Edamame are creating a stir. This healthy, protein-packed, fresh vegetable fits a modern "on-the-go" lifestyle. And while the crop has been around for thousands of years, it is now gaining popularity as a "new crop" in Illinois.

Edamame, also known as vegetable soybeans, are popping up in Illinois grocery stores, farmers' markets and even in the McDonald's Asian salad. Magazines showcase Hollywood celebrities and their children snacking on these fat-free beans that are nutritious and fun to eat.

Consumers appreciate the benefits and versatility of this food.

"Edamame are a unique vegetable because they provide a complete protein," says Theresa Herman, University of Illinois (U of I) research specialist. "They are a great option for vegetarians or for individuals looking to decrease their consumption of meat."

Edamame are a common snack food in China and Japan, where use goes back more than a thousand years.

Surprisingly enough, edamame were studied in Illinois and across the U.S. in the 1930s, when the search for a value-added food was a priority.

"Unfortunately, there was not enough time for edamame to become engrained in the culture before the post-war boom shifted the focus on soy away from human food uses to animal feed and industrial uses," Herman says.

So, how can this old crop be a new crop for Illinois? Illinois consumers spend $48 billion on food each year, but most of this money leaves the state. Last summer, the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act was passed to help facilitate the development of the local food system and keep more of that money in Illinois.

Some U of I researchers believe edamame is a good candidate for the expanding food production system in Illinois.

"It's the same species as grain soybeans so it's a logical crop as Illinois is one of the top two soybean-producing states," Herman says. "However, because it's a newer crop here, more research is needed on agronomic practices to produce edamame more efficiently at the commercial level. More information on the performance of the available commercial varieties is also needed."

Whether production is expanded among vegetable growers or commodity soybean growers, work needs to be done to fill some information gaps.

U of I Soybean Breeder Dick Bernard has taken a first step by crossing large-seeded Asian varieties of edamame with adapted U.S. grain varieties, resulting in a promising vegetable-type soybean, "Gardensoy," that grows well in the U.S.

Gardensoy varieties are available to home gardeners for spring planting free of charge from the National Soybean Research Center. Here are a few tips for growing edamame this season.

Growing Edamame

  1. After the soil has warmed (at a time you would plant other beans), plant seeds in full sun, 1 in. deep and 2-4 in. apart with row spacing of 15-30 in.
  2. Keep the seedbed moist while seeds germinate, but do not overwater or presoak as both can lead to pre-emergence rot.
  3. If you are in a soybean-growing area, a nodulating bacterium (Rhizobium) that will infect soybean roots and give the plants extra available nitrogen (N) is probably present in your soil. If there is enough N in your garden for corn, edamame will do well. If neither of these is true, or you are not sure, treat your seed with a soybean inoculant prior to planting for better production results.

Harvesting Edamame

  1. Pick when seeds are almost full size (80-90%), and pods are still bright green. The optimum harvest period for any one variety will be five days.
  2. Manually pick the green pods while plants remain in the garden, or cut plants at the base and harvest away from the garden.
  3. Cook immediately to retain flavor. The sooner they are cooked, the better.

Cooking Edamame

  1. Boil or steam the pods for 5-10 minutes (in lightly salted water to your taste), cool under running water and squeeze the seeds from the pods. Then pop them directly from pod to mouth.
  2. Edamame freeze well in the pod or shelled. Blanch for one minute to stop the maturation process, immerse in cool water, pat dry, and place in zipper bags in the freezer. When you are ready to eat them, add to boiling water for 5 minutes to complete the cooking process.

For more information about growing edamame or to obtain seeds, contact research specialist Theresa Herman, National Soybean Research Center, at 217-244-3257 or therm@illinois.edu.