Cowboy Beans

These slowly cooked cowboy beans are a great accompaniment to a summer barbeque. Forget the canned variety—these are easy to make with pinto beans, ham hocks, barbecue sauce, and a secret, flavor-enhancing ingredient.

Overhead view of a pot of cowboy baked beans.
Eliezer Martinez

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.

Yes, 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.

Overhead view of a pot of cowboy baked beans.
Eliezer Martinez

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.

Want to make your beans from scratch? Here's how to make them on the stovetop or in a pressure cooker.

Cowboy beans topped with cheese.
Eliezer Martinez

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.
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Watch This Easy Cowboy Beans Recipe

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

From the Editors Of Simply Recipes

Cowboy Beans

Total Time 0 mins
Servings 8 to 10 servings

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.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups dried pinto beans (about 12 ounces)

  • 1 tablespoon bacon fat

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped

  • 5 cloves garlic, minced

  • 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 jalapenos for garnish, optional

  • Grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese for garnish, optional

  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion for garnish, optional

Method

  1. 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.

    Pouring beans into a colander to make a cowboy beans recipe.
    Eliezer Martinez
  2. 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.

    Stirring ingredients for a cowboy beans recipe with a wooden spoon.
    Eliezer Martinez
  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    Overhead view of southern pinto beans recipe cooking in a dutch oven.
    Eliezer Martinez
  5. 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.

    A dutch oven with pinto beans and ham inside.
    Eliezer Martinez
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
249 Calories
4g Fat
43g Carbs
10g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8 to 10
Amount per serving
Calories 249
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 4g 5%
Saturated Fat 1g 5%
Cholesterol 6mg 2%
Sodium 481mg 21%
Total Carbohydrate 43g 16%
Dietary Fiber 7g 23%
Total Sugars 15g
Protein 10g
Vitamin C 4mg 18%
Calcium 66mg 5%
Iron 2mg 13%
Potassium 698mg 15%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate. In cases where multiple ingredient alternatives are given, the first listed is calculated for nutrition. Garnishes and optional ingredients are not included.