In all the years I've been slinging barbecue, I've relied on only two barbecue bean recipes. I started out with Alton Brown's Once and Future Bean, and then switched almost exclusively to Mike Mills' Tangy Pit Beans after picking up his barbecue bible, Peace, Love, and Barbecue. The recipes are radically different, but both resulted in beans far better than I've gotten in most barbecue joints.
Alton's recipe calls for dried great northern beans, which are soaked overnight before cooking low and slow with a mixture of stock, tomato paste, onion, jalapeño, molasses, brown sugar, and a whopping pound of bacon. The resulting dish has the pronounced, tangy sweetness of tomato and molasses, with just a touch of heat to round things out. It's damn good, but takes 14 to 16 hours from start to finish.
Mike Mills' recipe, on the other hand, clocks in at just over an hour. That's because it relies on a medley of canned beans, which are simply heated through in a sweet, ketchup-based sauce. It doesn't have the depth of the long-cooked dried beans, but it more than makes up for that shortcoming with great texture and variety of bean. Plus, it's tangier, with a nice, bright flavor that everyone who's tried them seems to really love.
Although I've been more than content to stick with those recipes for a long time, I wouldn't say either one embodies my idea of truly perfect barbecue beans. So I figured it was about time I took a shot at my own beans, in an attempt to combine both recipes' strong suits into one masterful pot o' beans.
My first thought: Why do something in sixteen hours when it can be accomplished in one? The dried beans certainly had more fully developed flavor, but I wondered whether the canned beans in the Tangy Pit Beans recipe could be improved by adding some extra tasty ingredients—namely meat and some sautéed vegetables.
In attempt to coax out some complexity, I started by crisping bacon in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Bacon is an important building block of great barbecue beans, delivering a smoky meatiness without, well, smoking or barbecuing. (I do usually add pulled pork to my beans, but I'd guess that most people's freezers aren't filled with multiple quart-size bags of frozen, smoked pulled pork shoulder...)
Once browned, I transferred the bacon to a plate and left as much rendered fat in the pan as possible. Flavor-packed rendered fat, I might add, that was perfect for sautéing some chopped onions, scallions, jalapeño, and garlic. Next, I built up the rest of the classic flavors by adding ketchup, brown sugar, apple juice, honey, molasses, vinegar, barbecue rub, mustard, and hot sauce. Then I gently folded in a mix of canned butter beans, great northern beans, and pork and beans (amping up the meaty factor another few notches), plus the bacon. I slid the skillet into a 300°F oven, letting the beans slowly warm through while giving the sauce a chance to thicken up. It took just under another hour for that to happen, and I was rewarded with a batch of beans that fixed a few of my very minor quibbles with Mike Mills' recipe.
The extra effort of cooking the bacon and sautéing the veggies added nuance and depth to the dish, and the jalapeño delivered a touch of heat that I'd always felt those super-sweet pit beans were missing. I'd also reduced the volume of ketchup and sugar for a less saucy and sweet dish—a definite improvement all around.
For about an hour's work, these beans hit the spot, but I felt sure my barbecue beans hadn't reached their full potential just yet.
So it was back to dried beans, for what would end up being a multi-day process of soaking and slow cooking in search of those elusive "best" barbecue beans.
I mentioned that the variety of different beans was one of the things I really loved in Mike Mills' recipe, so I started this batch with a mix of three different types—great northern, pinto, and small red beans. I purposefully chose beans that were close in size, because I wanted them to cook at roughly the same rate.
I soaked the beans overnight in salt water—no, salt water does not toughen beans; it actually makes them creamier—then rinsed them. My next steps were nearly identical to my quick-cooking attempt, except that I started with double the amount of bacon to make up for that missing can of pork and beans. Once the bacon was crisp and the veggies were sautéed in the rendered fat, I added three cups of water, along with another two cups of chicken stock.
While salt doesn't toughen beans, acids can inhibit a bean's ability to cook, so I gave these beans an hour of simmering before adding the rest of the sauce ingredients—the ketchup, vinegar, and mustard, along with brown sugar, honey, molasses, barbecue rub, and hot sauce.
Once everything was mixed in, I covered the pot and set it on the oven to let the beans slowly cook. After four hours, they were almost tender all the way through, so I removed the lid and finished cooking them uncovered to give the sauce a chance to reduce into a smooth, thick consistency. Another hour, and my beans were good to go.
Unlike the canned beans, in which you could easily discern which bean was which, all three of the dried beans had cooked for so long that I couldn't distinguish which was a white, red, or pinto—they all took on the reddish-brown color of barbecue sauce. So using a mix of similar beans ended up not making much of a difference, but it was of little concern because these beans were off the hook.
Unlike the Alton Brown recipe that I'd used as a point of reference, these had a more balanced barbecue flavor that wasn't as overwhelmed by a heavy dose of molasses and tomato paste. They were saucier, with the complex interplay of tangy, sweet, smoky, meaty, earthy, and spicy flavors that is, in my humble opinion, the hallmark of all great barbecued meats and sauces. The beans themselves were tender and creamy, and soaking them in salt water helped them retain their shape and prevented bursting and mushiness.
Yes, these were getting very close; I just needed to correct a few slightly off-balance elements, which I accomplished by tinkering with the amounts of each ingredient.
Even though I was very proud of the outcome of my efforts, there are always ways to make barbecue beans better. For one, the bacon delivered on smokiness and meatiness, but not quite as well as, say, some pulled pork or burnt ends. The beans could also be cooked in a smoker, and, if placed underneath racks of ribs, pork shoulders, or brisket, the rendering fat from those meats dripping into the beans, plus the extra smoke, would certainly enhance the results even more.
For the dedicated pitmasters out there, taking those extra steps will up your bean game, but both these recipes will deliver killer barbecue beans, whether you want to invest just one hour or go for the gold and spend a full sixteen.