White bean, fennel, and rosemary soup

October 22, 2008 at 3:38 am (B plus (3.5 stars, like a lot), Beans, Italian, My brain, Quick weeknight recipe, soup)

This is my favorite version of white bean soup, at the moment.  It’s a light soup with a thin broth, but the beans make it very filling.  The fennel adds sweetness and a bit of crunch, and the rosemary adds a subtle forest aroma.  I usually just throw this together, so I don’t have exact amounts yet. I’m guessing here, but I’ll measure everything next time I make it.


  • white beans
  • water or vegetable broth
  • rosemary
  • onion
  • fennel
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • radishes (optional)
  • parmigiano-reggiano (optional)
  • olive oil (optional)


  1. In a 3 quart saucepan, add 3/4 cup small white beans and 3 cups of water.  Bring to a boil.
  2. Add 1/2 tsp. salt and a sprig of rosemary, reduce the heat to low, and cover loosely.  Simmer gently for about 1.5 hours, or until the beans are almost soft.
  3. Add a cup of vegetable broth, or more water to the beans, 2 cups of very thinly sliced fennel, and a small onion, diced.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the fennel is tender but still a bit crisp.
  4. Add 1 Tbs. of minced rosemary, and freshly ground black pepper.  A nice garnish is halved or quartered radishes.  They add a pretty pink color, and a bit of peppery bite to the soup. You can also grate a bit of parmigiano over each bowl if you like.
  5. Serve immediately.

If you don’t have rosemary, you can sub in another herb of your choice.  If you use a bouillon cube, remember to reduce the salt.

If I already have beans cooked, then I’ll start by sauteing the fennel and onions and rosemary in a bit of olive oil, then add the beans and broth afterwards.

Derek said the soup was tasty, but it was a little too bland for him.  He thought it needed “a little something extra.”

This soup doesn’t last too long in the fridge. It gets thick and sludgy and unappetizing. I try to finish it the day after I make it, or at the latest, two days later.

Rating: B+
Derek: B

Update Nov 6, 2010:

I cooked 1 cup of a medium white bean in 4 cups of water with 1 tsp. of salt.  The beans were just labeled “white beans” in German but I think based on the size that they were great northern.  When they were soft I sauteed about 5-6 cups very thinly sliced fennel in a Tbs. of butter with one small red onion cut into thin rings.  Next time I think I would use olive oil rather than butter.  I added all the veggies to the soup along with another 4? cups of unsalted, homemade vegetable broth.  When I served the soup I sprinkled about 1/2? tsp. rosemary on top of each bowl and let people add grated parmesan to taste.  I thought the soup didn’t have enough beans.  Next time I think I would use 1.5 cups of these beans, or just make less soup so there are no leftovers.  Maybe with small navy beans you only need 1 cup, but the beans I bought were  big enough that there aren’t actually all that many with only 1 cup. Also, I overcooked the fennel and onions by letting them sit a while in the hot soup.  They ended up a bit stringy.  Maybe cutting them into smaller pieces would be better–or at least adding them to the soup only right before serving.  Even a few fennel pieces that were raw when I put them in (that didn’t get sauteed) ended up very soft.  The broth was pretty good I thought, but Derek and my guests added more salt.  I served 3 small bowls as appetizers, and then Derek and two guests both had seconds.  There were about 2.5 cups of soup left.

Derek liked the soup.  He even commented that this is one of the very few soups that I make that he actually looks forward to.

What are the differences between different types of white beans?

Cook’s Illustrated says they all originate from the pole bean, and taste very similar, but the textures are different.

  • Cannellini beans (the largest at about 0.9 inches after cooking, also called white kidney beans) have the thickest skins, which keeps the inside of the bean creamy.  Their flavor is buttery with a subtle mushroomlike character, and their texture is meaty and lush.
  • Great Northern beans are a bit smaller (0.69 inch long when cooked), and have more tender skins and slightly less creamy flesh.  Cook’s illustrated says they have strong mineral notes and their texture is slightly chalky and mealy.
  • Navy beans (0.52 inch long) are the most tender and soft, but their thin skins slip off easily and contributed an almost chewy texture.  Their flavor is nutty and sweet, and their texture is very creamy.
  • Small white beans (not the same as navy beans) are mild and bland, with a chalky texture.

In a test of all three beans in their Tuscan White Bean Soup (January/February 2001), Cook’s Illustrated found that tasters preferred the creamy texture and larger size of the cannellini beans, but the great Northern beans tasted nearly as good. However, they say that the navy beans yielded too high a ratio of skins to flesh. They say that navy beans, however, are excellent in baked beans because the acidic molasses helps keep bean skins intact during the long cooking, so this is not an issue.

A post from July 24, 2006

White beans in a crockpot: I often don’t like how my beans come out–too soft, and falling apart, or still a bit tough no matter how long I cook them, or bland sometimes. But I cooked small white (navy?) beans last week and they came out wonderfully. I started out with beans I had just purchased from the co-op. I put two cups of beans in my crock pot and covered them with water, added a few cloves of peeled garlic and a tsp. of salt. I cooked them overnight on low. When I tasted them in the morning they were done, and the broth was incredibly flavorful. I was happy just drinking the broth! I had soup without adding anything at all.

Note regarding Cook’s Illustrated recipe for Tuscan White Bean Soup:

The recipe calls for pancetta, but for a vegetarian variant they suggest adding a 2 ounce piece of parmesan rind to the beans while they cook.  I’ve done this several times and never detected any great improvement in flavor.  Their recipe (to serve 3 – 4) calls for boiling 1/2 pound of dry beans in 6 cups of water, with a medium halved but unpeeled onion, 2 unpeeled garlic cloves, a bay leaf and 1/2 tsp. salt.  This results in a slightly musty tasting soup.  I suspect that the slow-cooked garlic (and perhaps the onion, bay leaf, and parmigiano too) adds to the slightly dark, funky taste that’s at odds with the light, fresh soup I’m going for.  Also, for me 1/2 tsp. salt is not quite enough for 1/2 pound of dry beans.  Perhaps the pancetta adds salt as well, which is why the vegetarian version ends up not salty enough?

The cook’s illustrated recipe says the best way to infuse the soup with rosemary flavor is to submerge a rosemary sprig in the boiling soup, then cover and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.  I’ve never found that this adds enough rosemary flavor for me.  I like to sprinkle minced rosemary or sage into each bowl.

The original recipe from January 2001 says soaking is not necessary, and the beans can be simmered gently on the stove in salted water.  When I try this with cannellini beans they’re a bit tough, and many of the bean skins have fallen off.  The updated recipe in 2008 for hearty Tuscan bean stew says to soak the beans overnight in salted water.  Brining the beans allows the salt to soften the skins but keeps it from penetrating inside, where it can make the beans mealy.  They say to dissolve 3 tablespoons salt in 4 quarts cold water in a large container, then add a pound of cannellini beans. Soak at room temperature, for at least 8 and up to 24 hours. It’s necessary to drain and rinse the beans well after they’re soaked, or the soup will be too salty. To produce perfectly cooked beans with intact skins they recommend gently cooking the beans at a near-simmer in a 250-degree oven. Cook’s Illustrated also says that if you’re going to add tomatoes to your soup, add them toward the end of cooking, since their acid interferes with the softening process. To make your soup more substantial, they suggest serving the stew on a slab of toasted country bread, drizzled with fruity extra-virgin olive oil.

Note added Nov 9, 2008:

I tried making the chickpea, fennel, and orange zest soup from The Complete Italian Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop.  The soup called for tomatoes, but I decided to leave them out.  I added the 1 tsp. of orange zest called for, but I couldn’t really taste it in the final soup, so I added some minced rosemary to each bowl for more flavor.  In the end the soup was quite good, pretty similar to my white bean version.  I think the white beans are creamier, so I prefer them over the chickpeas, but the chickpeas make a nice variation.


  1. Erik said,

    I need to start making more things with fennel. It is such an underrated vegetable, and I have to admit that I have limited its usage to basically a replacement for celery. But it has so much flavor that it deserves a top billing from time to time.

  2. captious said,

    I made this soup with sage instead of rosemary, and it was also quite good. I think I have a slight preference for the rosemary version, but if you only have sage then by all means swap it in.

  3. Fennel braised in vegetable broth « The captious vegetarian said,

    […] at 10:10 pm (B plus, Derek’s faves, French, Italian, Vegetable dishes) I was planning on making white bean, fennel, and rosemary soup this weekend, but I overcooked my white beans and so I ended up making a white bean and rosemary […]

  4. What to do with fennel? « The captious vegetarian said,

    […] sliced in soup, with white beans and rosemary (or sage), with chickpeas and tomatoes, or with mushrooms and […]

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