What's the difference between English, sugar snap, and snow peas?

The time is finally upon us. As temperatures rise those first intrepid flowers and plants have begun creeping up through the soil, and all manner of recipes, restaurant dishes, and produce aisles have begun featuring that most blessed among modifiers: “spring.” And anywhere vernally-identified items are found, chief among them are peas, who deign to grace us with their presence before the hot weather sets in. An exploration of vegetable gardens shows that there are three common types of peas that are worth acquainting or reacquainting yourself with, for an extra dose of vitamin K this spring.

To Pea or Not to Pea

Peas or pea pods come from vining or low-growing plants from the legume family that actually prefer cool weather and reach maturity relatively quickly, hence their popularity on spring menus after the produce drought that is winter. Hence also their ability to be grown in cool, damp places such as England, after which a particular variety of peas takes its name. The peas/legumes themselves are actually the seed of the plant, for which the pod that contains them is technically the fruit. The relationship between the pods and the peas themselves, their relative digestibility and dietary fiber content, is the crux of the difference between English peas, snow peas, and snap peas.

English Peas, A Proper Variety

English peas, garden peas, or sweet peas generally refer to the same thing and are the spherical variety often found in packages of frozen peas that many of us grew up chasing around our dinner plates. They grow in pods that are too fibrous to ingest, thus they are shelled and the pods discarded. The peas are starchy and sweet and just about as versatile as produce can get. Enjoy them raw or cooked, in everything from salads, to quiches, to pastas. Utilize them whole, or puree them for baby food, soups, sauces, or dips.

Snow Peas, Hold the Snow Please

Snow peas are an edible-podded variety that appear flat and almost translucent. Technically, the pods are unripe, and the visible peas within the pod are clearly immature and not yet spherical. The pods themselves don’t contain any non-digestible fiber, and therefore are consumed in their entirety. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet, though more vegetal and bright in character than English peas. Enjoy them just as they come for a healthy snack, with a gentle dose of olive oil, salt and pepper, chopped in a fresh salad, or in their most common and highly tasty application, a savory Chinese stir-fry.

Snap Peas, Crackle and Pop Optional

Snap peas, or sugar snap peas, are evidence that it is genetically possible to get the best traits out of both parents. They exist as the result of crossing a shelled pea variety with snow peas. The pods are rounder than snow peas and more closely resemble the pods of English peas, but are fully edible, with a medium-sweet flavor, hence the “sugar.” Enjoy them as you would snow peas, though they are especially delightful for eating in their purest, crunchy state.

Dream of spring menus with any of the following recipes showcasing the more virtuosic presentations of peas. For extra credit, get your hands on some pea tendrils as an elegant garnish for any of the following:

Butterhead Lettuce with Spring Radishes and Peas

Butterhead Lettuce with Spring Radishes and Peas

Chowhound

Beautifully featuring both English and snow pea varieties together, unified by tender butter lettuce. Pair with a simple chilled pea soup for a knockout springtime lunch. Get our Butterhead Lettuce with Spring Radishes and Peas recipe.

Snap Pea Chopped Salad with Thai Vinaigrette

Snap Pea Chopped Salad with Thai Vinaigrette

Chowhound

A friendly reminder that peas need not be limited to marrying only mint and dill. They also like some sugar and spice. Get our Snap Pea Chopped Salad with Thai Vinaigrette recipe.

Pea Custard Salad

pea custard salad

Chowhound

Serve this gorgeous savory custard at your next spring garden party and observe the hush that befalls the crowd. Got tendrils? Game over. Get our Pea Custard Salad recipe.

Spicy Snow Pea and Sesame Stir Fry

Spicy Snow Pea and Tofu Stir Fry with Sesame

Chowhound

If you really want to understand snow peas, you’re going to have to eat some stir-fry. (It’s a hard life, I know.) You’re not afraid of tofu. Peas aren’t afraid of tofu. Let’s do this. Get our Spicy Snow Pea and Sesame Stir Fry recipe.

Pea Risotto

spring pea risotto

Chowhound

Actually, maybe it is easy being green. Sure, you could do this with the frozen variety, but now’s the time to get fresh! Get our Pea Risotto recipe.

Pesto and Pea Lasagna

vegetarian pesto and pea lasagna

Chowhound

Because when I said pasta I wasn’t only talking about throwing a handful in a carbonara. (Though that’s a fine idea also.) Get our Pesto and Pea Lasagna recipe.

Related Video: Don’t Throw Away Pea Pods

Header image courtesy of Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock.

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