Teach me how to bean it up
August 4, 2008 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Please teach a displaced, late-to-this-whole-cooking-thing Southerner how to make pinto beans and cornbread.

One of my southern mama's highly excellent scraping-by-'til-payday meals was a big pot of pinto beans and a skillet of cornbread. For my part, I resisted learning anything about cooking until age 21 or so, and my mother passed away having never taught me her cheapo dinner skills.


-I do not have a slow cooker or crockpot, but I do have a massive Dutch oven, patience, and a decent amount of free time.
-Any recipes are only for me (my husband detests beans); I have no food allergies and am an adventurous eater.
-My mama's beans had some delicious bean "gravy" (I suppose), which was thick and excellent for sopping up with cornbread. My beans just come out watery, so apparently I'm missing something.
-I am aware that there are any number of recipes for this exact meal, but I'm interested to know what variations/secret tricks exist.

Any help is greatly appreciated, and my beans will thank you.
posted by timetoevolve to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
soaking is key! you must soak your beans to make them tasty. and you have to cook them long enough and mash up a few for the gravy to come out.

mix regular cornbread with 'jiffy' brand for that southern sweetness. and add a can of sweet corn kernels too for extra fun, though that's not especially authentic, but yum.

grease your pan with crisco or lard.
posted by citystalk at 9:33 AM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: 1. Dried beans, soak overnight.

2. Dump out the water, put the beans and enough water to cover and a hunk of fatback (bacon will also do, so will ham) and an onion peeled & cut into quarters all into a big heavy pot.

3. Bring just to a boil, take down to a low simmer, cover the pot and leave it alone except for occasional stirring & adding more water if it drops below the level of the beans for like 6 hours or more. Till they taste right. If they're not all umami tasting enough, you can cheat in several ways - add chicken broth instead of water. Add more ham. Add tamari. Add beer. No one will know but you.

4. Do not salt beans until the last half hour of cooking or they'll get tough. I know this makes no sense in light of the fact that there's tons of salt in fatback. Yet, there it is.

5. For cornbread, I use the recipe on the back of the yellow cornmeal bag (must be yellow cornmeal; white makes it creepy looking and blue? They have blue? Huh.) but almost any recipe will do: the secret is to cook it in a HOT cast iron skillet. Put butter and/or oil in the skillet & pop it in the preheating oven. The skillet should be too hot to touch when you pour the cornbread batter into it and the butter should be browned and almost burning.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:43 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

My family always used Luck's canned pintos because Momma was lazy. As for the cornbread, here's my mom's recipe. It makes a small size cornbread for a little (5 inch maybe?) cast iron skillet.
1 cup self-rising cornmeal (we use stone-ground from a mill up the road, but you can use White Lily)
1 egg
1 tablespoon of cooking oil

Mix everything together and use enough buttermilk to get the mixture to a cake batter consistency. Don't ask me how much, my mom can never tell me. Bake it at 500 until brown. Remember to spray the skillet or grease or you'll never get your cornbread out.

Good luck.
posted by teleri025 at 9:44 AM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: Pam Anderson's The Perfect Recipe has an excellent southern-style cornbread recipe. You can see it on this Google Books preiew, starting on page 172.
posted by jon1270 at 9:46 AM on August 4, 2008

Sweetness in southern cornbread? That's blasphemy! A cast iron skillet is a fine vessel to cook the cornbread in, and I second citystalk's recommendation of Crisco or Lard.

As for cooking the beans, at some point you should add some butter, which will also help with the gravy.
posted by trox at 9:46 AM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: For me, the keys to good pinto beans are chopped onions, smashed garlic, bay leaves, and salt. My dad taught me to add salt to the soak water; that way the salt gets inside the bean and stays there, even when you pour off the soak water. Use plenty of water; the beans should always be well covered with water, and keep a lid on the pot, too. When the beans start to get soft, they will start wanting to stick to the bottom of the pot. Make sure you stir them frequently from that point until you take them off the stove. And the Dutch oven will do very well to cook them in. I don't usually add any kind of grease to the beans, but that's not to say it can't be tasty to add a little bacon grease. The onions and garlic get so soft that you won't even notice them in there, except as a component of the flavor.

I don't consider myself knowledgeable about cornbread, but I will hazard that the best cornbread is made from something like Joy of Cooking's southern cornbread recipe. It's more cornmealy and eggy, and less "cake"ey than what you get from a box or in a restaurant. Again, cook it in the Dutch oven. Personally, I would avoid Crisco as it's pure trans-fat, but do be sure you grease the pan well with something before you pour the batter in. It's especially good if you preheat the pan so that the cornmeal forms a nice crust.
posted by bricoleur at 9:53 AM on August 4, 2008

For one -- never, ever use oil or Crisco. Always fry up some bacon and use that for oil & greasing purposes in cornbread recipes.
posted by crapmatic at 9:54 AM on August 4, 2008

(the drippings, that is)
posted by crapmatic at 9:54 AM on August 4, 2008

Re mygothlaundry's point #4: It turns out that salt does not make beans tough, even when added right away. (Try it, you'll see.) What will make them tough is anything acid, such as tomatoes.
posted by bricoleur at 9:55 AM on August 4, 2008

Seconding Pam Anderson's cornbread recipe. It's worth buying a small cast iron skillet for, if you don't already have one. Admittedly I'm a Yankee, but hers is the best Southern-style cornbread I've ever made.

For beans, I love a sounds-weird-but-tastes-wonderful recipe for kidney beans cooked with grape juice (among other things) from Paul Prudhomme. I think it's in his Fork in the Road cookbook, but maybe it's in Fiery Foods That I Love (I'm at work now and don't have access to the books). I think the recipe is called "Not Yo Momma's Red Beans" or something silly like that.
posted by Quietgal at 9:56 AM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: Here is the biggest trick for cooking pinto beans: Bring the beans to a boil then turn off the heat. Let them soak in this hot water for one hour and then drain and rinse the beans. Cover them with water and cook them until tender. The first soaking water is nasty, draining and rinsing makes the beans much more tasty. It also seems to remove some of the gas from the beans. Here is the seasoning I use. It gives a recipe also.

This is the recipe I use for cornbread, but I add chopped jalapenos. I use this pan and this pan because I like the crust, but any cast iron pan will do.
posted by Daddy-O at 10:00 AM on August 4, 2008

Seconding crapmatic's recommendation to use bacon fat as your grease of choice for cornbread in a cast iron skillet (properly seasoned of course). Also, it definitely shouldn't be sweet.

I've had great great luck with this red beans and rice recipe. I've made it with other beans as well (black-eyed peas, pintos, eye of the goat beans) and also had great results. It seems like a lot of work the first time, but it makes a ton of food (that freezes well) and it only gets easier each time you make it. The sausage at the end is truly optional, but the ham hock (I've also used smoked ham, fatback, fatty bacon) is not.
posted by weezetr at 10:10 AM on August 4, 2008

- One key to good cornbread is letting the batter rest after it is mixed. Let it sit there at least 15 minutes before you put it in your skillet/cornpone.
- You need a ham hock or ham steak to put in your beans. Putting raw bacon in is OK, but the bacon does not come out well in the end. I will fry up some bacon at the end to crumble on top of the beans instead.
- You can also substitute black-eyed peas for your beans here to make another great meal.
posted by mattbucher at 10:28 AM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: You don't really need to soak your beans if you cook 'em long enough.

2 lbs pinto beans, washed
1 onion, chopped
1.5 lbs salt pork, chopped
jarred jalepeno slices to taste
some beer, if you're feeling feisty

Put in a large cooking vessel and cover with plenty of water. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down low and simmer overnight. You'll have excellent beans in the morning.

This is our long-time Texas ranch bean recipe and is stunning for its simplicity.
posted by Addlepated at 10:35 AM on August 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

P.S. Cook those beans another night and they'll have all that gravy you're looking for!
posted by Addlepated at 10:36 AM on August 4, 2008

There are probably as many unwritten recipes for brown beans out there as there are for Chili. Everybody has their own way. And they're probably all pretty good.

Me, I like to soak them beans when I have the time and forethought. Overnight usually does the trick. If I'm pressed for time or haven't planned appropriately, a quick soak works in a pich. Bring them to a boil, then turn off the heat and let 'em soak for an hour or so. I never cook in the soaking water. Soak them however you will, then drain the water and add fresh for the actual cooking.

I usually cook mine in a crock pot on low, but a dutch oven will work just fine. The nice thing about a crock pot is that you lose less water to evaporation, and you can put them on before you leave for work in the morning and not worry about them. Ham hocks are best, IMO, for adding that sublime smoky flavor. Onion, garlic, salt, and whatever else sounds good at the moment also get thrown in.

The great thing about beans is that they're cheap enough that you can experiment to your heart's content!
posted by Shohn at 11:21 AM on August 4, 2008

Rancho Gordo has some great instructions for cooking beans (and other delicious recipes) on their website.
posted by logic vs love at 11:48 AM on August 4, 2008

then turn the heat down low and simmer overnight

Do you just leave them on the stove with a flame going all night while you sleep? I can't imagine how my stove might set anything on fire, but leaving an open flame unattended for hours like that makes me kind of nervous. I would absolutely do it if it's considered standard practice, though. Good beans would be worth it.
posted by vytae at 11:56 AM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: Ah, beans and cornbread, this displaced Southerner's preferred last meal. I like a big, still meaty ham bone best as the pork source for my beans. A ham hock will also do as will a few of those packaged ham steaks in a pinch. If your gravy (I call it bean juice) is too thin, it's probably because of two things: you aren't cooking them long enough (remember, this is Southern food, more time is nearly always better) and because you're using too much water. The too much water thing caused me a lot of trouble when I started making my own pintos. You basically just need enough to barely cover the beans. It's better to add more if they start drying out than to try to thicken it later.

An overnight soak in cold water is best, but you can bring them to a boil and soak for an hour if there's not time. Discard the soaking water, just barely cover with water, and simmer simmer simmer for hours. Stir often enough to make sure they don't stick to the bottom. I always use a dutch oven rather than a crock pot I've never needed to mash or otherwise manipulate the beans to get the juice thick. I don't know if I buy the salt toughens beans thing or not, but to be safe, I don't salt until they've been cooking an hour or so. I sometimes include onion, garlic, or stock instead of water, but since my mother and grandmother don't, I don't consider those steps to be authentic.

As for cornbread, where exactly your from will determine what sounds like cornbread. For me (from Middle Tennessee) it's white cornmeal (never yellow) with a bit of flour (or, ideally, Martha White Self-Rising Cornmeal Mix), no sugar whatsoever, cooked in an iron skillet.
posted by mostlymartha at 12:15 PM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: I'll have to find my fancy schmancy cornbread recipe when I get home - it comes out layered and moist and pretty good.

If this is just for you, I'd hold off on cooking the huge pot of beans, because you'll get tired of them before you're done eating them. I usually cook a cupfull (dry) at a time, resulting in about three servings total. I can easily polish off three servings in a week.

I also presoak overnight, or longer - almost fermenting them (lather, rinse, cook). Another trick I learned was to have a soaked set of beans in the fridge, ready to cook.

The only flavoring I use is Knorr's Caldo de Sabor de Pollo (chicken bullion). About a 1/2 teaspoon added about 1.5 hours in.
posted by lysdexic at 1:11 PM on August 4, 2008

Response by poster: As for cornbread, where exactly your from will determine what sounds like cornbread.

I'm from East Tennessee, if that matters. :) I don't recall my mom's homemade cornbread being sweet (she's been gone a long time), but the quick, from-the-box stuff was. I'm assuming that was the Jiffy mix?

I am overwhelmed by this wonderful bean advice. Come over for an overthought plate of beans any time!
posted by timetoevolve at 1:30 PM on August 4, 2008

Do you just leave them on the stove with a flame going all night while you sleep?

We do, but we have this lovely "Simmer" function on the stove that has a wee little flame. One of us usually gets up in the night to check and stir, though.
posted by Addlepated at 1:36 PM on August 4, 2008

Just agreeing with everyone else here that southern cornbread is not sweet!
posted by jockc at 2:07 PM on August 4, 2008

FYI- you probably have a slow cooker, even if you don't realize it: Dutch Oven/Casserole + 300 degree oven = slow cooker. Excellent results every time, and no worries about scorching the beans on the bottom. Follow the recipes on the stove top to the point where they say "lower to simmer". From there, just stick it in the oven for the day (or night).
posted by dchase at 2:09 PM on August 4, 2008

Yep, the sweet stuff was probably Jiffy. I actually think that's quite tasty but not strictly cornbread in my traditionalist sense of the word. For the real stuff, I poked around and found a recipe that looks very much like my method. I, however, usually add an egg and don't put in any pepper. Also, that recipe is for a 8-inch skillet, so for a bigger one, you'd probably want to double it (for a 12-inch skillet maybe) or times one and a half (for a 10-incher).

Also, in a pinch, I have made cornbread in a regular oven proof pan or skillet instead of cast iron. It works, but the crust isn't as lovely. If you don't have a cast iron skillet, oh you should, you really should. They're cheap and they open up a whole universe of cooking possibilities, Southern and otherwise.
posted by mostlymartha at 2:20 PM on August 4, 2008

For the cornbread, buy a bag of Martha White's plain white cornmeal (not self-rising, not yellow). There is a recipe on the back of the bag. Make that one. You can use either buttermilk or milk; I personally prefer the buttermilk version, but it comes out a little more crumbly with plain milk.

Just in case you can't get the brand with the recipe:

Pour some oil (corn, canola, vegetable - not olive oil or anything. I think I remember my grandmother using a scoop of bacon drippings but that might be a little more authentic than you want) into a 10" or so cast iron skillet. Stick that into the oven while the oven preheats to 450.

Mix in a big mixing bowl:

2 cups cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon of salt

Get your measuring cup, and put 1/4 cup of oil or melted butter in there.
Then add 1 3/4 cup of buttermilk on top, so now you have 2 cups of liquid.
Break an egg into that and stir it up.

Now pour all this liquid into the dry ingredients you mixed and stir well.

Carefully remove the skillet from the oven and pour the batter into it (crackle crackle). Put the skillet back into the oven and cook until ...um. Until done, really. Maybe 20 minutes.
So whereabouts in East Tennessee? I have family down that way, and was born just across the KY line myself. Never could stand pintos, though.
posted by dilettante at 3:32 PM on August 4, 2008

Ooooh. If you are in East Tennessee, head to Pigeon Forge and go to the Old Mill there. You can get a 5 lb bag of cornmeal (I prefer yellow) and stick it in the freezer and use it up as you can. It's a pain to deal with the traffic, but my mother swears by their cornmeal.
posted by teleri025 at 3:42 PM on August 4, 2008

Oh, yeah - that recipe I posted - if you use plain milk, you don't use as much of that as you would buttermilk. Not sure of the exact amount for plain milk, though.
posted by dilettante at 3:50 PM on August 4, 2008

Ok, found the book. I'm typing up just what the recpie says:

Three Layer Cornbread
This bread was invented quite by accident - by mistakenly adding more egg and milk than usual. One batter makes three layers. The cornmeal settles, the bran rises, in the middle is an egg-custardy layer.

1 cup cornmeal (coarse ground works best)
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup unbleached white flour
1/4 cup wheat bran or wheat germ
2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/4 - 1/2 cup honey or molasses
1/4 cup oil or melted butter
3 cups milk or buttermilk

[Preheat oven to 350 degrees]

Combine the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine the wet ingredients. Mix together. The resulting batter will be quite liquidy.

Pour batter into a greased 9 x 9 inch pan. Bake at 350 for 50 minutes until the top is springy when gently touched.

As a variation, add a cup of grated cheese.
posted by lysdexic at 4:26 PM on August 4, 2008

Seconding Addlepated. Soaking reduces cooking time, but only by an hour or so.

I follow the advice of Rick Bayless when it comes to beans. He says there's no need to soak them, and if you do soak them, cook them in the soaking liquid, because there's flavor in the liquid.

His basic recipe, which I use all the time, goes something like this:

1 lb. pinto, black, navy, red, etc. beans
1/2 chopped white onion
2 tbsp. lard or cooking oil
1 qt. water

Rinse the beans. Put it all in the pot, bring it to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Put the lid on the pot slighlty askew to allow a little steam to escape. Cook until the beans are tender. Add 1 tbsp. salt and allow to simmer for another 15 minutes.

That's it. This whole process takes about two and a half hours.

I'm excited to try Addlepated's recipe too.
posted by chrchr at 5:26 PM on August 4, 2008

Chrchr - Rick Bayless's recipe sounds very similar to mine. The main difference is the copious amount of salt pork that my family uses rather than his oil/lard, but it conveniently erases the need to add any salt later. My aunt uses both salt pork and a dollop of bacon grease for the flavor.

If you plan to make refried beans from the pot you're cooking, I highly recommend reducing the salt (or salt pork) by at least half. Cooking them down makes the salt that much more concentrated.

The nice thing about beans is that, unless you burn them, it's really hard to get 'em wrong.
posted by Addlepated at 6:11 PM on August 4, 2008

Response by poster: dilettante/teleri025: Would that I were in Tennessee now and could get decent southern food on demand. :) I live in the DC area now, but I'm Knoxville-born and reared.
posted by timetoevolve at 7:48 PM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: OK, I'm home now and the beans cooked in grape juice are on page 232 of Fork in the Road. You can get a used copy for 31ยข on Amazon, and that's a steal. Besides, everybody should have a dish in their repertoire whose description would stop people in their tracks, yet is delicious and cheap and keeps well. (Actually, you can't really taste the grape juice - the beans are savory and tangy with a thick gravy full of onions, peppers, and spices. Some andouille sausage would be a great addition to this vegetarian recipe, for a little variety. But the grape juice really is the secret ingredient - the beans just aren't as good without it.)
posted by Quietgal at 8:21 PM on August 4, 2008

Another non-soaking heretic here. I suspect that tip is left-over from wagon-train beans that were five years old.

Am also not all riled up about yellow vs. white cornmeal. And I have used plain yogurt in a pinch so the diary aspect of cornbread not writ in stone. Use half-and-half and add a chopped thai pepper - that would probably be great.

But never compromise on using some form of pig fat. Never.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:43 PM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: Because I am Southern and Proud, I can't not weigh in here. Beans are pretty simple, soak overnight, simmer 4 - 6 hours with a ham hock and plenty of onion. Salt and pepper to taste in the last half-hour cooking. Serve with some kind of relish, like Mrs. Campbell's Chow Chow.

Cornbread, however, is a matter of contention. My family (both my Mother's and Father's people) has been in East Tennessee since the 18th century, and the recipe I make includes my great-grandmother's greasy, hot skillet, white cornmeal, an extra egg, and sugar. It's pretty much like cake, and damn delicious. Unsweetened yellow corn is for cheap-ass school lunches.

The one thing nobody's mentioned, though, is the tomatoes. I can't possibly imagine pintos and cornbread without sliced, ripe, homegrown tomatoes. Absolutely required, preferably from Grainger County.
posted by lost_cause at 5:44 PM on August 5, 2008

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