Cowboy Beans

Big Spoon Full of BeansThere is a long tradition of cowboy beans in Texas. Pinto beans hold a special place in Texas history and culture. The word “pinto” translates in Spanish to painted and describes the lovely mottled skin of the bean. Look closely at them the next time you see them. They really are quite lovely.

Dried beans originated, as I understand it, in South America and Africa and slowly moved northward. The Spanish and Mexicans were introduced to them from the indigenous South Americans, Mexicans and Native Americans. Their hardiness, shelf stability, portability as a dried commodity, low cost, and nutritional profile made them critical and indispensable in the region.

And anyone who has been here long enough has either grown up on them or grown to love them. They cannot be overlooked as one of the oldest known foods to be consumed in the region and still, they are one of the least expensive things you can put on the table. Some that grow up with the staples of frugality run from them in later life. Some derive immense comfort from them for a lifetime. Some of us learn about our parents’ world through these foods for the first time as adults and they become a window to another time. I can’t state it any more eloquently than Patricia Sharpe did in this recent Texas Monthly piece. This is a great bit of writing that expresses how a meal this simple really can be a touchstone.

While you really don’t need a recipe for beans, I have one for you here. I have this drive to codify my favorite dishes so that when I decide to stop making new recipes and enjoy coasting through the stack of ideas again, I will not have to reinvent them. I have this drive to give my kids a map to create the things they ate as kids, should they ever discover the passion or necessity to cook for themselves. But, if you have a pot of simmering water and a scoop of beans, you are already on the path to dinner. One might say, as it seems was a tradition in Sharpe’s family, that cooking a meal like this occasionally or even once a week for your children is a good way to keep them in touch with reality. It is good food. But it is humble food. And in a city where children, including on occasion my own, are indulged with $35 restaurant entrees of grilled salmon and the like…not such a bad idea.

Cowboy Beans CookingI went about looking at the work of my peers vis-à-vis this lovely little bean and looked at my cookbook shelf that is well represented by Texas authors. I knew just by looking at the spines where I would find the beans, and I was 100% on target. Tom Perini’s Texas Cowboy Cooking was the first and most obvious one to pull down. Lisa Fain, Robb Walsh, and Tim Byres all have outstanding bean recipes. And, Tosh Brown’s Ranch Cookbook, Grazing Across Texas, has a ranch cook’s recipe, as well. I pulled down only books of authors that I know fully love and identify with Texas…and there were the most humble of our foodstuffs, presented with love and tenderness, the pinto bean. The recipes vary a bit. There are cowboy beans, ranchero beans, and borracho beans, to name a few monikers, but they are all, at their essence, beans simmered a long time with onions and bacon or salt pork, seasoned here and there with chiles and such. The borracho style just needs a can of beer thrown in for good measure.

My method doesn’t differ appreciably. I don’t seek to reinvent the bean. But I’d say that it is a little odd in that I cook the beans in canned broths. I think that is a fairly simple way to add a lot of flavor. I use dried seasoning, purely for the sake of convenience, and I soak my beans for only 4 to 6 hours (some don’t soak at all…just cook them longer). My soaking time is shorter because I never realize til the morning when I’m up making the kids’ breakfast which beans are going to be on the menu…and that is when I toss them in a bowl of water.

Cowboy Beans
Recipe type: Main
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 8
Classic cowboy beans! Great for a crowd.
  • 1 pound pinto beans, rinsed and soaked
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 slice of salt pork
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 32 ounces low sodium chicken broth (buy one extra can)
  • 15 ounces beef broth
  • 1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon dried parsley
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 7 to 10 pickled jalapeno slices
  • 1 tablespoon pickled jalapeno juice (from the jar of slices)
  1. Allow time to soak the beans for at least 6 hours, or account for extra cooking time.
  2. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
  3. Melt the butter in a large oven-safe stock pot over medium low heat. Add the salt pork and allow the fat to render for 4 or 5 minutes before proceeding. When the edges of the salt pork are turning golden, increase the heat to medium-high and add the onions. Sauté until the onions are beginning to become translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes.
  4. Add the broth and the drained, soaked beans to the onions. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop and then put on a lid and carefully transfer the pot to the oven.
  5. Allow the beans to cook until they are tender, or about 2 hours. Periodically check the beans. They should be at a very low simmer. If they are boiling, reduce the heat of the oven. As the beans absorb the cooking liquid, add either hot water or the additional chicken broth. The amount of additional liquid needed varies by the batch of beans, it seems, and by the heat of the oven.
  6. Meanwhile, mix the spices and herbs in a small bowl. When the beans are tender, add the spices and the jalapenos and juice. Return the beans to the oven for an additional 30 minutes. Serve with rice or hot buttered flour tortillas.

Cowboy Beans SeasoningNotes:

To soak the beans, you merely need to place them in a big bowl of water. Pick through the beans and remove any pebbles or bad beans. If you are soaking them overnight, refrigerate them. When you are ready to proceed, drain the beans, rinse the beans with fresh water, drain them again, and then start cooking.

Beans are “done when they are done” and the cooking time varies depending on whether the beans were soaked and their age and quality. I have had pots of beans that seemed to never soften. There are theories abounding about when you add salt, the hardness of your water, and such. The most convincing theory to me is the age and quality of the beans. Since the bags don’t ever include a harvest date, and since the beans are so incredibly shelf stable, there is just no telling how old a given bean is. Since I always use the same water and always follow, basically, the same cooking routine, I don’t give too much credence to the other theories, although I find them completely interesting and there is surely interplay between them. The bottom line is that you can’t be in too much of a hurry. And I have yet to meet a pot of beans that didn’t improve with age. So start early and reheat them, if needed.

A keen eye will notice that the spice mix here is essentially my taco seasoning mix. If you have a jar of that sitting about, you can just use a tablespoon or two of that, instead.

Finally, I have a crock-pot which I pull out on occasion. You can make this recipe in a crock-pot easily. My experience has been that the quality of the finished product (the integrity of each bean) is higher when you use the stove-top or oven…but the convenience of the crock-pot might outweigh your “bean integrity” concerns.

Cowboy Beans Pot of BeansTo see more of Nancy Lou Webster’s spoons, visit my ETSY Shop.


  1. says

    Hi, Kelly. I do have a measure on how old the beans are on the shelf. I have found that the older beans are darker than the younger beans. I look for beans as white as I can find, and usually the bulk bin in the hispanic markets is your best source, as they move faster than the bags on the shelf.

  2. Kelly says

    Patrick, that’s a great tip. I hadn’t heard about the color changing. I’ve also heard that the bulk bins are a better way to get fresh beans and I’m lucky to have a number of markets around that have the bulk bean bins. I think I’ll give them a shot next time. I’ve also read that you can tell from the skin after soaking whether beans are fresh, but since mine have looked rather similar, I haven’t drawn any conclusions. Thanks for weighing in on this.

  3. Carla says

    Kelly, in case any of your readers prepare your recipes in the quantities that I do, thought I would make a note of the size pot needed for cooking 8 pounds of pinto beans (soaked overnight). I started with a 16 quart stockpot and was suspicious that it might be inadequate, but took a chance. Sure enough, I had to remove them to a 20 quart pot halfway through the cooking time to have enough room for the requisite liquids. This barely fit into the oven, and I barely had the strength to lift it there. Those two little 4 pound bags of beans looked so innocent. I am going to try moderation in my next life. However, they surely were good, and the only seasoning I used was your taco seasoning mix–two tablespoons per pound of beans, as you suggested. Thank you, Kelly. I wonder if I would still be cooking if not for The Meaning of Pie.

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