Let’s be frank. If you are of a certain age in this country, and you don’t live on a ranch where there are, say, actual cowboys, if I mention the words “cowboy beans” to you, what comes to mind?
Uh huh. You too? Yep, can’t escape it. The cowboy bean scene in Blazing Saddles.
I only watched that movie once and even I remember that scene. (Of course at the time I would never admit to my scatologically obsessed brothers that I found it remotely funny, lest it encouraged them to be even more obnoxious.)
Humorous cultural references aside, cowboy beans are actually good, and an excellent accompaniment to summer barbecues.
Cowboy beans ingredients
There are probably as many versions of cowboy beans as there are barbecue cooks. There’s usually one or more varieties of beans, some smoked meat like bacon or ham, sometimes with ground beef, always with a sweet tangy barbecue sauce.
What defines this scratch-cooking version, besides the beans, is a sweet barbecue sauce, smoked meat, and coffee.
It is the secret ingredient in many a chili recipe. Legend has it that back in the day, cowboys added leftover coffee to their pot of beans because fresh water was not so easy to come by – a cowboy version of waste not, want not.
Coffee adds a depth of flavor and a slight bitterness that keeps the sweet-spicy of the barbecue sauce in line.
What smoked meat to use for cowboy beans
For the smoked meat, bacon works, in this version we use a smoked ham hock. Traditionally, you’d use the odd, slightly burnt ends of Texas barbecue brisket or tri-tip.
The key is to add a smoky flavor from a meat that can handle being cooked for a long time.
Don’t have smoked meat available? You can use ground beef (cooked) and add some liquid smoke.
What beans to use for cowboy beans
As for the beans? You can use any of these beans for cowboy beans or a combination:
- Pinto beans
- Red kidney beans
- Black beans
- White navy beans
For this recipe, we are cooking our beans from scratch, starting with dry pinto beans. If you want, you can use canned beans instead. You’ll need four 15-ounce cans, drained.
Want to make your beans from scratch? Here’s how to make them on the stovetop or in a pressure cooker.
Tips for cooking dry beans
The one problem that people can encounter when cooking beans from scratch in a recipe like this is that the beans don’t soften up, even with long cooking. Many things can cause this. Beans like to be stored in a cool, dry environment. If you store beans in a humid, warm environment, they’ll get harder. Calcium can firm up beans, so if you are cooking with hard water, that can cause beans to be too hard as well. Finally, old beans take longer to cook. So, what to do?
- Soak the dry beans overnight in plenty of water. This will help “open up” the beans before cooking them.
- Add a teaspoon of salt and/or a quarter teaspoon of baking soda to each quart of soaking water. Either will replace some of the minerals that cause the beans to be hard.
- Add BBQ sauce only after the beans are soft enough to eat. BBQ sauce has sugar and calcium in it that will keep the beans from softening.
Cowboy Beans Recipe
If you have hard water or have difficulty getting getting beans to soften, try adding 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to the soaking water.
If you want to use canned beans, use 4 (15-ounce cans), drained. Combine steps 3 and 4, and add the beans with the ham hock and BBQ sauce. Simmer on low until the meat on the ham hock separates from the bone.
- 2 cups dried pinto beans (about 12 ounces)
- 1 tablespoon bacon fat (optional)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (if not using the bacon fat, use 2 tablespoons vegetable oil)
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 5 minced garlic cloves
- 1 smoked ham hock or ham shank
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups black coffee
- 1 1/2 cups tomato-based barbecue sauce
- 1/4 cup chopped pickled jalapeños (optional)
- Grated Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese for garnish (optional)
- 1/4 cup chopped red onion for garnish (optional)
- Salt to taste
1 Soak the beans in water: Place the beans in a large pot and cover with a couple inches of water. Soak the beans overnight and then drain.
Alternatively, bring a pot with the beans covered with 2 inches of water to a boil, remove from heat and let soak for a hour, then drain.
2 Cook onion and garlic in bacon fat: Heat the bacon fat and the vegetable oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed lidded pot over medium-high heat.
Add the onion and sauté for 3 minutes, stirring often, until translucent and just beginning to brown.
Add the garlic and sauté another 1-2 minutes.
3 Add beans, ham hock, water, salt, coffee to the onions, simmer: Add the drained beans into the pot with the onions. Add the ham hock, the water, a little salt, and the coffee.
Stir and bring to a simmer. Cook this way for 1 to 2 hours. (Some beans may take longer to cook, especially if they are older.) The beans should be edible, ,not mushy soft.
4 Add BBQ sauce, simmer: Add the barbecue sauce and stir to combine. Cover and simmer on low heat until the meat from the ham hock begins to separate from the bone, up to 2 hours.
Check on everything from time to time. If the beans begin to break down, pull the ham hock and strip the meat from the bone.
The acid from the barbecue sauce should help the beans hold their shape. Add salt to taste. Add pickled jalapeños or some Tabasco to taste for some heat.
Serve with a little grated cheese and chopped red onion on top.