Cannellini beans are large, white beans with a kidney-like shape and a delicate flavor. The best specimens have a smooth, sturdy skin and an even color. Choosing the best beans depends on your purpose for their use and the preparation time for the planned dish. Also known as white kidney beans and fazolia beans, cannellini beans are common in Italian cooking. You can buy these beans canned, dry, or fresh, and cook them as part of soups or stews, salads, and braised dishes.
This bean is about 0.5 inch (1 cm) in length, and 0.25 inch (0.5 cm) wide, with a distinct white to cream-colored skin and an oblong shape similar to that of the red kidney bean. Cannellini beans hold their shape well when cooked, and closely resemble great northern and navy beans, which work as substitutes for cannellini in some recipes. This delicate-tasting, nutty bean makes a good choice in recipes that call simply for white beans.
Look for cannellini that have a consistent color, with no dark or chalky spots, and a smooth, shiny skin without wrinkles. Beans should look plump, not shrunken, and shouldn't contain many clumps of dirt or stones. When buying fresh cannellini, choose long, thin, yellowish to light green pods that are slightly dry or wrinkled to make shelling easier. Very fresh cannellini beans can be difficult to remove from their pods if they aren't allowed to dry slightly first.
The beans that you choose also depend on for what you plan to use them and how much cooking time you have available. Canned cannellini beans are the most convenient, but also the most expensive, and produce a slightly less flavorful product with a mushy texture that works fine in soups, but isn't ideal for salads. Dried beans take considerably longer to cook, but are relatively inexpensive and keep on the pantry shelf for months at a time. Fresh cannellini beans can be difficult to find, but cook more quickly than their dried cousins.
Traditional Italian cooks use cannellini beans in cold salads with olive oil and other seasonings, or as part of slow-cooked ragout-like dishes with or without meat. Cannellini also do well in soup and stew, though they must never be overcooked, as they will disintegrate into starchy mush. The liquid left over after cooking dry cannellini beans can be added to soup stock to thicken it without the need for flour or cornstarch. These beans' mild flavor pairs well with vegetables, pasta, and fresh herbs, such as basil.