This Calico Beans recipe is perfect for juggling all your other to-dos. Your oven takes care of cooking a hearty, flavor-packed meal while you tackle that neglected pile of laundry (or dive into your DVR queue).
If you’ve ever seen a calico cat or wrapped up in a calico quilt, you know exactly what’s coming when I say “Calico Beans.”
This is my grandma’s Calico Beans recipe, one she used to make when she needed a hearty, easy supper that’s straight up good, old-fashioned comfort food. A little cornbread on the side, and we’d all go to bed in a happy, food-induced coma.
The dish gets its name from the variety of colorful beans used in it, mottled a bit from marrying in the oven, with a perfectly dialed in sweet and savory sauce.
It’s definitely more visually appealing than a traditional pot of baked beans and has a substantial meaty component to make it a perfect, one-dish meal.
Baked beans are an inexpensive and versatile side dish you’ll find on the menu of your favorite barbecue restaurant or on the table at your next backyard cookout. But forget the memories you have of mediocre, monochromatic beans with little after thoughts of pork chunks or green peppers floating in thin, overly sweet sauce.
This Calico Beans recipe is loaded with onions, beef and bacon, and a thick flavorful sauce that will warm you up just like that cozy quilt!
The first step is browning bacon, a little departure from traditional baked beans with whole strips of bacon on top that are supposed to crisp in the oven. The quick Southern-style baked beans (not calico beans) Pioneer Woman bakes uses this method, and so does Paula Deen’s version.
In my experience, those strips usually don’t cook well, though, even after spending close to an hour in the oven. Some spots are crispy, for sure, but others are burned or still a little undercooked.
By frying the bacon first, you end up with crunchy, salty, smoky bits throughout the beans. Make sure you keep the rendered bacon grease in the fridge (you can also strain it and freeze it in ice cube trays), so you’ll have this tasty seasoning on hand for other dishes like this one.
Next, you’ll brown some ground beef and onions to add to your casserole dish with the beans.
Unlike most recipes that only have three varieties, my recipe uses four different kinds of beans, each with a different color and slightly different texture: soft white butter beans and pale green limas that are both sweet and creamy, as well as deep red kidney beans and tan pork and beans that share a dense and smooth texture. Pork and beans are just navy beans, but they’re canned with tomato sauce and either small chunks of salted pork or pork fat for extra smoky flavor.
I really play up the subtly sweet smokiness in this Calico Beans recipe by using both pork and beans and bacon, as well as a little liquid smoke.
Some people are hesitant to cook with this mysterious ingredient, imagining some preservative-laden, artificially flavored liquid concocted in a lab. Believe it or not, it’s actually real smoke particles, trapped in a condenser then concentrated into a dark liquid that serves as a wonderful addition to savory meat dishes and cheese sauces you want to add a hint of smokiness to, including my grandmother’s Calico Beans (this is also one of the ingredients that makes my recipe stand out from others like the calico beans Taste of Home makes).
Other than liquid smoke, the seasoning for these Calico Beans consists of ingredients you’re likely to find in a good baked bean recipe: ketchup and brown sugar for sweetness, and mustard and vinegar to offset the sugar.
I don’t make my Calico Beans with molasses because it makes them a little too sweet for my taste. I also use dry mustard instead of prepared, which has added spices and vinegar, so I get all the mustardy heat without turning the dish too much in the sour direction.
The sweet/savory combination in my recipe is perfectly balanced to enhance all the hearty qualities of this dish without overpowering the beans and all the meaty goodness.
Baking in the oven helps marry the flavors, of course, but it also helps thicken the sauce.
I usually bake mine close to an hour, but you can adjust that based on your own oven and preference for having extra sauce for dipping that cornbread in or a thicker, stick-to-your-ribs stew-like quality.
This recipe can easily be doubled to make Calico baked Beans for a crowd. Leftovers also freeze well, though you may find you need to add a teeny bit of water when you reheat them to compensate for the drying that happens naturally in the freezer.
Beans are one of the most nutrient-rich things on the planet, packed with fiber, good-for-your-heart stuff, and complex, stomach-satisfying carbohydrates.
You won’t need a nutritious reason to share these Calico Beans with your friends or family, but it’ll make you feel a little better about offering them another bowl!
Meat – You can use ground beef in this recipe (which typically has 25% – 30% fat and tons of flavor) or stick with something leaner like ground sirloin or even ground turkey. For a little something special, use a suggestion I borrowed from a recipe for calico beans cowboy beans and substitute ½ pound of ground sirloin and ½ pound of breakfast sausage for the full pound of ground beef.
Vegetarian – So what if you love the idea of this recipe but want a calico beans no-meat version? No problem! Leave out the beef and bacon and experiment with different beans – garbanzos, for example. Black beans are great too; just make sure you drain and rinse them first so the color doesn’t take over your whole dish. You can “beef” up vegetarian Calico Beans with some extra veggies too, like bell peppers, add in a 14 oz. can of fire-roasted tomatoes, and even use tofu crumbles or other plant-based meat substitutes.
Slow Cooker – Are these calico beans crock pot friendly? Definitely! Avoid heating up your oven by putting all the prepared ingredients in your slow cooker and letting it go on high for about four hours.
- Yield: Serves 8-10
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 60 minutes
Calico Beans Recipe
- Bacon, Diced - 4 Ounces
- Ground Beef - 1 Pound
- Onion, Chopped - 1 Cup
- Pork and Beans - 2 (15 Ounce) Can~Undrained
- Kidney Beans - 1 (15 Ounce) Can~Drained and Rinsed
- Butter Beans - 1 (15 Ounce) Can~Drained and Rinsed
- Lima Beans - 1 (15 Ounce) Can~Drained and Rinsed
- Brown Sugar - 1/2 Cup
- Ketchup - 1/2 Cup
- Water - 1/4 Cup
- Apple Cider Vinegar - 1 Tablespoons
- Dry Mustard Powder - 1 Teaspoon
- Salt - 1 Teaspoon
- Liquid Smoke - 1/2 Teaspoon
- Preheat oven 325 degrees. Spray a 3 qt baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
- Cook the bacon, in a large skillet, until crisp. Remove to a paper towel lined plate. Discard bacon grease (I freeze mine to use in other recipes, like THIS one.)
- Using the same skillet, cook ground beef and onion, over medium heat until beef is done and there is no longer any pink. Drain off excess fat. Combine the cooked beef and bacon with beans, brown sugar, ketchup, ketchup, water, apple cider vinegar, dry mustard, salt and liquid smoke. Spoon into prepared baking dish.
- Bake, uncovered, 45-60 minutes or util beans have desired thickness.