The Scoop on Pinto Beans

Friends Drift Inn Farm – Real Life and Gardening

Pinto Beans, aka soup beans, with scoop

Soup Beans An Appalachian Staple – My Point of View

On any given Sunday up Mikes Branch, two out of three of our kinfolks will have cornbread and pinto beans warming on the stove’s back burner. That is the way the retirees do it. The career folks? They cook their soup beans in a crockpot.

Pinto beans are a staple food here in my corner of Appalachia.

Vernon, my late father-in-law, always had a kettle of beans on the stove. Our local grocery offered several brands. He swore by the Peak brand, which was sporadically on the shelves. If Peak was stocked, it was not unusual to bring home 20 pounds of his favorite dried legumes.

The fresher the dried bean, the less time it takes to cook. In most cases, there is no easy way to tell just how old those grocery store beans are. You take your chances. With experience, you will find a brand that works for you.

Pinto beans are said to have originated south of the border. Some sources say Peru. Some say Mexico. I am not a food scholar, and do not have a definitive answer. I will leave that to Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. He knows beans. His first book, Heirloom Beans: Great Recipes for Dips and Spreads, Soups and Stews, Salads and Salsas, and Much More from Rancho Gordo was one of the inspirations for this blog.

What I do know is most of the pinto beans in the grocery store are grown in Nebraska, North Dakota, and Michigan. What does that say about Kentucky/West Virginia and USDA growing zone 6b?

Growing Pinto Beans

I took that challenge a few years back. Naturally, Charlie rolled his eyes. Anytime I do a project for “the experience” in search of an authentic voice, he knows it is going to be more work. Giggles

Like green beans, I planted the brown seeds about three inches deep down a 50 foot row. By our standards 50 feet is not much. The seeds were sourced, you guessed it, from a bag of grocery store pintos. Germination took the usual time, a little less than a week when planted in warm soil. (I planted in June)

Beans are one of my favorite things to grow. But they do require work. We never mulch beans unless a summer drought sets on. Mulch helps hold moisture. But it also gives the Mexican Bean Beetles, a pest in the truest sense of the word, a place to hide. Without mulch, beans have to be hoed to remove weeds. It is a tradeoff.

In my little corner of Appalachia, most home growers sprinkle Sevin dust on the beans. We do not. I hand remove as many of the pests as I see. I crush egg clusters when they appear. We till vines under as soon as they are spent and use a crop rotation plans to help discourage future generations of bug pests.

The pinto beans did just fine. But it would take many rows to keep up with our pinto addiction. Besides that they have to be dried and removed from the pod. I do not have one of those fancy gizmos that screens seeds and uses a puff of air to move off any crop debris. Without mechanization, saving dried beans is a lot of work.

Graphic line divider beans

Why We Do Not Grow Pinto Beans?

For home gardeners here, land is at a premium. We tuck rows on the hillsides. We allocate space by prioritizing what we must grow that is not easily found at the local grocery.

Pinto beans take up to 90 days in the field, yes you read that right about three months. For comparison, the average green been takes 55-60 days and our beloved pole beans 65-75 days. At Friends Drift Inn Farm we grow a variety of heirloom beans.

But given our growing season, we could only get one harvest of pinto beans in the space allotted, or two harvests of green beans or pole beans.

From a home gardener’s standpoint, the choice is easy. Grow green beans. Let someone else grow pintos, dry them, and remove the pods. Convenience and economy of scale wins out.

As a market gardener, I know I can command a premium price for pole beans. Pinto beans, not so much. It is a choice of revenue.

What About Storage?

When it comes to dried bean storage, the experts recommend a cool dry place. A year is about as long as you want to keep dried beans. I will go a step further. Nothing disappoints me like a bag of beans that have hatched a collection of bean weevils. We go through pintos pretty quick, but sometimes my “fancy” beans sit for several months. Bugs are not welcome.

I store beans in the freezer, not the pantry. It cuts down on unpleasant surprises. I see no reduction in flavor, as long as the dried beans are cooked up in a year’s time.

How to Cook Pinto Beans

Soup Beans aka Pinto Beans with a cornmeal sage biscuit scone

Two questions fire up bean connoisseurs’ debates. The lines are drawn with passionate convictions.

The first is to soak or not to soak?

Vernon always soaked pintos the night before. He learned from his momma. She learned from hers. Soaking beans makes them cook faster.

I rarely soak beans. I give them a couple of rinses and throw them in the kettle or the crockpot with at least three inches of water over them. Season with olive oil or more traditionally, a smoked ham hock or slices of bacon. Vernon went so far as to add several tablespoons of lard to the soup.

On the stove, I bring beans up to a hard boil, then turn down to a simmer letting them cook all day. In the crockpot, it varies. If I am on premises, I will cook on high for a couple of hours, then reduce the heat. If I am going to leave the crock pot unattended, I make sure there is plenty of water and put the setting on low. If I come home and the beans are not done, a quick transfer to the stove takes little time or effort.

I do not know why some experts say beans have no flavor without meat. In my experience different beans have different flavor profiles, and the pinto is no different. I think pintos taste mild with just a hint of sweetness. A smoked ham hock adds a nice background, but it is not essential to good beans. A little salt works wonders. Keep it simple!

The second question that riles the food experts is when are beans done?

I think that depends on the variety. Pinto beans, to my way of thinking, should be cooked until quite soft, not quite creamy like the way you cook a pot of Camellia brand red beans, but certainly not firm the way I like yellow eyed beans.

Savvy cooks in these parts often mash a few of pinto beans as they are cooking to insure a thicker soup. Of course, soup beans are not complete without a side of cornbread. I prefer it crumbled in the beans.

When it comes to proper cooking, y’all can bicker amongst yourselves. Doing a quick Google search I see you already are.

One thing we can agree on, is if you are going to cook beans do not be wishy-washy. Do not fear commitment. Cook a big pot. Use them in different recipes. Beans are versatile.

We eat beans for dinner two or three times a week. Once they are prepared, it takes just a few minutes to reheat. That is such a time-saver on busy harvest days!

Put cooled beans in a sealable container and refrigerate. They are good for up to a week according to the US Dried Bean Council.

Try pinto beans. Make them your own. They are simple. They are affordable. They are satisfying and comforting. What is not to love?

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Graphic line divider beans

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About Joyce Pinson

Joyce Friend Pinson is a regional farm-to-table columnist for the Appalachian-News Express. She is a local television host. Her column show and blog, Friends Drift Inn, explores food, gardening, and real life farm-to-table stories from the perspective of a baby boomer in Appalachia. Joyce has a background in agriculture, media, and small business. Joyce is an heirloom gardening addict and home canner. She has a penchant for big hats, pointy toed shoes, and bourbon. Along with her husband Charlie, Joyce really does live in a barn where they ballroom dance. And laugh. And cook. And giggle.