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.
“It’s not the same if you don’t use it,” my mom insists when describing the completely nontraditional addition. “It makes the entire dish.”
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.
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.
“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." —Katie Macdonald
Test Kitchen Notes
Featured in: 17 Fall Slow-Cooker Recipes to Curl Up With. —The Editors
- Prep time 1 hour
- Cook time 4 hours
- Serves 9 to 12
- Red Beans
red kidney beans (my mom uses Camellia beans)
smoked ham, cut into cubes (look for this in the meat section, sometimes called "pickled pork," but it won't have a bone with it)
Zatarain's Andouille Smoked Sausage, sliced into ½-inch coins
smoked ham bone with meat (many stores will sell ham bones with some meat on them; ham bone will greatly improve the taste of the red beans)
large onion, chopped
celery ribs, chopped
bell pepper, seeded, chopped
dill or sweet pickle juice
finely chopped garlic
Cavender's Greek Seasoning
5 to 8
long-grain brown rice
- Red Beans
- Into a large heavy pot, pour the beans, removing any dirt. Wash the beans by rinsing in water, then discard the water. Add fresh water to the cleaned beans to cover by about 2 inches.
- Cover the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 1 hour, until the beans are softened. Remove from the heat.
- Add the smoked ham, sausage, ham bone, onion, celery, bell pepper, pickle juice, garlic, seasoning, and bay leaves. Pour in enough water to cover by about 1 inch.
- Return to a boil, then immediately bring to a low simmer. It may take 3 to 4 hours for the beans to be ready to eat. The longer you simmer, the creamier they will get. Stir the beans regularly so they don't burn.
- Slow-cooker variation: If you boil the beans first, put them in a slow cooker with the other ingredient. Cook on low, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, for 8 hours.
- Do Ahead: The beans can be made 4 months ahead. Store in an airtight container and freeze.
- In a medium pot, combine the rice, oil, salt, and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the rice is cooked through.