This slow-cooked dish will make even the most finicky want to eat their veggies
When we serve green (string) beans these days, most of us cook them quickly (and minimally). The idea is to preserve their fresh flavor — and let the beans retain a brilliant green hue. Some people cook them so little that the beans still retain a bit of crunch.
But this recipe takes the opposite approach: the beans slowly braise at low heat for at least 6 hours. The result is green beans that are meltingly tender. And the flavor? It’s magnificent (almost haunting), enhanced by the bacon and onion that cook along with the beans all those hours.
This dish was once quite popular in the southern US states, and even outside them. It’s an old-timey recipe that always seemed to be the specialty of a beloved grandmother or aunt. Nowadays, it’s not seen all that much, which is too bad. Admittedly, it’s a dish you wouldn’t want every week — most of us don’t have time to cook it that often, and the bacon does carry a caloric hit. But it’s perfect for special occasions.
In the US, we’ll be celebrating Memorial Day on May 27 — and that’s always the unofficial start to summer eating. This dish would be ideal for the barbecues, picnics, and cookouts that we’ll be attending or hosting. So maybe (at least once this summer) you should release your inner grandmother and make this dish.
It does take a while to cook, but the (delighted) response you get will be instant.
Recipe: Southern Green Beans with Bacon
For this recipe, it’s best to use big, mature green beans — they stand up better to long cooking than smaller, thin ones. Most of the green beans we buy today, by the way, are stringless, even though we still call them “string” beans.
Pork fat is an important ingredient in this recipe; it provides flavor and savor, and really makes the dish. I’m using bacon, but I’ve had versions made with salt pork.
Although you can cook this dish on top of the stove at the barest simmer, I find it easier to cook in the oven at low heat (225 degrees F). With today’s well-insulated ovens, you won’t overheat the kitchen, even if you cook it during the hottest part of summer.
Prep time for this dish is about 20 minutes. Cooking time is at least 6 hours, and I sometimes let it braise 9 or 10 hours (or even overnight). This dish reheats well, so you can make it ahead. It also tastes good served at room temperature.
This recipe yields about 8 side-dish servings.
- 4 slices of bacon (4 or 5 ounces)
- ~¾ cup onion, thinly sliced (I particularly like red — purple — onions in this recipe, but any variety works)
- 1 pound of green (string) beans, or a bit more (choose thick, mature beans, not thin ones)
- red pepper flakes to taste (at least ½ teaspoon; you can omit this, but it adds great flavor)
- salt to taste
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- additional slices of red onion for garnish (optional)
- additional slices of crispy cooked bacon for garnish (optional)
- Preheat oven to 225 degrees F.
- Cut the bacon into pieces of about ½ inch, place in a heavy Dutch oven or casserole big enough to hold the beans (preferably one made of cast iron), and turn stovetop heat to medium. Cook the bacon pieces on the stovetop until crisp — probably 8 minutes or so.
- Meanwhile, peel the onion and slice thinly. (You may want to save a few slices of the onion for garnish.)
- Rinse the green beans and begin cleaning them, cutting off the tips and removing strings (in the unlikely event that the beans have any). Cut the beans into pieces measuring an inch or two.
- The bacon will probably finish cooking before you finish cleaning the beans. Remove the cooked bacon from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside, then add the sliced onion to the pot. Cook the onion in the bacon fat until translucent (about 7 or 8 minutes).
- When the onion is translucent, stir in the red pepper flakes. Sauté the pepper flakes for 15 seconds or so (to help flavor the fat), then return the bacon to the pot and add the cleaned and cut beans. I usually add just a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper at this stage (planning to add more later).
- Add water to the pot until it just barely covers the beans (I usually add hot water from a kettle). Heat the bean mixture on top of the stove until the water begins to simmer. Then turn off the stove, cover the pot, and place the pot in the oven. (See Note about this.)
- Cook for at least 6 hours (you may need to adjust your oven heat so the liquid is just at a slow simmer). I usually peek in at the 3-hour mark to see how things are coming along. You can add more salt at this point if necessary.
- When ready to serve, adjust seasoning. Just before serving, I often sauté several additional slices of bacon for garnish (or sometimes I set aside some of the bacon that I’ve sautéed in Step 2, then reheat it and use that for garnish). You can crumble the bacon and sprinkle the pieces over the dish, or keep the bacon pieces whole. If you reserved any slices of onion in Step 3, you can also add those as garnish.
- Although I usually make this dish with fresh green beans, you can use frozen. I don’t generally care for frozen green beans, but they work well in this recipe.
- I typically don’t remove any of the rendered bacon fat from the pot after I’ve finished browning the bacon. But if the amount of fat bothers you, you can remove some of it — just leave a tablespoon or two for sautéing the onion in Step 5.
- The bacon adds saltiness to this dish. So I usually add very little salt at the beginning (see Step 6), figuring I can always add more later.
- In Step 7, I direct you to cover the Dutch oven or pot. Most cooking pots don’t seal that well, so they’ll permit some evaporation of cooking liquid — which is a good thing in this case. If the lid seals well enough to retard evaporation, you may want to adjust it so it’s slightly ajar. Don’t stress over this, though. And, obviously, you don’t want all of the liquid to evaporate — at the end, you should still have about half the amount of liquid that you started with.
- Although this dish would seem to be a natural for the slow-cooker, the Crock Pot versions I’ve tasted just don’t have the same scrumptious flavor as conventionally cooked recipes. That may be because evaporation doesn’t seem to happen as readily in slow-cookers (at least in my experience), so the dish doesn’t “cook down.” When I cook this dish conventionally, the liquid reduces (creating a kind of a pot likker) and has a very slight syrupy quality to it.
- Some people like to add chopped tomatoes to the pot along with the beans in Step 6. I don’t usually do this, but it adds nice flavor, so you might like to try it.
- As noted above, I sometimes garnish the cooked green beans with pieces of bacon or slices of onion (usually both). They add nice flavor, and red onion (in particular) looks attractive.
A Taste of Home
“These Southern Green Beans are great,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, helping herself to seconds. “Almost as good as the ones my aunt used to make.”
“Yeah, she was a terrific cook,” I agreed as I dished up another round. “Her gooseberry pie was legendary! I never got that recipe from her, alas.”
“But she taught you how to make this dish,” said Mrs K R.
“Yeah, this is the kind of recipe we tend to learn in someone’s kitchen,” I said. “Not from a cookbook. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a recipe for this. And your aunt didn’t really have a recipe either — she just knew how to make it. I’m lucky she told me how.”
“I wonder why hers seemed to be a little better,” mused Mrs K R. “Or maybe it’s just my memory playing tricks.”
“No, I think her version was better,” I said. “Her beans were always fresh from the garden. That makes a huge difference!”
“So maybe we should grow our own green beans?” suggested Mrs K R.
“No room,” I replied. “All the raised beds in our garden are filled with tomatoes and other stuff.”
“There’s still space in the backyard to add another raised bed,” she pointed out, helpfully.
I guess I know what I’m doing this weekend.
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