Great northern beans and navy beans are both types of white beans. The great northern bean is slightly larger than the navy bean, and both beans appear in a number of soups, stews, purees, ragouts and other bean dishes. Because the two beans are so similar, great northern bean soups and navy bean soups tend to be composed of largely identical ingredients.
While both beans are light colored, the great northern bean holds its shape better than the navy bean, making it more suitable for dishes in which the cook desires the beans to hold their shape. It also cooks more quickly than the navy bean. However, soups made from the two beans are highly similar, typically featuring bacon or ham, onions, celery, carrots, garlic and sometimes tomatoes or pasta.
Great northern beans, navy beans and cannelini beans are often used interchangeably by cooks to compose salads, dips, sauces, stews and other recipes. Both beans are mild in taste but easily absorb other flavors, making them perfect for composing soup bases. Navy bean soups tend to get their thickness from the navy beans dissolving through cooking, while great northern beans tend to remain a more distinct component in great northern bean soups.
Great northern beans are featured in many stews and soups, such as cassoulet, Portuguese bean stew and Serbian bacon, bean and cabbage stew. Navy beans appear in the famous navy bean soup, as well as in other soups and stews, such as Boston baked beans, navy bean and ham soup, navy bean and bacon soup and mixed 16 bean soup. Both beans may appear in chili, minestrone and chilled white bean soups.
Great northern beans are related to kidney beans, while navy beans are a common bean. The navy bean is so called because it is a long-time staple food of the U.S. navy. Both navy bean soup and great northern bean soup are considered to be classic American fare.
Navy beans and great northern beans are ultimately extremely alike. If you are making up a navy bean soup recipe, but only have great northern beans on hand, you should feel confident in substituting great northern beans into the recipe, and vice-versa.