Cowboy Beans

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.

There are probably as many versions of cowboy beans as there are barbecue cooks. What defines this version, besides the beans, is a sweet barbecue sauce, smoked meat, and coffee. Yes, 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.

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. As for the beans, we used pinto beans, but you could easily use red kidney beans, or even black beans.

Cowboy Beans Recipe

  • Yield: Serves 8-10 as a side dish.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups dried pinto beans
  • 1 Tbsp bacon fat (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil (if not using the bacon fat, use 2 Tbsp 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

Method

1 Put the beans into a large pot and add enough water to cover by an inch. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes while you prepare the onions, then drain.

2 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 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 40-50 minutes or longer. (Some beans may take longer to cook, especially if they are older.) The beans should be edible, but still just a little firm (not mushy soft).

4 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.

Links:

Tri-tip tacos and cowboy beans from Champaign Taste
Cowboy Beans and Buttermilk Cornbread from Prudence Pennywise
Slow-cooker cowboy beans from Stephanie of A Year of Slow Cooking
Quick Cowboy Beans (Frijoles Charros Rapidos) from Big Flavors from a Tiny Kitchen
Cowboy Nachos from Ree the Pioneer Woman
Blazing Saddles Cowboy Bean scene - a little noisy if you get my drift
Lucky Luke - where the French get their affection for cowboys
Rodeo photos - I really do love cowboys

26 Comments

  1. Susan

    These look delicious, Elise. I’ve been lazy about beans and only used the prepared canned variety to make a cheaters version of this dish. It’s no wonder that I don’t love them enough to make them a regular side dish for a picnic BBQ. My husband has participated in the opening day of pheasant hunting season on one of the ranches in the Sac valley. After the shoot, the family has a bean feed for all the guests. My husband said beans have never tasted so good as when they are prepared with a good portion of meat. I can’t wait to try this out to see if this is similar to what he waxes poetic about. Thank you.

  2. Mary-Susan

    A question instead of comment – the black coffee – is that brewed or unbrewed?

    Brewed! The liquid version, not the ground beans. ~Elise

  3. Rich Taylor

    Looks like a great recipe. I never consider bacon fat optional in my beans—it is mandatory. I think a quarter-pound of bacon, sliced small and fried crisp then added with the rendered fat to the beans near the beginning of cooking would be a suitable substitute for the ham hock.

    Thanks for all of the recipes!

  4. Anne Olson

    “Scatologically Obsessed”? I love that!! Describes my son and husband,unfortunately.

    According to my mom, she’s married to a 13 year old. ~Elise

  5. Tim Lewallen

    Beans are a great side to BBQ, chili, you name it. One option that will add some bitter is mustard. Be sure to give that a try.

    One more thing, beans don’t go in chili. Beans in chili is called stew.

    Hi Tim, you must be from Texas. ~Elise

  6. sarak

    Question- when you put the beans in a pot with water and bring to a boil, do you boil them for any amount of time. Or just bring to a boil and then drain immediately?

    In this case you bring to a boil, let simmer for 15 minutes, then drain. (I updated the recipe, and my reply to this comment.) ~Elise

  7. Sarah

    You should really have the beans soak 8 hours or overnight first.

    You can do that. Or you can bring the beans to a boil and then drain. ~Elise

  8. Karen

    Can you taste the coffee? I do not like anything that has the even the most remote coffee flavor but I love Cowboy beans and this sounds so good. I would hate to make them and then not get to eat them because of the coffee flavor!

    There is a hint of coffee in the resulting flavor, but nothing overpowering. ~Elise

  9. Becky

    I grew up on a farm in Idaho, and during harvest we used to make a version of this. My mom would put canned lima beans, pintos, and kidney beans all in the same pot, and sweeten it up with red peppers and onions that she sauted. The recipe ends up being a bit more BBQ like than cowboy beans, but SO good!

  10. Linnea

    I was wondering if you could “de-gas” the pinto beans in this recipe and if it would still work? You know, the trick of bringing the beans to boil for 10 minutes and THEN draining and rinsing them before you soak them like normal?

    Hi Linnea, the point of the first step is to de-gas and to soften the beans. It’s sort of a shortcut to the soak overnight approach. ~Elise

  11. Lorraine

    Your writing is always so great — “scatologically obsessed” indeed!! I teach 4th grade and I’m married to an engineer with multiple international patents to his name. I used to share some of the more amusing 9-year old boy bathroom humor at home until I learned hubby was regaling German engineers with tales of his wife’s students’ antics!!!

    Coffee is wonderful in anything! Try it in a pot roast or red eye gravy or cakes — there are great cookbooks devoted to coffee cookery.

  12. Susan

    These look fantastic. Any ideas on how to adapt them for vegetarians? I’m guessing that just leaving out the meat wouldn’t be the same.

  13. David Sandford

    Been eating cowboy beans my whole life and while from the West, and grew up with and around actual cowboys, I don’t like coffee.

    I might be a traitor but when it’s cold I drink hot Tang in the mornings instead.

    Anyway… to make a long story short (too late)…
    quite often I put Coke or Pepsi in my beans. Sounds strange, but it doesn’t add the taste of the pop, instead it melds the flavors together and makes the whole mess taste better.

    -It will also calm your beans down a bit if you over do the peppers.

  14. Kathy

    I just made these beans. I followed the instructions to the “T”. They are very delicious. However, I do not like ‘crunchy’ beans and these are crunchy. I brought the beans to a boil and even let them boil for about 10 minutes. I even cooked all an extra 30 minutes. I will make this again, but I will soak the beans overnight first.

    So, you included the additional 2 hours of cooking with the barbecue sauce? Because by then end of what should be close to 3 hours of cooking, the beans shouldn’t be crunchy. If they are, you just need to cook them longer. Also, note that the older the beans, the longer you have to cook them to get them tender. ~Elise

  15. Linda Burt from Washington State

    .
    Hi Elise,
    How is your summer going?
    I have never cooked cowboy beans but I do make

    Firemen’s Skillet Beans.

    Chopped bacon about 2 to 3 strips
    1/4 t 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
    2 to 3 TBS of brown sugar
    1 squirt of mustard about a tsp
    2 big squirts of ketchup, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup
    1 to 2 small cans of pork and beans remove pork piece.
    Salt and pepper to taste, about a tsp salt 1/2 tsp pepper

    In 10 inch skillet on med heat, cook bacon till almost done
    Add onions cook till translucent
    Add brown sugar, cook till slightly melted.
    Remove from heat and add liquid only from beans, mustard, ketchup and stir to combine.
    Return to heat cook sauce till hot about a minute, then and add beans and stir.
    Simmer on low heat for 5 to 10 minutes.

  16. Walter G.

    I bought what I needed to make this recipe. Now I’m wondering if it can be made in a crockpot. Any idea how the time would work? I’ve read on other web sites that Pinto Beans do not have to be boiled. They can be cooked right along with everything else in a crockpot.

    One reason for boiling the beans first, and then draining the water, is to get rid of some of the things that cause you to have gas after eating beans. You can also soak the beans overnight and drain the soaking water. That said, we cook pinto beans straight all the time, usually in a pressure cooker. What you do want to do is to cook the beans a bit before adding the acidic barbecue sauce. Otherwise the beans may take a long time to soften. So, I would do all of the steps before adding the barbecue sauce, then cook the beans with the barbecue sauce in a slow cooker. ~Elise

  17. Walter G.

    Made your beans yesterday, (your way. Wife had the crockpot.) Had a small problem. After the 30-40 minute simmer, all the liquid was absorbed. I never checked to see if the beans were getting soft. So I added the bbq sauce and 2 hrs later, the beans were crunchy. I added 2 cups of boiling water and simmered for another hour. Softer, but still not right. I gave it one more hour, then I gave up. Beans were eatable but still a little chewy.
    I still have 2 more smoked ham hocks. I’ll try this again, only this time I’ll add 3 cups water and 3 cups coffee and simmer at least an hour before adding the bbq sauce. And this time I’ll check if their getting soft.

  18. Dyanna

    Made a double batch of these because I’m feeding all my neighbors tonight. Made the suggested barbecue sauce as well. The taste is lovely. Going to be served with tamales, tacos, and rice. (My neighbors LOVE me!) One thing, however: I found the cooking time to be much longer than indicated (even given that I doubled the recipe. Good thing I started last night.)

  19. David W

    These ended up being mighty tasty. Thanks for sharing it! I let the beans simmer with the lid off for a bit just to thicken up the sauce and I also added some molasses.

    I usually shy away from dried beans because I’ve never been able to get them right. The navy beans I was brought up on come out of a can (the Heinz variety). Those beans are very very tender. Whenever I try to make dried navy beans, they always have a grainy texture and are a bit tougher than the canned variety.

    Anyone have any tips on how to make a really tender bean? Am I just not cooking long enough? I simmered for a little longer than 2 hours in the final step of this recipe.

    (This recipe, by the way, was the closest I’ve ever got to getting the right consistency)

    You just need to cook them longer before adding the bbq sauce. ~Elise

  20. Mika

    I cooked a vegetarian version of this for dinner today…even without ham and bacon fat was delicious! My future husband loved it so much!!! He put it on the top ten of his favorite recipes! Thanks for sharing…Now I have to read all your posts from the beginning because I’m sure I will find some other culinary pearls like this… ^_^

  21. Kim K

    I made this today using my slow cooker.
    I soaked my pinto beans overnight and then brought them to a boil and let them cook 15 minutes before draining.
    I put the beans and remaining ingredients- including barbecue sauce- into my slow cooker and let it cook about 8 hours on low. I used bacon instead of ham hock. At the end of cooking, I added a bit of hot sauce and some salt.
    It has turned out really well. I’m serving it with chicken and cornbread tonight.
    Great recipe!

  22. Race_Coach

    Fastastic recipe that worked out perfectly. It was such a crowd pleaser at our neighbourhood event that they’ve been requested again for this weekend’s annual rib cookoff.

  23. Liane

    I made this last night and will serve it tonight for a big group! Rice will help make it a main dish and it was cheap to make a double recipe – about $15 all told.

    Mine was more liquidy than your picture. I admit that I have questions about what a simmer actually looks like. Is it where the pot is mostly bubbling, boiling but it’s not rolling, or something else? For chicken stock my simmer is only sending up a few bubbles once in awhile, but when I translate that to other recipes they end up with more liquid than they’re supposed to. Anyway – minor technicality. I have also just gotten bold enough to actually brown things properly, so I’m sure it’s a matter of not worrying if things will burn and just focus on cooking.

    When you simmer a stock there should be hardly any bubbles. Any other simmer however, should be below a rolling boil. Plenty of bubbles, but gentle bubbles. ~Elise

  24. Billy

    I can’t get a hold of Pinto beans. What would be the most suitable substitute?

    I would try kidney beans or black beans. ~Elise

  25. Jeanne Smith

    Just a hint: Pressure cooking, overnight soaking or parboil 2 minutes and let sit for an hour are required to have whole, tender beans in the higher altitudes, as we have in Colorado.

    I just found this site, and am delighted.

  26. Stuart

    I love Cowboy Beans. Nice to see you adding the coffee. It’s not cowboy beans without the coffee. If I had a pound for every time I saw a recipe for Cowboy beans that didn’t include the coffee…I’d have five pounds.

    Just kidding. Great recipe. Loving your work.

I apologize for the inconvenience, but comments are closed. You can share your thoughts on our Facebook page ~ Elise.