Here in the mountains of North Georgia, every family has their own tradition involving what we call “soup beans”. It is never “bean soup”. For whatever reason, our ancestors reversed the words and it stuck. Growing up, if I’d heard someone talk about bean soup it would have never occurred to me that this bean soup had any relationship to what I had been eating at least once a week for my entire life. Further, I had no concept that all over the world, folks were eating a similar concoction that they were incorrectly referring to as “bean soup”.
Anyway, to say that soup beans is an Appalachian tradition would be an understatement. The truth is, this dish kept many Appalachian families from starving. Literally. The rich hearty fare became so beloved that it regularly graced the tables of the poor and wealthy alike. In these parts, everyone loves their soup beans, and every family has their own way of serving it up.
You can use virtually any kind of dried beans in this recipe, at my house we usually use cranberry beans, which are also called October beans. Of all the beans I’ve tried, October beans make the darker, richer soup, which is something I prefer. This brand may not be available nationwide, but this is the one I use, though I’m sure any one would do.
Start with a 16 oz or 32 oz bag of dried cranberry beans (as mentioned, you can use pintos, Great Northerns, or a combination). If you have a 32 oz bag, just half it or double the remainder of ingredients (also double the size of the pot!). I mention this because for whatever reason, I sometimes have trouble finding 16 oz bags. But this recipe is for 16 oz!
Pour the beans into a colander and “look” them. Finger through them and throw out any beans that look shriveled. Then wash them really well with hot water.
Put the beans in a 4 quart pot and add enough water to ALMOST fill the pot. Fill the water up to within about 4 inches of the rim. Add a teaspoon of chicken bullion crystals, and a teaspoon of salt. Cover with a lid, and cook on high and allow to boil for about 15 minutes. Reduce to medium heat and cook for 50 minutes.
The beans grow as they cook, as to do that they absorb the water. After the first 50 minutes, add 2 cups of hot water. Put the lid back on and let them cook for another 50 minutes. Add another two cups of water AND one chopped onion, and two cups of chopped bell peppers. (I use both green and red). Also add 1 tablespoon of Old Bay seasoning mix, half teaspoon of black ground pepper, and 1 teaspoon of garlic powder. Cover and cook for hours on medium low heat, checking the liquid level every half hour. Lots of people add bacon drippings or salt pork, but I have found that chicken bullion adds even more flavor than either of those.
During these last two hours, you want to keep the liquid level high enough that it always covers the beans, but at this point only by a LITTLE bit, about an inch above the level of the beans. At this point the beans have pretty much absorbed all the liquid they are going to, so you don’t want to dilute the soup any more than is necessary to keep the beans from drying out. You’ll start to see a lot of fiber from the beans sticking to the side of the pot when they are close to done!
When the beans are completely fork tender and you have a nice dark soup, they are ready to eat! Add salt to taste and serve over hot cornbread or rice. Garnishes? Can we just talk about the garnishes? Folks around here garnish their beans with all kinds of things….a heaping spoon of mayonnaise is popular, as are sweet pickles and raw onions or a combination of all three. Add some shredded cheddar cheese if you want to get fancy!
A couple of things to consider. If you want to get meatless, just omit the bullion. They’ll still taste fantastic but you’ll probably end up having to add more salt. But wait til they are cooked and then decide.
Lots of folks add a pound of sliced smoked sausage to their beans as they are cooking, so go for it if you like!
Love Madly, Laugh Loudly, and Eat Like A Boss! (Southern Style!)
Printable recipe below:
- 16 oz bag of dried cranberry beans (substitutions include pinto, Great Northern, or mixed beans)
- 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
- 1 teaspoon salt (more when complete)
- 1 chopped onion
- 2 cups of chopped bell peppers
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- Wash and look beans
- Add beans to 4 quart pot, add salt, bring to boil and allow to boil for 15 minutes.
- Reduce heat to medium cook for 50 minutes, then add 2 cups of hot water. Cover and cook for 50 more minutes, then add 2 more cups of hot water.
- Cook for another 50 minutes and then add the rest of the ingredients. Cover and reduce heat to medium low and cook for another 2 hours, checking water level periodically. Keep enough liquid in the pot so that the beans are covered, but no more than that.
- After that last 90 minute cook, check for tenderness. They should be done, but if not fully tender cook a little longer.
- When beans are fully tender with a nice dark soup, they are ready to serve.
- Serve over crumbled corn bread or rice.
- If you like, you can garnish the beans with mayonnaise, raw onions, sweet pickles, cheddar cheese or all the above!