Heirloom Recipes

Red Beans & Rice With a "Secret" Ingredient (That Everybody Knows)

No, it’s not love.

December 28, 2018

Coca-Cola keeps its formula in a locked vault. KFC maintains its mysterious, top-secret 11 herb-and-spice blend by producing half of the recipe in one laboratory, and half in another. And, apparently, only two monks know the exact combination of the 130 herbs that make up Chartreuse.

And then there’s my mom, one of the worst secret-keepers in culinary history. Any time she describes her pièce de résistance—creamy, comforting Creole red beans and rice—she divulges the “secret” ingredient that flavors each addictive spoonful: pickle juice.

Yes, pickle juice. Photo by James Ransom

“It’s not the same if you don’t use it,” my mom insists when describing the completely non-traditional addition. “It makes the entire dish.”

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Red beans and rice is not really a recipe that begs for innovation. It’s a classic, the O.G. set-it-and-forget-it. For decades, New Orleans families would turn to this one-pot, budget-friendly meal on Mondays (traditional laundry days) because they didn’t have time to think. Just throw everything in and let it simmer.

I’m not even ashamed to say I’ve licked my plate clean before going back for seconds.

My mom learned the base recipe from her own mother, who juggled five children, a full-time job as a special education teacher, and getting dinner on the table every night. But it wasn’t until she was married and living away from New Orleans that she developed her signature twist.

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Top Comment:
“My not-so-secret ingredient us ground cinnamon. I add it to my carnitas spice rub. Total game changer! Something about the way it brings out the pork and spices, yummy! Try adding it to your favorite pork spice rub.”
— Vic N.

“Momma used leftovers like ham bones and what we called pickled pork,” she says. “One day, I didn’t have pickled pork and decided to substitute with pickle juice. It needed that acidity.”

The sweet-salty brine contrasts with the deep smoky ham and spicy sausage. Instead of a heavy dish that pushes you past full into uncomfortable, my mom’s beans are brighter and lighter. I’m not even ashamed to say I’ve licked my plate clean before going back for seconds.

In addition to a four-hour cook time, my mom mashes the beans to get a creamy, almost soup-like consistency. Rice to red bean ratio is totally subjective; some like a stew while others want just enough to coat their rice. Same goes for hot sauce, although my mom (and I) think it’s gilding the lily.

While the recipe is simple and straightforward, it’s also time-consuming. Now, Mom only makes her red beans and rice for special occasions, like my birthday, Mardi Gras, Christmas, or family reunions. And every time, someone will exclaim that it’s the best red beans and rice they’ve ever had.

"Oh, it’s nothing! It’s just my secret ingredient," she brushes it off, as if she's done talking about it. "You'll never guess. I really shouldn't tell you..."

(Five minutes later.)

"It’s a cup of pickle juice."

Do you have a "secret" ingredient that everyone knows? Sharing is caring in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Hollis Ramsey
    Hollis Ramsey
  • Cindy Choi
    Cindy Choi
  • Robin Lawton Steele
    Robin Lawton Steele
  • Jay Ramos
    Jay Ramos
  • Vic N
    Vic N
Katie is a food writer and editor who loves cheesy puns and cheesy cheese.


Hollis R. May 28, 2019
i have a funny story about secret ingredients -- or secretive cooks who withhold requested recipes -- that involves cheesecake. back c. 1970, when i started baking, my neighbor Marian made a killer cheesecake but refused to share the recipe. one day, the Philadelphia Inquirer published *her* recipe. i now share it whenever possible, including on my Facebook page. i have even given it as a present -- birthday and Xmas -- by buying the springform pan and all ingredients and then baking the cake WITH the recipient doing the work while i oversee and instruct. that way, you not only feed their belly but you increase their knowledge. yup, i teach folks how to fish ... but with dessert. let me know if you want my recipe -- it's kind of mine, now, since i've tweaked it over the decades. i'd be happy to oblige. knowledge should NEVER be censored.
Lynda W. June 2, 2019
I WANT your recipe! Now I'm intrigued.
Hollis R. June 2, 2019
sure thing, Lynda. let me dig it up -- i have to search my Facebook page to find it; it's buried deep down. i need to pin it, don't i! but as soon as i find it, i'll put it up here.
Lynda W. June 2, 2019
Whoa, thanks! Can't wait to try it.
I have recently started "filing" my saved FB posts by adding them to "Collections", in FB lingo.
But my best filing system, which one of my techie sons told me years ago that he does, is putting things in an email to myself and adding a specific word to make it easy to find later. He uses a specific made-up word or misspelled phrase, which I cannot bring myself to do. I start every subject line with the topic followed by a space, a dash, and another space. So, for example the cheesecake recipe would say: Recipe - Marian's Killer Cheesecake, improved. Most I keep as draft emails unless I have sent it to someone. So I can find it by searching from:me Recipe - cheesecake. Works for me.
Hollis R. June 2, 2019
awesome suggestions, Lynda and techie son! i just created a new email folder: TO SERVE MAN (it's a cookbook! -- remember the Twilight Zone episode?) to house all my recipes from now on out. i also just sent an email to my Yummy Bazaar customer service rep, Grace, with whom i've been corresponding over recipes using some of the items i've bought from Yummy Bazaar -- go to their website; their offerings are both bounteous and less expensive than just about any other site at which i shop. yesterday, i sent her my Blue Cheese BLT that's really a BCBCRRP (Blue Cheese Pepper-Crested-Bacon-Weave Cabbage -- shredded and lightly sauteed in some of that rendered bacon grease along with celery seeds and smoked paprika -- Jarred Roasted Red Pepper Sandwich. so THAT email goes into the TO SERVE MAN folder.

then, about 5 minutes ago, i sent her my Sardine Banh Mi recipe; THAT email will go into TO SERVE MAN, as well (if you want that one, just ask -- i didn't want to overwhelm you here). and so will this South Jersey Cheesecake, Italian Style:

have all ingredients at room temp. let the melted butter cool to room temp.


1 lb. ricotta cheese
1 lb. cream cheese
1 1/2 c. sugar
4 eggs
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 tsp. vanilla
3 tbsp. cornstarch
3 tbsp. flour
1/4 lb. melted butter
1 pt. sour cream

Cream the cheeses in a bowl. Add sugar gradually while beating. Add eggs, beat well. Stir in lemon juice, vanilla, cornstarch, and flour. Add butter; mix until smooth. Blend in sour cream.

Pour into a greased 9- or 10-inch springform pan. Bake in a moderately slow oven (325 degrees) until firm (about 1 1/2 hours). Turn off the heat and let it stay in the oven for at least 2 hours. then refrigerate it till it's fairly firm and then remove the ring.

et voilà! it's very forgiving: it can easily be mixed by hand and it needs no water bath, thus eliminating two troublesome steps. really, it couldn't be easier!
Hollis R. June 2, 2019
hi again, Lynda. re Yummy Bazaar -- i'm not kidding about how RIGHTEOUS this company is. first of all, i have a referral link that i'll give you; if you order anything through it, both you and i get $5 each in credit. plus, you automatically get 99 points with your first order with them. there are lots of ways to earn more Rewards points. and they're REAL rewards -- not just namby-pamby sales gimmicks. for example, after only three orders, i've earned $20 in Rewards credit!

i discovered them last month after another angry bout with Amazon Prime (long story). Yummy Bazaar is cheaper than Amazon, more interesting in breadth and variety of content than Amazon, extremely reliable in shipping, and has awesome customer service. i'm on a first-name basis with several customer reps already, and i've only known them for a few weeks!

let me tell you about just one of their items: Ines Rosales – Orange Sweet Olive Oil Tortas, Tortas de Aceite, 6 pcs, 6.3 oz. (180g) -- $3.95 -- https://yummybazaar.com/products/sweet-orange-olive-oil-tortas-de-aceite-by-ines-Rosales?variant=16629581638. i have a birthday present (from me to me) Bayley Hazen Blue Cheese hunk, and when you let it get to room temp, it slices like buttah. pile some slices on one of these dreamy orange tortas and i promise you, you WILL be in heaven-on-earth! they're big, too; don't let the amount per package (6) fool you: each one is a serving size. (i'm constantly amazed at the sheer SIZE of the items i receive from them!).

the Spanish Ortiz sardines are destined for my Sardine Banh Mi, as well as for a Pasta Grannies Youtube recipe for a Sicilian pasta con le sarde -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMXU2Hf8haY.

i've been telling literally EVERYBODY about this store; they are SUCH a keeper. take this from someone who regularly shops at D'Artagnan, Murray's Cheese, Cheese Grotto, and igourmet, among others.

their online address is https://yummybazaar.com. my link, which benefits both of us (and the same for anyone out there who reads this) is http://i.refs.cc/QgVU3VLY. we can dish about them whenever you'd like -- their free-with-purchases-over-X-amount-of-dollars offers are realistic; i'm getting a 17.6-oz. jar of Pommery Royal Mustard with Cognac (a $17.95 value) AND a Turkish coffee set of 1 lb. of ground Turkish coffee AND a cezve (a stovetop Turkish coffee brewer)! they also bestow packets of Chocolat au Poudre for wonderful French hot chocolate, all gratis for orders over $39, after which price minimum all shipping is free. otherwise, their shipping is $3.95!!! i've been paying $20 to Murray's Cheese and D'Artagnan's (and even Katz's Deli, but i won't be doing THAT again!), but of course, their produce is perishable, and Yummy Bazaar's mostly isn't.

let me know what you think, if you visit their site and window-shop like i love to do.
Lynda W. June 3, 2019
Thank you so much! I will be making this very soon, have everything on hand for it. Love that this appears to be made with no crust, saving time and effort. We have fresh berries from the garden every day at this time of year and they will be great with this kind of cheesecake.
Delighted that you like the notion of our filing system - and TO SERVE MAN! You are so clever.
I will check out the Yummy Bazaar when next I am trolling around to no specific purpose. It sounds like a real possibility for those difficult-to-source items.
Lynda W. June 3, 2019
Thanks for the code. I'll check this out. I do buy a lot of stuff from Amazon but often their specialty food items are ridiculously priced. I have located merchants from their list which sometimes yields much better deals.
I do rely on internet sources for locating excellent raw materials but rarely ever purchase prepared foods, figuring that I can usually find or figure out how to make them myself for an often better and always less expensive product.
Lynda W. June 3, 2019
Oh, and Pasta Grannies is one of my new loves. It is hard to stop watching and go to bed..
I would love to get your Sardine banh mi recipe! The sardine pasta recipe from PG is already high on my list to try.
I can share a few thousand recipes we love, but not sure where to start. I do have several well-tested cheesecakes but perhaps you are set in that category.
Cindy C. May 27, 2019
I use olive juice as my secret ingredient for lots of stuff :-) I've also used pickle juice. Seems a waste to throw that stuff out especially when you've made your own pickles!
Hollis R. June 2, 2019
the liquid component of any olive salad or giardiniera is wonderful in sandwiches. just make sure your bread-of-choice is sturdy enough to soak up the juice without falling apart.
Robin L. May 26, 2019
I will try the pickle juice. Every now and then I had some hot hogshead cheese... it adds a nice spice.
Jay R. May 25, 2019
Those ain't Red Beans. That's a watery mess and a travesty. Someone please stop white folks from ruining everything.
Author Comment
Katie M. May 25, 2019
That’s the beauty of family recipes—they always look a little different. Maybe if you gave it a try you’d find out how delicious they are.
Hollis R. May 28, 2019
WTF with the *white folks* comment? my grandparents emigrated from Russia -- where they were not only hated but hunted (by Cossacks, usually) just for being Jews (one of my great-uncles was killed in such a pogrom, witnessed by my Bubbe Golde; her surviving brother was gay and thank goodness HE escaped!); i grew up in NY and NJ but moved to NOLA in my early 20s and thence to Houston, where i immersed myself in Mexican, Tex-Mex, and general Southern cuisines over the next 40+ years.

i may be Russian *white* of skin, but my blood runs hot with peppers, pork, and gravy.

p.s. i accidentally upvoted your racism, Jay, but now i can't remove it. so don't take that upvote as a compliment; it was a mistake.
Vic N. June 12, 2018
Your Mom is too cute. And I'm just like her. My not-so-secret ingredient us ground cinnamon. I add it to my carnitas spice rub. Total game changer! Something about the way it brings out the pork and spices, yummy! Try adding it to your favorite pork spice rub.
Eric K. June 11, 2018
I'd like this for dinner Monday thru Friday, please. Thanks for the (secret) recipe, Katie's mom.
Smaug June 11, 2018
For more on pickled pork, and a recipe (and presumably more on Camellia brand beans) see camellibrands.com.
Smaug June 12, 2018
I only poked around there for a few minutes, but it looks like a pretty good web site, too- very informative.
Smaug December 28, 2018
Oops- that's "camelliabrands.com". My secret ingredients- a big dollop of Maison Louisianne Creole mustard (with the alligator on the jar) and a splash of maple syrup.
Hana A. June 11, 2018
Yum, love any beans and rice! Thanks for sharing your mother's version, can't wait to try it!!