If all you’re looking for is a killer recipe, skip directly to it; in-depth explanation and color commentary appear below.
Why red beans and rice?
Other than how good they are?
Well…learn to cook these red beans and you can cook any kind of beans; then, over the course of your life you may cook beans more than any other food. Simple, healthy, filling – if they weren’t delicious none of that would matter; you can and will eat them as breakfast, lunch, a snack, or dinner. Twice a month I cook two pounds of some kind of beans and that’s my staple for a week or more. Number one desert island food? Red beans and rice (followed closely by good pizza). The only tattoo I ever considered was of a red bean.
If you take beans to work twice a week for lunch instead of buying a $10 sandwich…that’s $1040.
So that’s why red beans and rice.
Mondays in New Orleans
I learned to cook red beans during the year I was living in the crazy magical city of New Orleans, where there’s a custom of serving red beans and rice on Monday. A good place to learn to cook beans. Back in the day Monday was laundry day and while painstakingly doing the wash by hand (presumably using a washboard – scrubbing, rinsing, wringing) the woman of the house would be home all day. Meaning she could periodically stir the beans that were simmering in a cast iron pot on the fire – a pot which, along with the beans and seasonings, contained a flavorful ham bone from Sunday supper.
The Louisiana tradition of serving red beans and rice on Mondays is so woven into the fabric of the culture that one Monday while I was eating an oyster po’ boy at an old-school lunch counter the other 15 patrons – some in greasy coveralls, others in pressed suits – were all eating red beans and rice. It might have seemed that I was clueless; in reality I was heading home after lunch to put a pot of beans on the stove.
When I first cooked dried beans I didn’t really know anything but I had some cookbooks so I read what I could find. It was so alien: how were these hard, dry beans going to become edible?
After trying out several recipes I unintentionally created an amalgam that I loved – and apparently so did others. A few years after leaving New Orleans I found myself back in town at a show in a Ninth Ward dive bar with my good friend and Louisiana native James “Mojo” Rizer. In the early morning hours during a break in the music – that night’s band, the Barbeque Swingers, called it a “reefer break” – we were eating some free beans served out of a huge aluminum commercial-grade stockpot. Mojo is a trained actor and a bit of a ham and he launched into a story involving the best red beans he ever ate and the guy who cooked them; it didn’t occur to me right away that he was talking about me.
Please understand that I was just learning to cook when James first ate my beans. All it took was following directions and caring enough to keep trying. I was not and am not a recipe developer; I didn’t cook every day and I only cooked red beans on the occasional Monday. If you cook once every week or two you will become a skilled cook. That’s all it takes.
A choice for you: quick or comprehensive?
If you already have mad cooking skills (or even basic ones) you may want to skip directly to the recipe. If you’d like in-depth information – including fundamental knife skills – regarding each step along the way, keep scrolling.
How hungry are you? And do you want to eat better and spend less every day? How much should you cook? I’ve encountered recipes that call for cooking one cup of beans and I’ve never seen the point. They’re usually sold in one pound bags (which is about two cups of dried beans); that amount is good for two with substantial leftovers and even with four or five people there might be extra. One of the beneficial qualities of beans is that they’re even better the second day – when first cooked they’re like a skilled, loud jam band; on day two we’re talking killer jazz. I once won a red beans and rice contest (true story) with beans I intentionally cooked the day before. So make enough for leftovers. The recipe below is for one pound and that’s a solid amount to learn with, but after a few times don’t be afraid to double it. If you get tired of eating the same thing for a few days keep in mind that beans freeze well and are easy to reheat.
Picking through the beans no surprises means
Let’s get this mundane task out of the way. Beans are an agricultural product and sometimes very tiny stones make their way into the bag or bin. The only way to remove this debris is to pick them out by hand. Put all the beans in a bowl, scoop up a handful and poke through them; place sorted beans in another bowl.
Full disclosure: sometimes I’m not in the mood to do this, so I don’t. But it can be meditative, and when I do it I usually find a stone or two. When I was cooking to take photos for this website I picked through the beans so I could take a picture of my findings; I found nothing.
A simple question that begets a pseudo-philosophical answer
Should you soak beans overnight?
In the words of my childhood friend Nick, “Cooking is not an exact science.”
If you cook regularly you’ll eventually come across conflicting instructions, not just for cooking beans. For lots of things. Some of these intructions will come from highly regarded and/or famous chefs. Two different people might each achieve excellent results using different methods. That’s because…cooking is not an exact science. Rather than stress me out the way it used to – which way is right? Which is best? – I’m now comforted by the idea that there’s no one way to do things. Try something out, see if it work for you and adopt it as your own. Keep an open mind and you’ll always be learning.
Back to soaking. Soaking primes the beans for cooking. As with any agricultural product, beans have a range of freshness, and where they fall on this range will determine the cooking time. The two primary advantages to soaking are that the beans will take less time to cook and that they’ll all cook evenly. Although it’s a safe assumption that all the beans in one bag are about the same age, sometimes you’ll discover in your finished dish a holdout that doesn’t seem quite done. It doesn’t happen enough for me to feel that I always need to soak. (On a larger scale, one time I was cooking a pot of beans and they just. wouldn’t. get. tender. This is a bummer and the risk can be minimized by shopping at a market that’s likely to have regular inventory turnover. When it happened to me I was using a bag of kidney beans that had been in my cabinet for over a year. My bad.)
Although the recipe below contains instructions for soaking (you may have limited time on cooking day, I want you to have options), I usually don’t soak. Most times I don’t have the time or foresight . But if you don’t soak them you should definitely rinse them. Put the beans in a colander and put the colander in a pot, then fill the pot with water:
The top of the colander should be above the rim of the pot; in this way the running water rinses the beans and they don’t float over the edge into the sink, the way the would if you just put them in a bowl and turned the water on. This may not seem like a big deal to you but the first time I saw someone do this I was like “ahhhhhhh, that’s awesome.” Maybe I’m easily amused.
The main drawback of not soaking is that the cooking time is longer. This doesn’t bother me because if I’m cooking beans I’ve already taken a several hour long cooking time into consideration – I may not be doing laundry by hand but I’m probably doing laundry, among other household chores, so what’s another hour? As for the aforementioned bean-to-bean freshness variation? As I said, it’s not a problem often enough to need to take preventive measures. I mention these issues so that if you encounter them you don’t think you’ve done something wrong. Cooking is not an exact science, got it? I hope so, because…
If you understand that cooking is not an exact science, now we can talk about salt.
If you’re roasting a chicken, most cooks would agree that the meat benefits from pre-seasoning, whether salt dusting or brining. Bean cookery doesn’t enjoy that sort of consensus.
As with many cooking-related topics there are many different opinions on salting beans and if you find something works or doesn’t work, trust your gut. Hard to do when you’re following the instructions of a published author / famous chef.
The huge majority of cooks out there – in print and in person – subscribe to the notion that beans should be salted at the end of cooking and never before. They believe that salting too early causes beans to become tough.
Over the years I’ve come to believe that ideally each ingredient in any dish will be subtly infused with salt during the cooking process. For me this means:
- If I’m soaking beans, they soak in salt water, a technique I learned from a chef who read it in Cook’s Illustrated. (2 teaspoons kosher salt to 4 cups water)
- If I’m not soaking beans I salt them (about two teaspoons) when they go in the pot so that as they simmer for hours they become imbued with subtle saltiness at an atomic level. This line of thought gibes with the (presumably salty) hambone-in-the-pot tradition.
That’s my experience; would love to hear yours in the comments below.
Layers of Flavor Part I: the Holy Trinity
Many cuisines employ sautéing (cooking in a small amount of fat in a pan) a combination of vegetables as a first step in the cooking of a multitude of dishes for the purpose of establishing a solid base layer of flavor. Good cooking is all about layering flavors: some are on the surface and some are a little deeper; some occur in your mouth right away and some reveal themselves at the end. And some keep going, and going, and going….
The most commonly known vegetable flavor base is a combination known by the French word mirepoix, (pronounced MEER-uh-pwah), which consists of onions, carrots, and celery. This base layer is used often in French, Spanish, and Italian cooking and though it’s known by different names, in English we usually use its French name even if we’re cooking something Italian. (“I began making the Bolognese sauce by sautéing mirepoix. Then I added….”)
The cajun and creole version is the Holy Trinity, which substitutes bell pepper for the carrot – it’s still sweet but it adds regional zest – and which is the base of a slew of regional dishes including jambalaya, étouffée, and the matter at hand, red beans and rice.
This is an exciting moment. Dicing vegetables that I know I’ll be cooking in a few minutes is one of the most satisfying things I ever do. If you take the time to learn how to do this you’ll learn fundamental knife skills that you’ll use the rest of your life. On these pages I’ll show you in detail how to dice onions, celery, and bell peppers (as well as carrots and shallots, for future reference) as well as how to mince garlic and slice scallions. Put on some music and have fun. Here are the links:
(Links forthcoming. Soon.)
Layers of Flavor Part II: dried herbs and spices (with special bonus: buying in bulk)
After you begin your cooking by “sweating” (chefspeak for “sautéing until soft”) the Holy Trinity (plus garlic), you’ll add your herbs and spices. Three kinds of pepper and three herbs: black, white, and cayenne; thyme, oregano, and bay. I love the way each one of these activates a different part of your mouth, and I’m not onto anything new here – most cajun recipes call for most or all of these.
If you’re in a supermarket looking at the wall of spice jars it might be easy to come to the conclusion that all spices are created equal. Not so. Freshness matters, and so does price.
Price. One of the things that frustrated me when I was beginning to cook was having to buy a $5 jar of cloves so I could use three of them. I don’t know if I was ignorant of bulk bins or if they’re more prominent now; either way, you should seek them out.
Although “bulk” implies that you can buy enormous amounts, for me it means the opposite: I’m able to buy exactly how much I need (such as three cloves), or maybe a bit more if I want to have something conveniently available. Dried herbs and spices lose potency as they sit around so there’s a balance between convenience and optimal flavor. The perfect is the enemy of the good; if keeping a bag of ground black pepper in your drawer means you’ll cook more often, then do it. You may eventually want to invest in a spice grinder, then you can have on hand whole spices and grind them as you need them, they really pop when you do it this way. This one cost me $14 on Amazon:
It’s just a coffee grinder that I never use for coffee, it’s stored with my spices, and I use it often. The brush was one dollar at a hardware store and is for brushing spice-dust from around the blade.
Layers of Flavor Part III: chicken stock, veg stock, pork stock, God stock
A good stock has it’s own layers of flavor to contribute to the layers of flavor you’re creating in your red beans, and if I have chicken stock around I might use it for my beans. If I suspect a vegetarian will be sharing this particular pot of beans and I’m out to impress, maybe I’ll make a vegetable stock (it takes a half an hour). I’ve never used pork stock and I’m not sure I’ve ever made it but if for some reason you’ve got it there’s probably no better use for it than this one.
For instructions on how to make chicken stock, click here. For vegetable stock, here. (Links forthcoming.)
Making and using stock is the surest way to improve any dish that involves cooking with a quantity of liquid and the return on investment of time and effort is possibly the most of any skill in cooking. But I’ve made hundreds of pots of beans with water from the tap (God stock) and if that’s the only liquid I could ever use, I wouldn’t be disappointed. Learn with water and adapt as you see fit. Or set out intentionally to have a cooking weekend: roast a chicken on Saturday, make chicken stock on Sunday, and cook some beans Monday. Boom.
Layers of Flavor Part IV: ham hocks and sausages
If you’re a vegetarian or for whatever reason you want your red beans to be meat-free, no worries – they’re gonna be awesome even without pork. I’ve made vegetarian and regular versions side-by-side and really, the veg one was awesome. A bunch of us were surprised at how good it was. But for a lot of people adding pork will add flavor and one of the things we as cooks want to create is layers of flavor, right?
In place of the traditional hambone I use a smoked ham hock, the hock of the pig being just above the hoof. I find them more often than not in whatever lower-end grocery store is around, for some reason they’re not carried by most of the frou-frou markets. Like dried beans, this is one of those things that was totally bizarre to me when I was a new cook – I grew up in a New Jersey suburb and my mom didn’t use ham hocks – but as with anything new in life, after awhile the idea of ham hocks wasn’t strange anymore and a lot of the time I have one in my freezer since they often come in packs of two or more. To use it, I put the hock in the pot with the beans and liquid at the beginning of cooking. That’s it. The fat and gelatin and smokiness leech into the beans over the course of four or five or six hours and give them a flavor that can’t be replicated any other way. If you happen to come across a jar of “liquid smoke” DO NOT BE TEMPTED. Trust me.
Toward the end of the cooking time I add some sort of sausage. Traditionally it’s andouille (ahn-DEW-ee) which is spicy, smoked pork sausage. It’s hard to find good andouille outside of Louisiana though I just found a place near me in Boulder that makes a pretty good version, pictured above; if you find a packaged brand you like please let me know. In its place I use hot Italian sausage, which is basically a fresh (unsmoked) spicy pork sausage. Many variables go into sausage making so one store’s ‘hot Italian’ may be drastically different than another’s. Shop around until you find something that pleases you.
When the beans are almost finished I sear the sausage in a pan to brown the outside (imparting depth of flavor and making it easier to cut) then I slice it into coins and add it to the pot. I used to do this unquestioningly – probably because I read it in a recipe once – and one day I wondered if the searing step was necessary. I’m not into extraneous steps or cleaning extra pans and pots, and the sausage cooks in the beans anyway so why begin the sausage cooking process in a separate pan? There was one way to figure it out for sure, so I tried slicing the raw sausage and adding it to the beans. I discovered that the texture isn’t quite to my liking when I do this – less firm to the bite, almost mealy. So I continue to sear.
And that’s the beauty of cooking – you can do whatever you want, try different options, taste, see what friends’ reactions are, learn by doing. When I was in college and didn’t know anything about cooking and didn’t know where to start, the ability to try anything meant that I ate a lot of mediocre tomato sauce. No one told me about layers of flavor, that it’s easy to make a decent tomato sauce with canned tomatoes, as long as you have onion or garlic or both. Once you have basic skills and knowledge, every meal is a chance to experiment in large and small ways.
Rice, and ratios
I feel like I hear a lot of people complain about how hard it is to cook rice, that they’re buying rice cookers. Maybe it was just one person but it was just the other day. Anyway, if you cook rice every single meal every day and want it perfect every time and want to keep it ready to serve and eat for hours, then maybe a rice cooker is a worthwhile investment. Until you reach that point there’s other equipment you should invest in.
Anyway, to cook rice properly you need two things that aren’t rice or water: a pot with a lid that fits snugly, and a ratio. For long grain white rice the ratio is 1.5 cups of water per cup of rice. (Different types of rice need different amounts of water and have different cooking times.) There are many different techniques and early on I tried a few, had repeated success with one, and have stuck with it ever since.
Another rice ratio we need to concern ourselves with is the amount of cooked rice to cooked beans. I only mention this because it took me a few years to realize that I like just a bit of rice interspersed throughout my beans (and much of the time I use my finished beans in applications that don’t involve rice at all). Red beans create a gravy that can be completely addictive, and you might be tempted to stretch the taste like you’re in a Chinese restaurant – by using a lot of rice. Every time I make myself a bowl I end up using too much rice.
Every time. I’ll scoop one spoon in and it won’t look like nearly enough so I’ll add another and maybe another and finally it looks like the right amount. Then I’ll add a couple spoonfuls of beans and as I’m eating it I realize…too much rice. So after a few bites I’ll get up and add some more beans and gravy, and I’ll be all set.
All I’m saying is you may find you need less rice than you think.
Two small finishing touches that make a big difference
Top off your bowl of beans and rice with some sliced scallions for textural contrast – for both eyes and mouth – and a subtle earthy-oniony flavor. And add some sort of vinegar-based hot sauce to taste, either Tobasco or New Orleans-local Crystal. If you find that the amount of cayenne in the red beans recipe is pushing the boundries of your heat tolerance then dial it back so you have heat-space for hot sauce at the end – the vinegar kick ties everything together.
Even if the alchemy of going from hard, dried pellets to rich, creamy sustenance doesn’t appeal to your sense of wonder, I hope the flavors in the finished dish do.
Red beans and ricely yours,
Red Beans and Rice: the Recipe
A quick note: Although the purpose of this blog is to help someone who is a complete beginner and not make any assumptions about knowledge of food and wine, I’m going to make an assumption here: that the reader will be able to discern between a small, a medium, and a large onion. Cheers.
- 1 pound kidney beans, rinsed or soaked in salted water overnight and drained
- 3 tablespoons inexpensive extra virgin olive oil or whatever oil you have (2 tablespoons for the Trinity and 1 for the sausage)
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 scallions (green onions), sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon salt (for beans soaked in salted water overnight) or 2 teaspoons salt (for beans with no previous contact with salt)
- 1 smoked ham hock, about 1 pound
- 1/2 pound andouille, hot italian sausage, or other sausage of your choice
- 1 cup rice
1. Heat the oil. Place a four- or six-quart pot on the stove on medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of whatever oil you decide to use. Wait for the oil to get hot. You can tell by flicking a few drops of water and listening for a sizzle, and also the oil will become less thick and more fluid as it heats up. So move the pot around and note how the oil moves around the bottom. Eventually you won’t need to flick water, you’ll be able to tell by the viscosity.
2. Sweat the veggies. “Sweat” is chefspeak for “sautéing until soft.” Put the onions, bell pepper, and celery in the pot. Sprinkle a pinch of salt on top (for seasoning and also because salt draws out water, which the vegetables will now simmer in) and stir to evenly coat the vegetables with oil and salt. Then stir every minute or two for ten minutes, until the vegetables are soft.
Once the Trinity is soft, add the minced garlic and stir to distribute it evenly. In general, many recipes (not just bean recipes) have sautéing garlic as the first step, followed by adding other vegetables that will be sautéed. I find that if I add garlic that early I usually burn or brown it. So I’m a bit paranoid about adding garlic and I always add it when it won’t have much time on direct heat. In this case we’re adding it after the vegetables are soft, which is only a minute or two before we’re going to add liquid, but before liquid…
3. Add the herbs and spices. I’m not sure why I do this before adding water and beans. I must have read it in a recipe and my beans always come out great so why mess with it? Cooking is not an exact science.
So add the herbs and spices and stir them around for a minute with the Trinity-with-garlic-and-salt. In my mind this toasts the spices a bit as well as integrates them with the vegetables, which will soon be interspersed with beans and water. I’m not sure if this is true, but it works.
4. Add water and beans. Turn the heat to high. If you only rinsed but didn’t soak your beans, put 5 cups of water (or stock) in the pot, then add the beans. If you soaked, use 4 cups. As discussed at length above, the different qualities of beans are not necessarily consistent from one batch to another, and the amount of water or stock they absorb is one of these inconsistencies. The beans should be covered by at least an inch of water. If they soak up so much that they’re no longer covered, add more liquid. Continue to keep an eye on them, adding liquid as necessary.
5. Heresy alert! Add salt now. (And the ham hock). That’s really it – add the salt (1 teaspoon if the beans were soaked in salt water, 2 teaspoons otherwise), stir well, and add the ham hock and stir as well as you can manage with a chunk of meat and bone in the middle of your pot, submerging as much of the hock as possible.
6. Do your laundry. Now it’s a waiting game. Once the liquid in the pot comes to a simmer, turn the heat down to medium low. You want a constant, gentle simmer so adjust your heat as necessary. Stir occasionally. If anyone new enters this environment they’ll comment on how great it smells “even from the hallway” or they’ll say “I could smell it outside!”
7. Periodically stir and taste. From this point the beans will take about 3 hours if they were soaked, about 4 hours if not. As I’ve mentioned maybe once or twice, batches of beans vary. Stir every 15 minutes or half hour. After 2 hours, taste. The beans will probably still be firm, even sort of chalky. Every time you stir, taste and note the differences; whenever you cook, tasting along the way is one of the ways you learn.
8. Make gravy. After 3-4 hours (or longer…it’s hard to say how long so be patient and use your best judgement) the beans will be approaching the desired texture: they should still have a definite shape and when you bite into them the skin gives way easily and the overall feeling is creamy. When they’re at this point (or just shy of it, which you’ll be able to tell after making them a few times) take a sturdy kitchen utensil and smash about a quarter of the beans against the side of the pot. How will you be able to tell when you’ve smashed a quarter of the beans? You probably won’t, which is no big deal.
Until now the contents of the pot will have been distinguishable from one another. The liquid will have turned brown from the various ingredients as well as the contact with the beans but it will still be a watery broth, distinct from the beans. This step will release starch from the beans which will turn that watery liquid into a bean gravy, unifying the different parts into a cohesive whole.
9. Sausage. After smashing, the beans will need some more time to themselves, which is good because you have a couple things to do. Start with browning the sausage. First, pierce the casing of the sausages with a knife or fork, maybe three pierces in a row on one side, then rotate and repeat two more times. This allows steam that builds up inside the sausage to escape and the sausage won’t explode (which is probably unlikely in any event) or bubble or curl up excessively.
Heat a pan on medium and when it’s hot add a tablespoon of oil and swirl the pan to coat the bottom. Lay the sausages in the pan. Adjust the heat until you’re hearing a consistent medium sizzle – not so gentle that you can hardly hear it, and definitely not so loud that it sounds emphatic. Just a definite, firm sizzle.
After two or three minutes they should be brown (but not black) on the side that’s in contact with the pan. With tongs or a fork rotate each one a quarter of a turn to brown the next side; repeat with the remaining two sides. Remove the sausages from the pan and slice them into coins about a quarter inch thick. The center probably won’t be cooked yet so don’t eat any. Deposit the coins into the pot of beans and stir; the sausage will finish cooking with the beans.
10. Rice. While the sausage is browning you can start cooking the rice. Place 1.5 cups water and a pinch of salt into a one- or two-quart saucepan for which you have a tight fitting lid. Turn the heat on high and wait a couple minutes for the water to simmer. When it simmers pour the 1.5 cups of rice into the water. Stir just once, so the rice is evenly distributed. Cover the saucepan and turn the heat as low as it can go while still remaining on. Set a timer for 20 minutes.
When 20 minutes is up check the rice. Don’t check it early – steam will escape and the rice won’t cook properly. It should have absorbed all the water and be ready to eat. Taste it to make sure it’s finished – it should be soft, not crunchy and not mushy. If it tastes good fluff it with a fork, turn the heat off, and cover the pan until you’re ready to use it, which should be momentarily.
If it’s even remotely hard you need to cook the rice longer. Keep the heat on low and cover the saucepan again – and if there’s no water remaining add 2 tablespoons. Check the rice again in 5-10 minutes, depending on how underdone it seemed.
11. Red beans and rice, baby. Once the rice is done the thin sausage coins will be cooked through and the contents of the bean pot should have magically transformed into red beans with gravy – lots and lots of gravy. Remove the ham hock. Very occasionally it may have some meat worth pulling from the bone which can then go back into the pot, but 99% of the time I find it has nothing left to offer, having given everything worth giving to beans you’re about to enjoy.
Place a small mound of rice in your bowl (one heaping tablespoon does it for me – see mini-rant above about rice amounts) and heap a few ladles of beans and sausage over. Top with sliced scallions and multiple dashes of hot sauce. Enjoy!