Why It Works
- Brining the beans prior to cooking in a solution of salt and baking soda produces very tender and creamy cooked beans.
- Dried shiitake mushrooms, fish sauce, and tomato paste all help to build a deeply savory gravy.
- By sealing the Dutch oven with a tight layer of foil, the trapped steam gently cooks the beans and pork.
- Vinegar is added after cooking to balance the meaty, earthy flavors.
There are few things as comforting as a bowl of warm, creamy beans dotted with pieces of tender pork. It’s even better when the recipe for that bowl of pork and beans practically cooks itself, as with this pork and bean stew.
My goal with this recipe was to cook the dried kidney beans and meaty pork shoulder until they both achieved the best textures possible: creamy, almost melting beans and spoon-tender pork. While it’s possible to do this by simply being patient and letting low heat and time do their work, I applied a couple other techniques to help make the process faster.
The first is soaking the beans before cooking in a brine of salt and baking soda. The baking soda acts as a chelating agent, which means it removes the calcium and magnesium that reside in the bean’s natural pectin. The salt provides sodium ions, which pop into the empty spaces in the pectin left by the calcium and magnesium via displacement. In my testing, I’ve found that these combined processes soften the pectin and produce the most creamy and tender texture in the cooked beans.
The second trick is to braise the combined pork and beans in a Dutch oven that’s been tightly sealed with foil, which traps steam and creates an intensely humid cooking environment. Cooked in this way, the pork becomes so soft that it’s almost falling apart. The most difficult part of this entire recipe is resisting the urge to check on the meat until after it’s completed its three-hour cook time, which will release all of the valuable steam that’s built up in the pot.
To season the stew, I use warm spices like cinnamon, smoked paprika, and fennel seed, but I also add dried shiitake mushrooms, which are one of the richest sources of umami-rich glutamates. As they steep in the hot liquid in the pot, they release their flavor molecules and, when combined with tomato paste and fish sauce–also rich in glutamates–they create a richly flavored and savory broth base. I find that the shiitakes give up most of their flavor to the pot and I remove them before serving the stew, the same way I would with a sachet of herbs or a bay leaf.
I like to serve this pork and bean stew all on its own, but if you like, you can serve it with some plain steamed rice or with some bread alongside just to make a more complete meal of it. Creamy beans, tender pork, a richly spiced and savory gravy, enriched by the starches and gelatin produced by the beans and pork—it’s the perfect meal for a cold winter evening.