Growing, Harvesting and Shelling Fava Beans

Fava beans

I admit it — if fava beans weren’t so good for the soil, I likely wouldn’t grow them at all, edible or not. Hidden inside those fat long pods are handfuls of delicious beans, but they make you work for it. Really work for it.

Shelling the beans is a labor-intensive process, one that should be done on a (not so) lazy Sunday around the kitchen table or on the back porch while you watch your kids play. You might even enlist your kids to help, or bribe a friend to do it with you. It’s a lot of time to spend on a bean.

But despite the seemingly neverending shucking involved, fava beans have a buttery goodness that you don’t find in other beans, making the toilsome undertaking a true treasure hunt.

Fava beans (Vicia faba) are also known as faba beans, broad beans, horse beans, field beans, and Windsor beans. These Old World beans hail from Europe and are among the most ancient crops to be cultivated, dating back to at least 6000 BC.

The fava bean is a prolific, low-maintenance variety grown in cool weather. In my zone 10b climate, I sow seeds in the fall and harvest beans through winter and spring. (They can also be started in spring and harvested through summer.) They are unaffected by cold conditions and clay soils, but are susceptible to rust, a fungal disease of the leaves.

Fava beans grow as rigid, upright plants from 2 to 5 feet tall and often require staking as they mature.

Mature fava bean plants

The young leaves are pale green, tender and delicious. Yes, you can eat them! (And unlike the beans, which are a chore to prep, fava leaves are ready to eat right off the plant. If you want to grow favas for their nitrogen-fixing properties but fend off the guilt of not harvesting the beans, just eat the leaves!)

Trim the tender tops off your plants and make a salad with other seasonal favorites, like spinach and citrus. Fava leaves have a sweet and nutty flavor, just like the beans.

Fava leaves are edible

The beautiful flowers bloom in clusters and are reminiscent of orchids.

Fava flowers

Beautiful fava flowers are reminiscent of orchids

The fruit from these flowers grow as long, dense, bright green pods. Picked early, while the pods are still skinny, fava beans can be eaten whole like any other bush bean.

Immature fava bean pod

But if you wait until the pods reach 6 to 8 inches long, you’ll be treated to the delectable beans favas are known for.

Mature fava bean

Mature broad bean

Harvest the beans when the pods are large and bright, but not over-bulging.

Winter harvest of broad beans

To start shucking the bean, start at the pointy end of the pod and snap back the tip with your finger.

Start peeling the pods on one end of the bean

Peel the broad bean from one end

Peel back the string until the pod is completely split along its seam.

Split the fava bean along its seam

Once the pod is split open, you’ll find a row of beans inside, but these are not the actual beans you’ll eat (trust me, I’ve tried).

Split the pod open to reveal the beans inside

Each bean is covered with a thick, waxy shell that you have to shuck to get to the goods.

Shelled fava beans

Shelled broad beans

The easiest way to do this is to parboil the beans for no more than a minute.

Parboil the beans to remove the waxy outer coating

Strain them, then dunk the beans into an ice water bath to stop them from cooking.

Strain the parboiled fava beans and dunk into a bowl of ice cold water

You may notice that some of the outer shells (now a dull grayish-green) have started to split open, revealing vibrant green beans inside.

Dunk the beans in ice cold water

Now that the shells are soft and pliable, it’s quite simple to squeeze the sides and pop out the bean. You can also slice the top of the shell with your fingernail and squeeze the bean out that way.

Squeeze the bean out of the outer shell

A shucked broad bean

In general, a pound of pods yields around a quarter-cup to a third-cup of shelled fava beans. At that rate, you can see why this process calls for a lot of patience and perhaps a glass of wine while you work!

Shelled fava beans

My favorite way to prepare fava beans is in a risotto with little more than onion and butter. The simple recipe really lets the smooth and rich flavors of the favas shine.

In fact, you can even make an all-fava meal, starting with a fava leaf salad (add sliced oranges, crumbled feta, chopped walnuts, and a drizzle of vinaigrette), a fava leaf pesto for your linguine, and a side dish of fava beans sauteed with garlic and shrimp. I haven’t yet found a way to incorporate fava beans into dessert (fava bean ice cream, anyone?) but I’ll report back if I do!

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December 17 2012      29 comments     Linda Ly
Jardín   Leguminosas

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  • twsarah

    can these be dried like a lima bean or navy bean and if so do you leave the last shell on??????????????????/

    • Linda Ly

      Yes, dried fava beans are common in Latin cooking and I’ve seen them shelled, double shelled, and even split. It likely depends on how you’ll want to prepare them later.

  • Jeri

    Love your site. I am hoping you may answer a question for me…I would like to know when to harvest fava beans and if they mature all at once or throughout the season. If they mature all at once I want to plant another crop in their place once finished. I can not wait to try them! I have a sister-in-law who loves them and loves that I am growing them. I don’t think she has eaten the leaves yet, so I will have to make her a salad next time she is over. Thanks for you time.

    • Linda Ly

      I pick mine at 6-8 inches long, just the way you see them in the pictures. They don’t mature all at once, but do so within a few of weeks of each other. Oftentimes I’ll get a second crop from my plants.

  • Kris Hithgoda

    Hi Linda I came across your blog awhile back when looking into whether broad bean leaves were edible. Such a lovely site over all. I grew another crop and tried the leaves for the first time today. Such an interesting flavour raw. Still bean esque. I cooked some garlic creamed spinach style (which is normally what i do with silver beet apart from a yellow silverbeet curry) as a side. Yumo! Anyway greetings from Melbourne and happy gardening and cooking :) Kris

    • Linda Ly

      Thank you Kris! Happy cooking to you too. It sounds like we share a great curiosity for all the edible crops in our gardens. :-)

  • Linda Ly

    You’re welcome! Enjoy the fava leaves in a salad or saute… even a soup. They’re abundant in spring.

  • Eric

    I did not realize that you could eat the leaves. I will be sure to try this this year as well as blog about it. Thanks for the excellent post and the inspiration!


  • Pingback: Earliest Bean to Plant | the pea project

  • Brande

    I grew favas once, and unfortunately, I didn’t get a good enough yield to justify the effort. But, what I’m wondering is…how many plants do you plant? I don’t have a ton of space and I think my harvest would be a “one and done” (perhaps enough to make the risotto!). I do love them though, and would like to try again. There’s just my husband and me, so how much should I plant?

    • Linda Ly

      I plant my favas about 6-8 inches apart, so I get about 6 plants within a 4-foot row in a standard raised bed. That’s enough to yield beans for risotto (with plenty of greens for a fava leaf salad as well). Since the plants grow tall and skinny, I feel they fit better in corners and other unused spaces around the garden, so I stick a seed wherever I have an 8-inch square patch of soil against a wall (or wherever it won’t block the sun).

  • Broderick

    Hey, thanks so much for this post! I’ve got some broad/fava beans in flower at the moment, and can’t wait till they form pods. Didn’t know you could eat the leaves though! Will have to try those in a salad.

  • Linda Ly

    You can eat whole fava beans unshelled when they are young, similar to the way you eat green beans. But when the pods are mature, they’re much too tough to chew, even after cooking. Mature beans should be shelled if you want those yummy beans inside.

  • Nancy Mueller

    I have an Italian friend who introduced me to Favas. She gets hers from a friend. She doesn’t shell them, never does when they are fresh. She said that is only necessary when they have been dried.
    My favas are happily growing, even with our cold weather…and I look forward to yummy favas.

  • Brittany

    You’ve inspired me to buy some fava bean seeds and start my own! I love risotto, so now I even know what to do with them. :)

    • Linda Ly


  • Melissa

    We call them broad beans here in Oz, although just as delicious I’m sure!

    I grew a beautiful heirloom scarlet flowered variety last winter and the beans that resulted were much smaller and could be eaten young without shucking. 

    The large beans from the taller long pod variety always need peeling.

    My broad beans always seem to be ready along with new potatoes, so Potato, broad bean, mint and fetta frittata (Spanish Omelette) is my favourite way to eat them!

    • Linda Ly

      That sounds delicious! May have to try that!

  • James Hodge

    When planting the bean, how deep and what is the spacing?

    • Linda Ly

      I sow seeds about 4-6 inches apart and 1 inch deep. Thin the plants to about 8 inches apart.

  • Sherri Greene

    Those actually look delicious to me!

    • Linda Ly

      They are!

  • Martin

    We don’t usually have to remove the waxy shells from Broad Beans in the UK- if you pick them at the right time, the whole bean is soft- older mature beans certainly will be tougher- I guess it is just a matter of keeping an eye on tjeir maturity.

    • Linda Ly

      I can eat fava beans whole (like green beans) if I pick them very young, but I love the texture of the actual bean out of a mature pod.