Cannellini beans are arguably one of the most versatile types of beans to cook with, but that doesn’t mean you will always have a stocked supply in your pantry.
If there comes a time when you’re craving a certain recipe that calls for cannellini beans but don’t have any on you, you need to know what the best substitutes are for every occasion.
So what are the best substitutes for cannellini beans? Overall, the two best substitutes for cannellini beans are red kidney beans, to be used in recipes where color doesn’t matter, or Great Northern beans, to be used in recipes that truly require a white bean.
There are many factors to consider, however, so choosing the right substitute for cannellini beans in your cooking isn’t always so cut and dry.
In this article, we’ll describe cannellini beans in terms of size, texture, cooking time, and flavor and then compare them to 8 of our favorite potential substitutes so that you can choose which is the best solution for your particular dish.
What Are Cannellini Beans?
Cannellini beans are generally considered to be Italian, however, they were first harvested in Argentina.
They’re one of the largest white beans. You can usually find them in cans, though if you prefer your beans to be dry, ordering cannellini beans online is a lot easier and more cost-effective, especially if you’re searching for organic.
Cannellini is an Italian name for the bean, but they are also known as fazolia beans, white kidney beans, or even Italian kidney beans. Frequently, they’re simply referred to as white beans, with no other distinguishing identifier.
All cannellini beans are white beans, but not all white beans are cannellini beans. Many recipes simply call for “white beans,” like White Bean Soup, for example.
Cannellini beans are some of the most popular white beans used in North America and, in almost all cases, they can be used when or if the recipe isn’t specific.
Cannellini beans are quite large, however, so if your recipe calls for “small white beans,” it is more likely referring to Navy beans.
Even still, in many cases, one can easily be substituted for the other, as you’ll see when we continue to spill the beans later in this article.
What Do Cannellini Beans Taste Like?
When cooked, cannellini beans have a slightly nutty flavor, paired with a smooth, soft texture. Their skin is a bit thicker than a navy bean, for example, so they retain their firm, meaty texture even though they get nice and soft inside.
They’re perfect for soups, pastas, and bean salads.
Dried Cannellini Beans Vs Canned Cannellini Beans
First and foremost, canned beans of any kind are pre-cooked, so it takes the preparation time from multiple hours down to only a few minutes. That is a huge perk to buying canned cannellini beans.
They’re also sometimes easier to find locally in cans, though they’re readily available in both versions online.
If you cook your dry beans with dried herbs in the water, the flavor will sink into your beans for a fantastic natural seasoning.
You can’t do this with canned beans because they’re already cooked. Canned cannellini beans will be slightly saltier than the average cooked dry bean.
If you’re substituting canned beans for dry beans in a recipe, or vice versa, you need to be careful about how the beans are described to make sure you substitute the correct amount.
Dry beans double in size when they’re cooked, so if the recipe calls for 1 cup of dry beans, you’ll need about 2 cups of canned beans. On the reverse, if the recipe called for 1 cup of canned beans, you’ll want to cook only ½ cup of dry beans.
From a health perspective, there is research that suggests cans may release trace amounts of BPA into your food, which is known to be toxic and may be linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes, among other issues.
Nutritionally, canning food is a healthy and generally safe way to preserve not only the food itself but also the nutrition. There is very little difference in quality between canned beans and dry beans. The exception is in the case of sodium or canned beans that also contain a sauce, which is probably high in sugar and possibly a variety of preservatives.
8 Best Substitutes for Cannellini Beans
If you need to find the perfect substitute for cannellini beans in a particular recipe, there are a few different components you should pay attention to: the size of the bean, texture, flavor, and cooking time.
Not all of those factors will matter in every recipe, but understanding the elements in each possible bean substitute will help you choose the right bean for the occasion.
In the following section, we’ll describe each of our favorite cannellini bean substitutes with notes about each factor, as well as give you an idea of the most common recipes that each bean is used in.
1. Red Kidney Beans
Whether you know a lot or a very little about nutrition, a common piece of information is that different colors of plants tend to contain different antioxidants.
While the basic nutritional content of red kidney beans is almost identical to that of white kidney beans, or cannellini beans, they do have a slightly different antioxidant profile.
The darker the skin of the bean, the higher that bean will be in flavonoids, a particularly powerful and well-researched type of antioxidant.
For many years, white foods were thought to be lacking in vitamins and antioxidants, but new research shows that they simply have different kinds of phytochemicals and are still a valuable addition to your diet.
That said, in all ways except for the color of the bean itself, white and red kidney beans are completely interchangeable.
They’re the same size on average, being a large bean. They have firm skin that covers a soft, meaty interior that is perfect for meals that involve a lot of soaking or simmering, like soups or stews.
They each have a slightly nutty flavor with just a touch of sweetness, though many will argue that red kidney beans have a more pronounced taste.
Both red and white kidney beans take about 1 hour to cook if they’ve been soaked for at least 6 hours before simmering.
Use red kidney beans as a substitute for cannellini beans in any dish where color doesn’t matter. A minestrone soup, for example, would be a more suitable dish than a white cream soup.
2. Great Northern Beans
Cannellini beans are most often confused with Great Northern beans and vice versa.
White kidney beans are larger than their Great Northern cousins and have the signature kidney shape, but otherwise, they look very similar unless you’re a connoisseur of beans.
There are some important differences to make note of, however, particularly in terms of texture.
White kidney beans hold their shape better and for longer than Great Northern beans. Great Northern beans will get quite soft as they’re cooked and have a bit of a starchy, grainy texture compared to the smooth creaminess of cannellini beans.
Great Northern beans have a very mild taste, effectively soaking up the flavors of whatever they’re cooked in. In a direct comparison, cannellini beans will taste more nutty or earthy.
They take between 45-60 minutes to cook and they will go mushy if they’re left to simmer too long.
They’re best used as a substitute for cannellini beans when color matters and having a white bean is crucial to the dish, and when it is not going to be overcooked to a great degree.
3. Navy Beans
If a recipe simply calls for white beans, chances are it’s referring either to cannellini beans or Navy beans, as they’re two of the most popular white beans in North America.
They’re often used interchangeably with absolutely acceptable results, but there are significant differences that, once you understand them, may sway your decision.
Navy beans are one of the smallest white beans, whereas cannellini beans are the largest. Depending on your recipe, Navy beans may get lost in a sea of vegetables or cannellini beans may stand out as too firm in a baked bean casserole.
Navy beans are very soft beans, losing their shape easily and turning very creamy. They are ideal for making dips or to put in quick soups that don’t simmer for hours at a time.
Even though they’re smaller and cook up softer than cannellini beans, they still take an average of 1½ – 2 hours to cook thoroughly.
For this reason, if you’re substituting Navy beans for cannellini beans in a soup or stew that will stay simmering for a long time, add your beans before they’re completely cooked and they’ll finish cooking with the rest of the recipe.
4. Baby Lima Beans
Baby lima beans substitute reasonably well for cannellini beans, but they do have a unique texture.
These are the smallest white bean you can find, which is obviously quite a contrast to large white kidney beans. Because they’re so small, you’ll want to cook them carefully.
Baby lima beans are starchier than cannellini beans. If you’re using them as a substitute you want to soften up the grainy texture as much as possible without overcooking them, which can turn them mushy.
Simmer them for 45 minutes to 1 hour, but keep a close eye on your baby beans.
In terms of flavor, because they’re immature beans, baby lima beans have a mild flavor that is more sweet and buttery than the earthiness of a white kidney bean.
However, when they’re cooked, they both will usually take on enough of the flavors of the recipe that this difference won’t be very noticeable.
5. Butter Beans (Lima)
Fully grown lima beans are more comparable to the size of white kidney beans, often growing even larger. They’re commonly referred to as butter beans because of their buttery flavor and creamy texture.
Again, lima beans are a starchy legume. So they will work well in recipes that feature other starchy vegetables like potatoes. Puréeing them into a cream sauce or a bean dip is also a delicious option for these beans.
The texture of lima beans, because of the added starch, tends to be a bit mealy or gritty, so keep that in mind when you’re using them to substitute for cannellini beans, which are prized for their smooth, firm consistency.
Even though lima beans are quite large, they will usually be thoroughly cooked within 1 hour, especially if they’ve been well soaked first.
5. Garbanzo Beans
You can substitute garbanzo beans for cannellini beans in recipes that feature the cannellini as a meaty ingredient, with lots of attention.
They also work as a perfect substitution in bean dips, since chickpeas are most well known for being the main ingredient in hummus.
Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are mid-sized round beans shaped like a pea. They are very dense and retain their firm texture even after hours of cooking.
They’re mild-flavored with similar nuttiness compared to white kidney beans, so they’re a good match in that area.
Chickpeas are extremely common and easy to source, but they do take the longest to cook. They usually require close to 2 hours of simmering to be enjoyable.
6. Borlotti Beans
Borlotti beans are one of the prettiest beans you can find, being a lovely speckled beige and pink color. That is the most noticeable trait of Barlotti beans, also known as cranberry beans or Roman beans.
Borlotti beans are smaller than cannellini, being a medium-sized bean. They’re often substituted for Pinto beans, as they are a very similar size, taste, and texture.
Compared to cannellini beans, they’re creamier but not quite as firm as the larger white bean. Cannellini beans are often used in bean salads or cold pasta dishes, and Borlotti beans make a great substitute in these situations.
They’re a mid-sized bean that holds their shape well, and to cook them perfectly they’ll need about 1 ½ hours.
7. Black Beans
Black beans are almost the exact opposite of cannellini beans in terms of size and color. These beans are small to mid-sized and very black compared to the large white kidney bean.
What they do have in common, however, is popularity. Black beans are very common in most North American households and they make a quick and easy substitute for this reason alone.
In terms of texture, black beans cook up soft and slightly sweet, with a hint of earthiness that is also seen in cannellini beans.
They do keep their shape well, which is, at least in part, thanks to their quick cooking time. Black beans will be thoroughly cooked, even without soaking, within ½ hour to 45 minutes.
For obvious reasons, black beans are not a good substitute for cannellini beans in dishes that are meant to be white or light in color, but in Mexican recipes, they are a very smart substitution.
8. Fava Beans
Fava beans are also commonly called broad beans and have a very unique and signature flavor.
They are nutty, similar to white kidney beans, but stronger-tasting. Depending on the bean, they might be a bit sweet or slightly bitter and many people even describe them as cheesy.
This signature flavor sets them apart from almost all beans, but if you enjoy the taste, they can still be used as a good substitute for the milder cannellini beans in certain recipes.
Fava beans are quite large, fairly dense, and very meaty. If you’re making a vegan or vegetarian main dish that you want to be hearty, broad beans are a good selection. They work well in soups and salads, provided you enjoy the flavor.
Cooking dry broad beans is a bit different from cooking cannellini beans and it can be a bit time-consuming.
Broad beans have an outer skin that is bitter and should be removed before eating the beans. The easiest way to do this is to cook them about halfway, approximately 1 hour, and then drain and rinse the beans.
When they’re safe to handle, squeeze each bean individually to pop it out of the pod shell. Once they’ve all been de-skinned, you’ll want to continue cooking them for another 45 minutes in fresh water.
Are Cannellini Beans Good for You?
Cannellini beans are good for you, especially when they are only one part of an otherwise well-balanced and nutritious diet.
Thanks to the amount of protein you get per serving, they are a healthy way to protect muscle mass and overall cellular health.
While it’s not difficult to get enough protein in your diet, it’s always nice to consume a variety. Beans are a particularly great addition to a plant-based diet.
The fiber present in beans is very good for your digestive system, though it may take a while for those new to beans to adapt to this fiber.
Over time, sufficient fiber intake has been shown to improve gut health, reduce risk factors for heart disease, and help maintain a healthy body weight.
How Do You Cook Cannellini Beans?
There is still a lot of debate over whether or not you should soak dry beans before cooking them. If you choose to soak your beans for 6 or more hours, then you’ll want to rinse them well under cold water before cooking them.
You can quick-soak your beans by adding them to a pot with water that covers the beans by about an inch and then bringing the water to a boil. Turn the heat off and let the beans soak for at least an hour before rinsing and cooking.
To cook soaked beans, add them to a pot with 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of beans. Season as you’d like. Bring the water to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 1–1 ½ hours.
If you prefer to cook your beans unsoaked, rinse them well and then place them in a pot with 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of beans.
Cook for 1 ½–2 hours, adding more time and water as necessary until you get the desired texture for your beans.
If you’re cooking with canned cannellini beans, they are already cooked and can be added to any recipe without adding time for cooking the beans. It is a good idea to rinse them thoroughly before using them.