Dried cannellini beans can be difficult to find. Are dried great Northern or navy beans comparable replacements?
All three beans come from a common ancestor: the pole bean. But are they interchangeable? To find out, we soaked several different brands of each type separately for 12 hours and then cooked them in fresh water. The flavor was nearly identical in all three, but the texture was not. Cannellini beans (measuring an average of 0.9 inch long after cooking) had the thickest skins, which kept the inside texture creamy. The great Northern beans (0.69 inch long when cooked) had more tender skins and slightly less creamy flesh. Navy beans (0.52 inch long) were tender and soft, but their thin skins slipped off easily and contributed an almost chewy texture.
Next, we tested each bean in our Tuscan White Bean Soup (January/February 2001). While tasters generally preferred the creamy texture and larger size of the cannellini beans, most found that the great Northern beans tasted nearly as good. Because the navy beans’ skins came off so readily, however, these beans yielded too high a ratio of skins to flesh. While navy beans are great in soups specifically designed for them or in dishes like baked beans (where the acidic molasses aids in keeping bean skins intact during the long cooking), we would avoid using them as a substitute for cannellini beans. If you can’t find cannellini beans, great Northern beans are the best stand-in.