why it works
- Brining beans before 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 create a deeply flavorful sauce.
- 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 and earthy flavors.
There are few things as comforting as a bowl of warm, creamy beans sprinkled with tender chunks of pork. It’s even better when the recipe for this pork and bean bowl practically cooks itself, like with this pork and bean stew.
My goal with this recipe was to cook the dried beans and the meaty pork shoulder until they both had the best possible texture: creamy, almost gooey beans and spoon tender pork. While it’s possible to do this simply by being patient and letting the heat and time do their job, I’ve applied a few other techniques to speed up the process.
The first is to soak the beans before cooking in a brine of salt and baking soda. 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 appear in the empty spaces of the pectin left by the calcium and magnesium by displacement. In my testing, I have found that these processes combined soften the pectin and produce the creamiest, most tender texture of cooked beans.
The second trick is to braise the combined pork and beans in a Dutch oven that has been tightly sealed with aluminum foil, which traps steam and creates an intensely humid cooking environment. Cooked this way, the pork becomes so soft that it almost falls apart. The hardest part of this whole recipe is resisting the urge to check the meat until it’s finished its three-hour cooking time, which will release all the precious steam that’s built up in the pan.
To season the stew, I use hot spices like cinnamon, smoked paprika, and fennel seeds, 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 pan they release their flavor molecules and when combined with tomato paste and fish sauce, also high in glutamates, they create a flavorful and savory broth base. I find the shiitakes give up most of their flavor to the pot and I remove them before serving the stew, like I would with a herb packet or bay leaf.
I like to serve this pork and bean stew on its own, but if you like, you can serve it with steamed plain rice or bread on the side just to make it a more complete meal. Creamy beans, tender pork, a richly spiced and savory sauce, enriched with the starches and gelatin produced by the beans and pork, this is the perfect meal for a cold winter evening.