Cowboy Beans

published May 20, 2024
Cowboy Beans Recipe

This classic barbecue side dish utilizes pantry staples and comes together in just one pot.

Serves8 to 10

Makesabout 7 cups

Prep15 minutes

Cook1 hour 15 minutes

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overhead shot of cowboy beans in a large dutch oven with a wooden spoon stirring the beans.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

I’m gonna be real with you: I’m not into sweet beans (I’m a savory gal myself). So you won’t find me stocking my pantry with cans of baked beans or ordering them on the side of my barbecue. This is why I was intrigued when I came across cowboy beans for the first time.

Cowboy beans strike a great balance between sweet and savory. They’re not as sweet as traditional baked beans, but not as savory as the kind of beans I typically cook and serve over rice. Cowboy beans are a popular side dish in the Southwest that’s often served alongside a barbecue meal. It consists of a mix of beans, ground beef, bacon, barbecue sauce, and some kind of sweetener (I’ve seen recipes that use brown sugar, molasses, or even maple syrup), all simmered together in a Dutch oven

Normally I would shy away from any bean dish that included a sweet ingredient, but the presence of beef and bacon gave me pause. Adding a little spice to the mix gives you a complex, hearty dish that would be just as good served on its own as it would next to a big plate of ribs. Call me a convert — these beans have definitely earned a place in my rotation.

Why You’ll Love It

  • The mix of beef and beans with just a bit of  barbecue sauce and brown sugar perfectly balances sweet and savory.
  • This hearty dish comes together in just one pot. It starts on the stovetop and finishes cooking in the oven, which means most of the cooking is pretty hands-off.
  • It’s pantry-friendly. Cowboy beans call for ingredients like canned beans, chili powder, ketchup, and mustard, which means you can skip a big run to the grocery store.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

Key Ingredients in Cowboy Beans

  • Bacon. Opt for plain bacon here. Avoid flavorings like maple, although a smoked variety adds great depth of flavor. You can use thick- or thin-cut bacon.
  • Ground beef. This recipe was developed with 85% lean ground beef. If you prefer a leaner beef, 90% lean will work just fine.
  • Green bell pepper. Bell pepper adds freshness and color.
  • Barbecue sauce. This recipe was developed with tomato-based barbecue sauce, which is one of the common styles found in grocery stores. It’s thick and often lightly sweet and dark brown in color. Feel free to use your favorite barbecue sauce here; I like Sweet Baby Ray’s or Stubbs. Use your sauce choice to amp up the flavors you like the most. Love spice? Use a spicy sauce, or try a smoky sauce to play up the flavors of barbecue.
  • Beans. Cowboy beans are all about variety. For me, pinto, kidney, and cannellini beans bring slightly different flavors and textures to each bite. Using canned beans eliminates the need for lengthy pre-soaking and speeds up cook time.
  • Chili powder. Chili powder is a blend of several different spices, giving you a big hit of flavor from a single ingredient. Use mild chili powder here — not the hot stuff.

How to Make Cowboy Beans

  1. Fry the bacon. Cook the bacon in a Dutch oven until browned and crisp. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon.
  2. Sauté the aromatics. Add the onion and green pepper to the pot and cook until softened. Then add the garlic and spices and cook until fragrant.
  3. Cook the ground beef. Add the beef and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until browned.
  4. Add beans, condiments, sugar, and cooked bacon. Add the beans, brown sugar, barbecue sauce, ketchup, and mustard to the pot and bring the mixture to a simmer. 
  5. Bake. Cover and transfer to the oven. Bake until the sauce has thickened. Serve!

Helpful Swaps

  • Feel free to play with the mix of beans in this recipe. If you love kidney beans, use more of those. If you’ve only got black beans on hand, that’s fine too. You can even swap in baked beans for an extra hit of sweetness. 
  • If the idea of sweetening your beans does not sound appealing, just skip the brown sugar. 
  • Try using a poblano pepper instead of the green pepper.
  • You can swap yellow mustard for the Dijon.

Storage and Make-Ahead Tips 

  • Cowboy beans make a hearty dinner, but they also make wonderful leftovers. They’re a great make-ahead meal and taste great the day after they’re made, once the flavors have had a chance to meld.
  • Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 4 days in an airtight container or frozen for up to 3 months.

What to Serve with Cowboy Beans 

Serve cowboy beans as a side dish next to barbecue chicken, pork ribs, or at your next backyard cookout. They also make a great main dish, served over rice or with classic cornbread.

Cowboy Beans Recipe

This classic barbecue side dish utilizes pantry staples and comes together in just one pot.

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 1 hour 15 minutes

Makes about 7 cups

Serves 8 to 10

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1

    medium yellow onion

  • 1

    medium green bell pepper

  • 3 cloves

    garlic

  • 8 ounces

    sliced bacon

  • 1 (about 15-ounce) can

    pinto beans

  • 1 (about 15-ounce) can

    kidney beans

  • 1 (about 15-ounce) can

    cannellini beans

  • 1 tablespoon

    chili powder

  • 1/8 teaspoon

    cayenne pepper (optional)

  • 1 pound

    lean ground beef (85% lean)

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 cup

    water

  • 1/4 cup

    tomato-based barbecue sauce

  • 1/4 cup

    packed light or dark brown sugar

  • 1/4 cup

    ketchup

  • 1 tablespoon

    Dijon mustard

Serving options:

  • Sour cream

  • Thinly sliced scallions

Instructions

  1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F.

  2. Dice 1 medium yellow onion (about 1 1/2 cups) and 1 medium green bell pepper (about 1 cup). Finely chop 3 garlic cloves. Cut 8 ounces sliced bacon crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces. Drain and rinse 1 (about 15-ounce) can each of pinto, kidney, and cannellini beans.

  3. Place the bacon in a Dutch oven and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and crisp, 7 to 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of bacon fat from the pot; discard the remaining fat.

  4. Add the onion and bell pepper to the pot and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic, 1 tablespoon chili powder, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne if using, and stir to combine. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

  5. Add 1 pound lean ground beef, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon into small pieces and scraping up the browned bits at the bottom of the pot, until the beef is cooked through and browned, 4 to 5 minutes.

  6. Add the beans, bacon, 1 cup water, 1/4 cup tomato-based barbecue sauce, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar, 1/4 cup ketchup, and 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer.

  7. Cover and transfer the pot to the oven. Bake until the flavors meld and the sauce is thickened, about 45 minutes. Taste and season with more kosher salt as needed. Serve with desired toppings.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: Cowboy beans taste great the day after they're made, once the flavors have had a chance to meld. Let cool and refrigerate in an airtight container. Reheat on the stovetop over medium heat.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 4 days in an airtight container or frozen for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.