Most of my friends would say I’m a pretty good cook, but I don’t think that begins to describe it. Andy is much more what I’d call a good cook as in the bold, adventurous, “cooking as contact sport” Gordon Ramsay kind of cook. Me? I’m all about the gadgets and the processes. I can improvise, but I want the scientific tests to back me up before I chose a methodology or alter the formula. Yes Gentle Readers, you’ve seen The Mother of All Pressure Canners and shared my frustration with what seem to be lacksadaisical instructions from cookbooks about using it. Somehow I managed to muddle through and make some pretty outstanding tomato marmalade. So good that I’m thinking of following my friend Susi’s suggestion and adding “Win a Blue Ribbon at the Sonoma County Fair” to my Bucket List. I think I have a contenda.
But what I want to talk about today are slow cookers. And yes, once again, I had to buy the best one I could afford. Problem is, finding a cookbook that helps me maximize what I think must be its potential. For the next few weeks, my target are beans. Because a) beans, beans, they’re good for your heart and b) because, at 39¢ to $1.79 per pound, you can make a lot of mistakes with beans before you really start feeling bad about wasting food dollars.
I’ve made beans before in this slow cooker. And Lord knows, I’ve got the Western Hemisphere’s most extensive collection of slow cooker cookbooks. The problem is, if I admit it, I’ve never managed to make beans that taste better than some of the stuff you get in cans. Or, as in the case of the cannellini beans I just made last week, they taste as good, but they are kind of mushy and not all perfect like the canned stuff. But I’m not giving up. So today, I tackled pinto beans or frijoles — those classics of the American Southwest.
Okay, I don’t want to be a finger-pointer here. As the Irish say, “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.” But some of the fault has to be apportioned to the divided food writer community. No one seems to have a clear consensus on how to cook beans. Here’s what I found when scanning through all my cookbooks.
There’s the school that says, “Hey, it’s a slow cooker, just dump everything in and Hey Presto!”. I’m rejecting that advice. I’m a
victim product of a mother who hated cooking and embraced the old Peg Bracken I Hate to Cook Books. Until my brother and I took the reins and started cooking, our mealtimes were an endless round of a mass of stuff covered with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, topped with those orangey crunchy things and lots of hamburger helper. Shudder. Not going back there again. I’ve purged out the cookbooks that share that philosophy. (I say, if you are going to cook, really cook. Otherwise make a salad.)
Then there are the conflicting controversies:
1) Beans should only be cooked on the Low setting.
2) NO! Beans should only be cooked on the High setting.
3) Spice it up before you turn on the crock.
4) Nope, all spices should only go in just before serving.
5) Nothing salty or you’ll toughen the skins.
6) What?! Gotta add stock or it will be bland. Who cares if stock has sodium in it?
7) Don’t need to soak the beans for slow cooking.
8 ) Fool! You ALWAYS need to soak the beans.
Then there are the alleged secret ingredients. A bit of Kombu seaweed. Or something called Epazote or Mexican Tea. I almost embarked on a safari to the Mexican side of Sonoma in search of the elusive herb until I read that, in large quantities, it’s toxic. I quickly reassessed how committed I was to tasty beans
Actually I found what I’m hoping will be my own secret ingredient. Let’s not even get into the controversy about what liquid to cook the beans in. But I did find one cookbook that recommended at least part of the liquid should be beer. Yes, JACKPOT!
My friend Keith has backed an outrageous Scottish Microbrewery, BrewDog. Needless to say, during Keith’s long and illustrious career in what he, with British quaintness, calls “The Drinks Industry”, we’ve always been well stocked with his product. So I could put my hand on just the thing, BrewDog’s Paradox MacCallan.
So I found the recipe that sounded the best because it included steps like blackening Serrano chiles, onions and garlic, then cooking the beans in stock and beer liberally sprinkled with cumin and coriander. (For reference, it was from The Gourmet Slow Cooker by Lynn Alley. Ten Speed Press.)
Of course, into it I added a full bottle of Paradox MacCallan. See, I’m betting the Scottish and the Mexicans have a lot in common. In fact, I’m sure we could find some sort of historical connection — maybe having to do with the Spanish Armada — that proves Scottish Stout is THE KEY INGREDIENT to a good bowl of frijoles.
I know the proof will be in the eating, but barely an hour in the aromas wafting through the kitchen made me think I was really on to something here. Scottish and Mexican. Hmmm. Okay, hear me out. Think of a classic old Western. The wagon trains are rolling through the Southwest. Many of them are driven by the Irish and Scottish. Hey, I have history to back me up here. Where do you think the Teamsters came from? So they get ambushed by Mexican bandits who relieve them of a load of beer destined for the thirsty miners in the gold fields. Mexicans, being a thrifty and industrious people, and preferring their Tequila as a drink, figure out something else to do with the casks of beer. Frijoles. Yes!
Okay, if you aren’t buying this, I do have proof that Buffalo Bill took his Wild West show to Scotland frequently. So there.
Anyway, the only test that matters: the taste. The taste. THE TASTE!
I’ve been my own worst critic on beans. (‘Cause I’ve always shifted the blame to the cookbook!) But these beans are fabulous. Better than canned. Better than a restaurant. Unbelievable.
What makes it so? A wonderful smokiness. Remember those chiles, garlic and onions the recipe had me broil and char? Part of it. Then I added two small strips of bacon. Because, well you can’t help but improve anything with bacon. But the largest part of the equation and what I think really underscored everything and brought the tastes together: the dark and slightly peaty flavor of the beer. And that’s not going to be just any beer, Folks, it’s got to be beer aged in whisky casks. It’s got to be BrewDog Paradox. Or back to blaming the cookbook. So thank you, BrewDog. I’m renaming you CervezaPerro.
Ai Yi Yi Yi and Scots Wha Hae. You’ve just proven my point about that Scottish/Mexican connection.
ah yes the addition of a good beer, some smoke & bacon is always a good idea. If researching through a bunch of recipes I just picked out the ones that tell me what I want to do 😉
Getting a ribbon at the state fair is on my life list too, I think I’ll be entering two salsas next year.
Now, can you can them and sell them to your friends? As I’d love to try them and perhaps send a can to James in Fraserburg.
Christine, I’ll be making these many more times to tweak the recipe. I’ll bring over a batch next time. But I’m going to need a lot more BrewDog Paradox!
Are you cooking dry beans?
I must have my Scottish mother read this. She is currently feuding with her Mexican neighbors and vows the Scots will win!
Same question as Maybelline — if they’re dried beans, we get into another level of controversy over soaking, salt, cooking time, etc. Curious to hear what you used.
Yup. started with organic pinto beans, presoaked overnight, then cooked them in the slow cooker on the high setting. Cookbooks are completely divided on presoaking for the slow cooker. In fact, one of mine says, under no circumstances, presoak black Turtle beans as they will become grey and mushy. I can attest to that. But I presoaked the pintos on the advice of another cookbook that said ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS presoak. Cooked in stock and the beer, even though so many books say never never cook in anything with salt in it. I also put the spices in at the beginning, even though some books say only add at the end. One thing I did on my own that I was glad of was precook the bacon, then sprinkle it in as “bacon bits”. It was much nicer to find little crunchy bits rather than soft bacon pieces. It also made the beans taste smokier, I thought.
I’m going to be experimenting with this recipe and nailing a few things down. Then revisiting.
I understand that you should never add any tomatoes (sauce, stewed, diced, etc.) until the very, very end because the addition of the acid stops the cooking process and leaves you with tough beans.
I wish it would get cold here. You’ve inspired me to make some chili beans and cornbread.
Ha! I was just planning to make cornbread and serve the leftover beans as refried beans with chorizo. But it’s up in the 80s today, so maybe not.
Did you discard the soaking water and rinse the beans before adding them to the crockpot? (also a point of controversy in my research, I too am trying to find the “right” way)
Good call on the early addition of spices and bacon, I would have done the same as well (mushy/soft bacon = gross texture.)
I have some beautiful beans stocked up from Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/Items.aspx?hierId=14) and I don’t want to do ’em wrong!
Yes, I soaked the beans overnight then discarded the soaking water and rinsed. That I believe in. I’m also now a big believer in cooking in something OTHER than water. For me, the chicken stock and beer gave me a really rich, smokey tasting “gravy” that was great. Beans I’ve cooked in water have been bland. The spices I added were ground cumin and coriander and both really added to the flavor. Most recipes call for adding salt before serving, but I haven’t even needed to as these beans are so flavorful.
If I remember correctly Mark Bittman has some interesting things to say about cooking beans in “How to cook everything Vegetarian”. I’ll go look and let you know.
You can make a trip to New Mexico for roasted chili time as part of the experimentation. yes yes yes
I love that my pressure cooker suggests adding quarter cup oil to pound of dried beans for the soaking process. Broth does give a better flavor than water to cooked beans.
You want to come up with a formula for these beans. Those wheels are always turning aren’t they. I like the chemistry and physics of cooking too. Always have. Maybe that is why I enjoy baking for holidays. It isn’t just what is in the recipe, but also conditions in the environment, and handling and all that jazz.
Have fun, sounds like you are.
Don’t even get me started on the pressure cooker. That’s my other kitchen gadget of choice (as differentiated from a pressure canner). After many not-so fabulous beans in the pressure cooker, I’m now thinking, at least for beans, the slow cooker is the way to go.
Even though it’s nowhere near cool enough, I made chili beans and cornbread today.
Thanks for the inspiration.
Ah, but after soaking the beans in the pressure cooker I cook them without seal and pressure rocker. Takes longer but has a slow cooked feel and the liquid escapes. Beans must cook down.
This is my issue with slow cookers, how to evaporate enough liquid. I haven’t experimented enough to know.
I am from the Southern dead beans tradition, butter beans pretty much dissolve by the time it is soup. Green beans not soup, just bacony and rich. I grew up knowing pinto beans as soup beans. Went back to the small town about ten years ago for a festival and had a bowl of bean soup from the church on Main Street — yep, pintos. Decades later. They hold up well.
Lentil soup is dynamite cooked my way in pressure cooker. Anything to help you along, Lisa.
My, the final product does look tasty!!
The funniest bean advice I’ve received is that by adding baking soda to the soaking water, you’ll remove some of the “magic” that brings on the …..well, remember that old rhyme…
beans, beans, the magic fruit
the more you eat the more you…
I haven’t scientifically tested this theory yet.