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.
The Secret Ingredient in Cowboy Beasn
Coffee 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 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.
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.
Making Cowboy Beans in Advance
You can easily make cowboy beans in advance. This recipe might even taste a little better after sitting in the refrigerator for a day. Before serving, reheat the finished beans on the stovetop.
To freeze fully cooked Cowboy Beans, cool them completely, and then place them in a freezer safe container. Freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost in the refrigerator and reheat on the stovetop.
How to Cook Cowboy Beans in a Slow Cooker or Crock Pot
Follow Steps 1 and 2 in the instructions as directed. Transfer the soaked beans and the onion/garlic mixture to a 6-quart slow cooker. Add the ham, water, a little salt, coffee, and barbecue sauce. Stir, and cook in the slow cooker on high for 4 hours or low for 8 hours, checking from time to time to make sure the beans aren't breaking down. When the beans are done cooking, taste for seasoning and add more salt as needed, and add the pickled jalapeños, if using.
Using Coffee in Cowboy Baked Beans
Coffee is a traditional ingredient in these beans...and traditionally, cowboys drank brewed, caffeinated coffee. However, all you're looking for here is the coffee flavor so feel free to use caffeinated or decaffeinated, brewed or instant.
The coffee adds a layer of flavor, but the finished dish does not have a strong coffee flavor. Still, if you choose to omit the coffee, you don't need to add a substitute.
Amazing BBQ Recipes to Complement Cowboy Beans
- BBQ Chicken on the Grill
- Instant Pot BBQ Baby Back Ribs
- Braised BBQ Beef Sandwich
- Pickle Slaw
- Dad's Potato Salad
If you have hard water or have difficulty 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.
If you are not using the bacon fat, use 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.
- 2 cups dried pinto beans (about 12 ounces)
- 1 tablespoon bacon fat
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 5 minced garlic cloves
- 1 smoked ham hock or ham shank
- 2 cups water
- Kosher salt to taste
- 2 cups brewed coffee
- 1 1/2 cups tomato-based barbecue sauce
- 1/4 cup chopped pickled jalapeños for garnish (optional)
- Grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese for garnish (optional)
- 1/4 cup chopped red onion for garnish (optional)
Soak the beans:
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 an hour, then drain.
Cook the onion and garlic:
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 for another 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the beans, ham hock, water, salt, and coffee, then 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 for 1 to 2 hours. (Some beans may take longer to cook, especially if they are older.) The beans should be soft enough to chew but not mushy soft.
Add the BBQ sauce and continue cooking:
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.
After an hour, check on the beans every 15 minutes. If the beans begin to break down, remove from heat.
Strip the ham hock and season the beans:
When the beans are done cooking, pull the ham hock and strip the meat from the bone. Add the meat to the beans and discard the bone.
Add salt to taste. Add pickled jalapeños to taste for some heat, if desired.
Serve with a little grated cheese and chopped red onion on top.