The familiar black can labeled "Ranch-Style Beans" may have given the savory side dish its now-iconic name, but the Texas classic originated in the days before convenience foods. Like resourceful ranch cooks of yesterday, you can create the ranch-style beans with little more than pinto beans, a few spicy ingredients and enough cooking liquid to give the legumes their saucy splash.
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Chuck Wagon Origins
In general, "cowboy beans" and "ranch-style beans" can be used interchangeably. Purists will insist that the former were simpler, because they were cooked by cowboys traveling light with only a campfire with which to cook, while beans cooked at the ranch might allow for more ingredients and more than one pot. At their most basic, ranch-style beans are pinto beans cooked in a generous amount of a spicy, thick liquid.
For an authentic ranch-style bean dish, pinto beans are a must. Dry pinto beans are tan with darker blotches, but they turn pink when cooked. If you don't have pinto beans, the next best choices are chili beans or poquito beans. Of course, you can always make your ranch-style beans with an unexpected twist, and use black beans or another medium-sized, tender bean. Avoid larger legumes like kidneys, whose firmness won't approximate the pinto bean's creamy texture.
The quickest method of making ranch-style beans is starting with canned, drained pinto beans in a large pot, then adding enough water to cover the beans, along with handfuls of chopped onions and garlic, and seasonings to taste. Allow the mixture to simmer for about an hour. If you're using dried beans, you'll need to soak them overnight first, then cook all of the ingredients together for 2 to 3 hours, or until the beans are fork-tender. In either case, add water as needed, so that the beans are swimming in their flavored sauce.
Classic Ranch Style
Add extra depth to your ranch-style beans by creating a richer gravy in another pan, while you're cooking the beans to tenderness. Start by sauteing a chopped onion and few cloves of garlic in bacon fat or olive oil, then pureeing these cooked aromatics with a couple of spoonfuls' worth of Tex-Mex spices, such as oregano and cumin, as well as a few canned chile peppers, a small can of diced tomatoes, a drizzle of apple cider vinegar and a bit of brown sugar. Once you've processed these ingredients, add them to the cooking beans, ladling in extra water as needed. Serve the ranch-style beans when the beans are fork-tender.