Most fresh peas reach the market canned or frozen. Frozen peas retain their flavor and nutrients better than canned. Plus they’re lower in sodium unless frozen in a sauce. If just thawed and not cooked, frozen peas can be substituted for fresh peas in salads and other uncooked dishes.
Fresh green peas in the pod and sugar snaps have a somewhat limited season: Their peak is April through July, and they are least plentiful from September through December (though you can occasionally find some peas in winter). Fresh snow peas are available most of the year, especially in Chinese neighborhoods. Pea shoots are available in the beginning of the snow pea season.
There are two main types of fresh peas sold in markets: edible-pod peas—such as snow peas and sugar snap peas—as well as the more common podded peas that need to be “shelled.” Here are some common varieties:
- Snow peas (Chinese pea pods): These edible-pod peas have light green flat pods with small, immature-looking peas (they are picked before the seeds have developed in the pod). Snow peas are often used in stir-fries.
- Snow pea shoots: These are the very young beginnings of a snow pea plant. The shoot includes the young, tender vine and leaves, as well as the baby tendrils that the vining plant puts out to climb over the ground or up a trellis. They are very sweet and flavorful, and a favorite in Chinese stir-fries.
- Sugar snap peas: These edible-pod peas were created in the 1970s as a cross between the snow and the green pea. They have plump pods filled with very sweet, tender peas.
- Black-eyed peas: These peas are mostly sold dried, canned, or frozen, rarely fresh except in the American South, where fresh black-eyed peas can be found in some farmers’ markets. The most common commercial variety is the California Blackeye.
- Green peas: Also known as English peas because of the many varieties developed in England, green peas possess a large, bulging, grass-green pod enclosing peas that are typically round and sweet. Some homegrown varieties are more strongly flavored. The pods are not edible. Packaged green peas differ from fresh garden varieties in appearance, color, texture, and flavor. Moreover, different varieties are grown specifically for freezing.
- Pigeon peas: These are most often sold in their dried form, but you can occasionally find them fresh, especially if you live near any sizable Caribbean population. Gunga peas (as they are called in many parts of the Caribbean) are a staple ingredient in Jamaican cuisine.