own garden, and some of the associated health and nutritional benefits.
1. Growing – Broad beans are remarkably robust. I scattered seeds around in winter in a variety of conditions and they flourished pretty much anywhere. They grew equally well in good and poor soils, and in both full sun and full shade (on the south facing wall of a shed). The only place that they struggled was under the eave of a house with very limited access to water. Admittedly, this year was a relatively wet spring and good for growing, but in terms of growing speed, they outperformed the weeds and grasses that they were competing with in my yard.
Broad beans thriving in the rocky, shallow soil next to my shed
The beans form bushes up to around 1.4 metres high when fully grown, with a strong vertical stem that supports near horizontal branches about half a metre long that hold the beans. Try not to plant them next to walkways, as they need space to grow sideways and will block your path if unchecked. A typical yield from a single plant was around 80-160 beans, with harvesting a gradual process over several weeks as different pods on the same bush matured. Broad beans were much higher yielding than the garden peas that I had grown the previous year. I grew the broad beans without pesticides or fertilisers, and although caterpillars attacked the leaves towards harvest time, the pods remained free of pests or disease, highlighting their resilience.
2. Harvesting - For harvesting your broad beans you have three options, depending on how you want to cook them. Firstly, you can harvest the fully grown pods when they are green for your early season crop. At this time they will be tender, slightly oily and encased in a soft pod with a furry lining. Alternatively, you can pick the individual pods, branches or the whole plant and dry them out. I dried out individual branches by hanging them upside down in a shed, and under a covered verandah, and achieved similar results in both locations. Lastly, you can leave the beans to dry out naturally on the bush, but this can take several weeks longer than drying the harvested beans, which is an opportunity cost for your summer planting. The pods are ready when they turn black and become brittle under your fingertips, and the beans inside their casing turn a pale yellow.
A dried out broad bean branch with brittle pods, and some of the yellowish, dried beans (with skin on)
3. Cooking - Broad beans have a bad reputation compared to other legumes because of the additional preparation time involved, however I found this grossly overstated. Broad beans are encased in a pod, which is easily split by applying pressure along the edges before prying it apart to reveal the beans, which can readily be scooped out with your fingers. My kids also showed me a different technique, which involved ripping off the top of the pod and then squeezing beneath each bean until it shot out like a cork from a champagne bottle, so this step can also be a lot of fun.
Unlike green beans or garden peas, broad beans have what I would describe as a skin with a plastic-like texture, that is generally unpleasant to eat. The simplest cooking method for broad beans is to roast the green beans in their skins in the oven at a high temperature (notionally 200 degrees Celsius) for around 30 minutes or until you see the skins peel, shrivel and scorch. The beans can then be eaten whole, including the scorched skin, and resemble a taste similar to roasted or pan fried green beans, with a slight hint of bitterness that contrasts with the sweetness of the inner bean.
My roasted broad bean pods and beans with slightly scorched and shrivelled skins
For all other preparations, even when using the dried beans, you need to parboil the beans for 2 to 3 minutes (by either steaming or boiling) before plunging them into cold water. This process is known as blanching. An ice bath is widely reported as necessary at this step, but I found that chilled water out of the tap or fridge performed just as well as an ice bath. To remove the skin, simply squeeze the bean on one edge and the bean will slide out of its skin underneath your fingertips. I found this process and the earlier process of shelling the pods to be therapeutic due to its tactile, repetitive nature, provided that you set aside the time to devote to it and are not in a rush.
If you harvest your beans when they are green, after parboiling and removing the skin you can eat the beans as is. They taste similar to a garden pea but are oilier in texture and slightly more bitter in taste (but still sweet). However, the green beans are best suited to inclusion in cooked dishes, such as adding to stir fries, or mashed potatoes. If using in stir fries, it is important to not stir fry for more than a further 2-3 minutes or the beans tend to go mushy. Dry roasting the unskinned broad beans doesn’t work (believe me, I tried!), because there is simply too much moisture in the beans, and they turn mushy long before they dry out.
My vibrant green, lightly steamed broad beans
If you harvest your beans when they are dried, they are rock hard and cannot be eaten unless you soak or boil them. If you skip over the growing and harvesting part, and buy broad beans in a health food store, this is typically how they will be sold. I soaked my dried, peeled beans overnight, and then boiled them for about 5 minutes before draining and using them in my cooking. At this stage, they taste similar to a yellow split pea, but because of their larger size, they are an impressive additive in vegetable soups.
My main interest in the dried beans was to dry roast them. I must admit, I had several goes at this using several different recipes, and came to the conclusion that the best results were achieved by (i) thoroughly soaking the beans, followed by (ii) a few minutes of boiling to get some moisture back into the beans then (iii) lightly coating the beans in oil and (iv) roasting them at very high temperature (notionally around 250 degrees Celsius) for a short period of time (typically around 10-15 minutes). That way you get a dry, crunchy outer bean but retain a softer textured bean inside. I found that roasting them for longer periods of time at lower temperatures tended to dry them out too much and they became plastic-like in texture. I don’t feel like I’ve completed nailed down the perfect roasting recipe, and have not yet tried pan frying them, but look forward to further experiments next harvest.
My best effort at roasting the dried beans - still yummy but room for improvement
4. Eating and Nutritional Value Apart from their delicious taste and versatility, broad beans are widely reported to have various health properties. According to the Australia New Zealand Food Nutrient Database (Food Standards Australia / New Zealand, 2011-13), broad beans are high in protein, dietary fibre and energy, they are fat and cholesterol free, and if you grow them yourself, they can be pesticide and herbicide free as well. Relative to green beans and under similar cooking processes, per unit weight, broad beans have more than twice the energy, four times the protein, half the sugar, and more Vitamin B1, B2, B3, B6, C, E, iron, magneium and folate. On the flip side, they have more fat and starch than green beans, and less beta-carotene.