All About Peas
The ultimate guide to fresh and frozen peas, snow peas, sugar snap peas, and pea shoots, with 16 easy recipes that make the most of them
Featured pea photographs by Rachael Nusbaum
At the first hint of warmer weather here in New York City, I start my hunt. I roam the farmers’ markets in search of those first, delicate vegetables — the sign that winter is over. It starts with pea shoots, the tender stems and leaves of the pea plant, harvested before the pods have fully formed. And then, of course, come the peas. Fresh, irresistible peas.
There’s a reason peas are the first vegetable many babies eat: They’re naturally sweet. And parents like them because they’re packed with nutrients. When my son was tiny, he couldn’t get enough. I’d defrost frozen peas, mash them just a bit to prevent any chance of choking, and place them right on the tray of his high chair. He was so delighted when he learned to pick them up and transport them to his mouth. These days my picky eater loves sugar snap peas, shelled peas not so much — but they’ll always have a special place in my heart. I love peas so much myself, I just keep serving them. One day he’ll dig in again, just like he did as a baby.
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Types of peas
In the spring, your pea options go beyond that bag of frozen peas in your freezer. One advantage of buying fresh peas: When they’re very fresh, they’re delicious raw.
Shelling peas, also known as English peas, green peas, and garden peas, are the unprocessed version of what goes into those freezer bags. The pods are thick and tough, so you must open them up and remove the peas before using. Peas begin to convert their sugar to starch as soon as they’re picked, so buy them as close to the farm as possible.
Snow peas are the broad, flat pods you’ll often find in Chinese stir-fries. They’re less overtly sweet than shelling peas, with a milder flavor. You eat these whole — a good thing, considering how tiny the peas are. While you can purchase them frozen, thawing leaves them limp. Whenever possible, buy snow peas fresh.
Sugar snap peas, or simply “snap peas,” are another kind of edible pod. (In France, both snow peas and snap peas are called mangetout, which translates into “eat all.”) Botanically, they’re a cross between shelling peas and snow peas, so they have the best of both: Plump, crunchy pods and sweet peas.
Pea shoots, also known as pea greens or pea tendrils, are the leaves and tender stems from the pea plant, sometimes with buds or blossoms attached. They’re harvested before the peas themselves are mature, but they pack much of the flavor and nutritional punch of their full-grown elders. When you see pea shoots available, grab them — they have a very short season. (If you shop at Asian markets, though, pea shoots are often available for longer than at farmers’ markets.) Use them in salads, stir-fries, soups, and as a pretty, delicious garnish.
Beyond sweetness and beauty, peas have much to offer, and there are a few tips to know for enjoying them at their best.
What are the health benefits of peas?
Let’s talk about nutrition: 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of peas contains plenty of fiber, a type of carbohydrate that helps protect you against conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and helps keep you regular. Peas also provide protein, antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and several key phytonutrients.
Peas belong to the legume family — the same family as beans, which you may already know offer numerous health benefits. While there isn’t much research specifically focused on fresh peas, studies have shown that eating legumes can help prevent cancer, diabetes, and other health issues related to inflammation.
Fresh vs frozen peas
When it comes to shelled peas, other than convenience, the key difference between fresh and frozen is texture. Frozen peas get blanched before they’re frozen, so after thawing they’ll be softer than fresh (that’s why they’re so great for babies). Because the growing season for fresh shelling peas is so brief, frozen peas are your best bet for most of the year. Petite peas are shelling peas picked young — they’re the sweetest of all.
How to buy peas
Look for firm, glossy, bright green pea pods — avoid any that are broken, blemished, wrinkly, or soft. Bigger isn’t better when it comes to peas, since younger ones are sweeter and more tender. Too big, and the pea becomes unpleasantly starchy and dull-tasting.
How to store peas
Keep any variety of fresh pea in plastic bags, whole and unwashed, in the fridge. Because shelling peas go from sweet to starchy so quickly, use them within two days. Peas with edible pods last longer, but only slightly: Eat snow peas and sugar snap peas within three days.
Recipes for shelling peas
The one drawback to shelling peas: You have to get them out of the pods. But it’s easy. Snap off the stem end and pull down the attached string to “unzip” the pod. Press the seam to pop it open, and sweep your thumb along the pod to release the peas. Expect one pound of fresh pea pods to yield around one cup of peas. (While the pods are too tough to eat, you can use them. Keep them in the freezer for when you make vegetable or chicken stock.)
For this easy, elegant appetizer, sweet peas get whirred with ricotta and lemon juice to form a chunky spread for crostini. Top that with more peas, tender asparagus, and a healthy sprinkle of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
When you really want to play up the flavor of fresh spring peas, you can’t beat this classic French soup. Leeks, garlic, and thyme add flavor, and crumbled bacon adds crunch to each bowl. Serve with sliced baguette, bien sur.
Spaghetti carbonara is one of those perfectly simple, ready-in-a-flash Italian dishes. Egg yolks and Parmesan cheese create a luscious, creamy sauce in seconds. Adding the pop of fresh sweet peas not only makes it pretty — it means you’ve got all four food groups in a single bowl.
Top a white pizza with prosciutto and a simple salad made with quickly blanched fresh peas, red onions, and feta. The creamy, crunchy, hot-cold, salty-sweet combination covers all the bases.
Recipes for snow peas and snap peas
Prepare both of these edible pea pods the same way as shelling peas, with one key difference: Rather than splitting them open and scooping out the peas, all you need to do is snap off the tips and pull down to remove any chewy strings (some edible pea pods have strings, some don’t).
Bright, crunchy snap peas get a quick blanch before you saute them with shallots, garlic, and a squeeze of lemon juice. It makes a lovely side dish for simply-cooked meats and fish.
Think of this as an updated version of the Chinese take-out classic, featuring marinated flank steak stir-fried along with pea pods (and optional jalapeño, if you like things spicy). You can use either sugar snaps or snow peas here.
Ready in just 15 minutes, this satisfying dish is packed with all the hallmark flavors of Thai cuisine — sweet from snow peas, salty from fish sauce, sour from lime juice, and spicy from red chili. Fresh cilantro and basil, stirred in at the last minute, add a classic herbal note.
This beauty goes all-in on peas, using three different types: fresh or frozen green peas, snow peas, and pea shoots. Serve it on a bed of arugula and spinach, and toss with the creamy lemon dressing. If you’d like to boost this to center-stage, top it with salmon or steak.
Recipes for pea shoots
Because fresh pea shoots are usually harvested while the plant is young, you should be able to eat the entire shoot — but if the stems get thicker than about 1/4-inch, you may want to trim them.
Because they’re so delicate, pea shoots cook really fast. This simple, five-ingredient side dish is ready in just 10 minutes — and that includes prep time. The pea flavor shines.
Fresh, healthy, and bursting with flavor and crunch from pea shoots, chickpeas, and raw veggies, this is the kind of salad-for-dinner made for warm spring evenings. The fact that it’s ready in just 15 minutes doesn’t hurt, either.
Think of this as a cross between a stir-fry and a salad. Pieces of chicken spend a few minutes in the wok (or frying pan) with ginger, a red chile, garlic, and Chinese five-spice powder. When the meat is just about cooked, in goes a bit of sugar and lime juice. At the very end, you toss in pea shoots and tender lettuce leaves. Topping it with a handful of raw sprouts or cress adds a lovely contrast.
This incredible meal starts with a clever shortcut: prepared butternut squash soup. To make the ramen, you thin the soup with some extra broth, add a little soy sauce, and bring it to a boil. Pour it over a bowl of uncooked rice noodles and let it sit for a few minutes, then add tofu, scallions, and pea shoots. A bit of sambal oelek and sesame oil add spice and depth.
Recipes for frozen peas
A bag of frozen peas is the secret to countless easy weeknight dinners. Toss a handful into chicken pot pie, shepherd’s pie, fried rice, pasta dishes, pasta salad, soups, and anywhere else you could use a bright, sweet burst.
Asparagus and peas are two classic signs of spring, and they meet in this easy one-pot meal. Browned chicken thighs braise in a Dijon-white wine sauce, with a smoky accent from diced bacon. Garnish with minced herbs like parsley, tarragon, or chives, and serve with egg noodles or rice.
Short of eating them straight out of the bag, there’s no simpler way to prepare frozen peas than this: Melt some butter in a large skillet, add the peas straight from the freezer, and cook just until they’re heated. Season with salt and black pepper, stir in a handful of fresh mint, and you’re done.
Puree basil with thawed frozen peas, baby spinach, garlic, and pine nuts to create a milder pesto than the all-basil version. Using those veggies gives the pesto a nutritional boost, too. Serve this slathered on crostini or tossed with pasta, topped with toasted breadcrumbs for crunch.
A creamy risotto with bright lemon flavor gets a pretty, vibrant boost from a handful of frozen peas, tossed in at the end along with Parmesan, butter, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
Explore more fresh spring flavors
Mother Nature is busting out fresh veggies and fresh fruits right now. Here are more ways we’re diving into the bounty.