All are fresh, green, and sweet, but these spring vegetables different in a few important ways.

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Hand holding English pea pod on a pea plant
Credit: Johnny Miller

Frozen peas are so ubiquitous—and easy to use—that it's easy to overlook the springtime wonder of fresh peas straight from the pod. But not all peas are taken from their pods to eat as some pods are actually edible. To make things more confusing for the average home cook , some peas can be eaten raw while others should be cooked. Here, we outline the differences between English peas, sugar snap peas, snow peas, and pea shoots—in other words, peas aplenty.

Before we dive into the particulars of each type of fresh pea, it''s important to note that all three develop sweetness as they grow to maturity. If left on the plant for too long, those sugars are converted into starches so the peas become fibrous and tough with a less sweet flavor. For the cook, this means choosing peas that are fresh and young—this is not a time when bigger is better—and recently picked.

English Peas

Also known as shelling peas or garden peas, these are the same peas that are frozen. The pod isn't eaten, just the peas inside. One pound of pods yields about a cup of peas. When buying English peas, look for firm, round pods about three to four inches long that are a smooth green color and unblemished. Avoid older looking pods as the peas will not be as sweet.

The first English peas can be eaten as is, but as the season progresses and peas are larger, you'll need to cook them, albeit briefly: Blanching peas takes just a minute or two. Be sure to delight everyone at the table with this easy pasta where English peas take a starring role and serve this glorious salmon with peas for your next celebration. There's a trick to opening a peapod: Pull down on the stem to string it and gently push out the attached peas. Compost the pod or use it in a spring vegetable stock.

Pea Shoots

The edible stems, leaves, and curly tendrils of pea plants have a delicate texture and subtle flavor that make them worth snapping up at the market (or snipping from your own garden). They may be also called pea greens and can be served fresh in salads or quickly sautéed.

Snow Peas

Part of the category of legumes known as mange-touts, or "eat all," these flat green pods, which hold small peas, are entirely edible. They can be enjoyed raw, whole, or sliced. They are also excellent cooked, such as in stir-fries or blanched or sautéed. Snow peas should be stringed, too, although if they're young enough you won't need to. To buy snow peas, look for very small, flat seeds in flat, shiny pods that are two to three inches long.

Sugar Snap Peas

The newest of the group, sugar snap peas are also known as snap peas and have only been around since the 1970s. They're a hybrid, developed by a plant breeder who wanted a pea that could be eaten raw or cooked. The plump pods are crisp, sweet, and just right for snacking on raw or serving with dip as crudités. They are also excellent simmered, steamed, or sautéed briefly, just until they turn bright green. When the pods are larger and you'll want to string them before cooking. If snap peas are big and tough, shell them and cook the peas separately as you would English peas.

Snap peas and English peas can be confused because both have round peas in a pod but snap pea pods are smaller and the pod is thinner. When buying them, look for pods with no nicks or bruises.

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