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 non-traditional 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 brand)
large onion chopped
minced garlic, more to taste
stalks celery, chopped
pickle juice (dill or sweet)
to 8 whole bay leaves
Zatarain's Andouille Smoked Sausage, sliced in 1/2 in sections
smoked ham bone with meat (many stores will sell ham bones with some meat on them; ham bone will greatly improve the taste of red beans)
smoked ham cut in cubes (Look for this in meat section, sometimes called "pickled pork" but it won't have a bone with it)
Cavender's Greek Seasoning
- For the rice:
long grain brown rice
- Red beans
- In a large heavy pot, empty bag of red kidney beans; remove any dirt if there.
- Wash beans by rinsing in water and discard water. Add fresh tap water to cleaned beans so that water covers them by 2 inches.
- Put lid on and bring to a boil, then lower temperature to simmer for 1 hour and then turn off. Beans should be softened.
- Add all above remaining ingredients and add enough water to cover all ingredients by an inch.
- Bring back to a boil then immediately to a low simmer. It may take 3-4 hours on simmer for the beans to be ready to eat. The longer you keep them on a low simmer, the creamier they will get. You must stir the beans regularly so they don't burn.
- Slow-cooker variation: If you boil the beans first, you could then put them in a Crock-Pot with all of the other ingredients and cook on low for 8 hours, stirring every so often so it doesn't burn.
- Freeze any leftovers and they are good for at least 4 months in the freezer.
- For the rice:
- Prepare 1 cup of long grain brown rice. (2 cups water to each 1 cup rice plus good shake of sea salt and 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil), bring to boil then put on simmer for 15 mins or until done.