There are three kinds of peas. Peas that are shelled and the seeds are eaten either fresh or dried. Peas that have edible pods—the seeds and pod are eaten together whole. And peas that can either be shelled or eaten whole.
Shelling peas are valued for their seeds. Shelling peas are also called garden pea, green pea, baby pea, early pea, English pea, June pea, and by the French name petit pois. The seeds of the shelled pea are best eaten fresh shortly after they have been picked and shelled.
Garden peas for shelling have parchment-like pods that are too stringy to eat. That’s why they are best shelled. (But you can add unshelled garden peas to soup broth for flavor.) Shelled garden peas are also called fresh peas. Shelled garden peas have wrinkled seeds and high sugar content. They are usually cooked as a vegetable.
Shelling peas also include field peas which are left on the vine to mature and dry. Later these peas are harvested and shelled. Field peas have smooth, hard seeds and are easily stored. Smooth seeds are starchy and are most often used whole or split in soups, stews, or cooked and eaten plain.
Common field peas are either yellow or green and are grown specifically for drying. Other field peas are the black-eyed pea, chickpea, and cowpea or southern pea.
Edible-podded peas are eaten whole, both seed and pod. They can be eaten fresh or after they have been fresh frozen. Edible-podded peas include snow peas—also called Chinese snow pea or mange-tout, their French name (which means eat-all)–and sugar snap peas, also called sugar peas.
Snow peas have translucent, bright green pods that are thin and crisp. Their seeds are tiny, tender, and sweet. Snow peas are known for their crunchy texture and sweet flavor. Snow peas were not developed in China but in Holland. They were originally called Dutch peas, not Chinese snow peas.
Sugar snap peas—also called sugar peas–are a cross between English or garden pea and the snow pea. Sugar snap look like an English pea but smaller, smooth, and curved, and they are sweet and crunchy with an edible pod like a snow pea.
Edible-podded peas can be served fresh or briefly cooked so that they don’t lose their crisp texture.
Sugar peas are peas that can be eaten either whole or shelled—the third category of pea. Young sugar peas can be eaten seed and pod together just like you would string beans, but if you wait for sugar peas to mature you can harvest them for shelling and eat them just like a garden pea.
There are more than 1,000 varieties of peas.
Peas facts and trivia. Peas originated in Persia about 12,000 years ago. From there they spread to Asia Minor, Palestine, Greece, and Rome, and from Rome to Britain and Europe.
In classical Greece peas were known as pison. Peas were a principal food for the poor during medieval times. The Old English word for peas was peason. In the eighteenth century, peason was shortened to peas.
The earliest peas grew wild in bogs and were as large as marbles. Dutch farmers during the sixteenth century were the first to develop small, sweet, tender garden peas. Those peas became a culinary craze in England and France during the seventeenth century. The English liked garden peas so much that they became known as English peas. The French gave ordinary peas harvested young the French name, petits pois.
Peas are a cool weather annual. They are planted just before the last frost and are harvested early in spring—called “early peas”, and late in spring—called “late early” or “main crop peas.” Peas are also planted and harvested later in the year before the first frost in fall.
Under cool temperatures, garden peas do not mature rapidly and can be harvested for several days. But when the weather warms, pea seeds accumulate starch rapidly and should be harvested and eaten quickly.
Peas in the Kitchen
Choose. Peas for shelling should have a swollen cylindrical shape and should be bright green. Shell immediately after harvest for the sweetest flavor.
Edible-podded peas are best harvested when they are 2-3 inches (5-7.5cm) long and before the seeds begin to swell.
Field or dried peas will have withered or yellowed pods at harvest.
Store. Unshelled peas will keep in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 1 to 3 weeks. Shelled peas will keep for one week in the refrigerator. Shelled peas not used immediately should be cooled as quickly as possible to 32ºF (0°C) to prevent conversion of sugars to starch.
Dried peas can be stored in a cool, dry place for 10 to 12 months.
Legumes. Peas are legumes. Legumes are plants whose seeds are borne in pods. Legumes include peas, beans, and peanuts.