The Food Lab: How to Make New Orleans Red Beans and Rice

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Whoever came up with the expression "a case of the Mondays" probably never spent much time in New Orleans.

Head to any classic New Orleans restaurant on a Monday, and you're likely to spot red beans and rice running as a special. (An even better plan: Get invited into a New Orleans household.) As the apocryphal story goes, Mondays were traditionally laundry days, and women needed a dish that could cook itself, unattended, while they were busy scrubbing clothes. A big ol' pot of red beans simmering on the stovetop was the perfect solution. Why was laundry done on Mondays? Well, probably because Mondays were bean day, which gave folks plenty of time to get the laundry done. I don't know. These stories are almost never accurate.

What I do know for sure is this: New Orleans–style red beans and rice is mind-bendingly delicious. Smoky, spicy, hearty, and supremely comforting. For someone used to having a big chunk of protein in the middle of their plate for every meal, it can be hard to imagine that beans and rice make a meal in and of themselves in countries all over the world. If there's one version that could convince you, it's New Orleans red beans and rice.

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For a dish so complex in flavor, the preparation and ingredient list are pretty simple. A few vegetables to start, a handful of common pantry spices, a couple of fresh herbs, some chunks of pork, and some red kidney beans. Let's go through each step of the process.

The Beans

Though red beans and rice is the best-known version of this dish, it is frequently made with other types of beans, and you can do the same if you'd like. Pink beans, white cannellini beans, even black beans will all taste great with the same basic technique. If you want to go with true red beans, pick up some dried red kidney beans.

You could make a quick version of the dish with canned cooked beans, but if you want really creamy texture and the best flavor, dried beans are the way to go. Some recipes suggest that you can cook the beans straight from dried without an overnight soak. You can, but it extends the actual cooking time by several hours, and I found that the results were not quite as creamy or evenly cooked.

For the best results, soak the dried beans overnight in salted water. Salt can help soaked beans cook more evenly, as salt ions replace magnesium and calcium ions in the bean skins, allowing them to tenderize more readily. Salting the cooking liquid will also aid in this process. (The whole idea that salting the water prevents beans from softening is an easily disproven myth.)

The Vegetables

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Red beans and rice starts, like countless other Cajun and Creole dishes, with the "Holy Trinity" of vegetables: onion, celery, and bell pepper. As with the mirepoix of France or the battuto of Italy, these vegetables are finely chopped and added to the pot right at the start of cooking, where they'll eventually break down and form the flavor backbone of the dish.

I tried sweating my vegetables in lard, vegetable oil, and shortening, and found that the difference between them was quite minor. If you want to go all in, sweat the vegetables in lard. If you want to get 98% of the way there without having to go find lard at the butcher's, vegetable oil or shortening will do just fine. The key is to cook the vegetables gently, salting them to draw out liquid and stirring them until they're very soft but not quite browned. Right when they hit this stage, I add a few cloves of minced garlic, then cook the garlic just until it's fragrant.

The Spices

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Next come the dried spices. There's no need to go overboard with the whole spice rack: Some very reputable recipes, like this one from New Orleans expert Emeril Lagasse, contain basically no spices at all, instead relying solely on the pork to add extra flavor. I like to use just a few spices in my version—black pepper and cayenne pepper for a bit of extra heat, and some ground sage for its woodsy flavor.

Some recipes call for dried thyme, but I prefer the flavor of fresh thyme in most stews. Picking individual leaves? Nobody has thyme for that. Present Me just throws the entire sprigs straight into the pot and lets Future Me worry about picking the stems out when everything is done cooking. It's much easier. The only other aromatics I add are a few bay leaves. (And yes, bay leaves are important!)

The Meats

Most of the time, I'd use chicken stock to cook beans instead of plain water, in order to add more flavor. You can do that here as well, but it's almost redundant. We're adding so many bits of pork that the dish essentially makes its own stock as it simmers.

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Andouille sausage is a must; it lends a spicy, cured flavor and plenty of rich fattiness. In order to maximize its flavor penetration, I like to add the sausage to the stew right from the start, even before I add the vegetables. That way, they get a chance to brown a bit, while providing more rendered fat for the vegetables to sweat in.

Tasso, another common addition, lends smokiness, while its rind provides gelatin to add body to the liquid. Unfortunately, it's really hard to find tasso in most parts of the country. I settle for smoked ham hocks in its place. They aren't quite the same, but they're delicious nonetheless.

The really unique ingredient—one that is not always called for, even in authentic recipes—is pickled pork shoulder. It adds an interesting brightness to the beans (though they'll still be plenty delicious without it). Pickled pork, which is just pork shoulder pickled in vinegar, can be even harder to find than tasso. If you're inclined to make it yourself, Alton Brown has a good recipe. If you want to skip it, adding a small shot of cider vinegar to the finished beans can go a long way toward mimicking that pickled flavor.

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Once everything is in the pot, including the drained beans and enough fresh water to cover them, it's time to bring it to a simmer, cover up that pot, and walk away to get your laundry done.

But don't plan on too many loads. I don't know if it's because I soak my beans or if beans were simply much tougher back then, but I find that my beans are perfectly tender in between one and a half and two and a half hours. You can continue to cook them under the lid even after they're fully tender—this is one of those dishes that are totally okay if they overcook a bit—but if you're anything like me, the aroma will be so overwhelmingly good that you'll want to get it to the dinner table as soon as you possibly can.

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Once the lid comes off, it'll take about 20 more minutes of simmering to reduce the liquid down to the right creamy consistency. Depending on the freshness of the beans, the rate at which they give off their creamy starch can vary, so you might find in some cases that the liquid will evaporate before the beans have released enough starch to make the pot properly creamy. If this happens, just splash some extra water into the pot, and keep simmering until you get the texture you want.

To finish it off, hit the pot with vinegary hot sauce, like Crystal or Frank's, then pick out those bay leaves and thyme stems (or don't, and just give your guests a quick word of warning before they dig in). If you're so inclined, you can shred the meat from the ham hock, or shred the pickled pork or tasso, if you used those things.

There are some people, with more patience than I have, who say that the beans will have better flavor if you let them cool and serve them the next day. As with my testing on stews, I didn't find that the flavor changed all that much with the wait, but the texture certainly does. Reheated red beans are even creamier than same-day red beans, so, if you can stand to wait, it doesn't hurt to give them a rest in the fridge overnight.

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But I won't blame you if you don't.

Pass out the bowls of rice, bring the whole pot to the dinner table, and let people dig in. They're gonna want seconds.