Calico Beans
aka "Alanna's Famous Cowboy Beans"

Nothing like a big ol' pot of great baked beans! Calico Beans are definitely hearty: meaty enough for supper but more often a popular side at potlucks and around campfires. Men, especially, love these doctored baked beans and no kidding, beg me to send the recipe to their wives. No wonder Calico Beans are now dubbed "Alanna's Famous Cowboy Beans"! Hint Hint: These baked beans are mostly "doctored" up canned beans!

Calico Beans aka Alanna's Famous Cowboy Beans ♥, a potluck favorite. High Protein. Slow Cooker Friendly. Great for Meal Prep.

Baked Beans, Just Way Better. Long-Time Potluck Favorite. Slow-Cooker Friendly. High Protein. Great for Meal Prep for Traditional Side Dish or Tasty Supper. A Signature Recipe. A One-Pot Meal. How to Feed a Crowd. Potluck & Party Friendly.

  • "... they were very good." ~ Gary

On My Mind: Why Is There Meat In So Many Dishes That Don't Need It?

During my vegetarian years, many Midwestern dishes confounded me.

Why, I wondered, was meat present when none was needed? At Thanksgiving one year every single dish except dessert, even the broccoli salad, had bits of meat.

I've been eating meat again for many years but it took one book and one elk to finally, I think, answer that meaty (ahem) question.

#1 THE BOOK "Food of a Younger Land" is portrait of American food culture during the American Depression from WPA writers. It’s a state-by-state uneven although occasionally fascinating book, better to get from the library, say, than to purchase.

The Kansas essay described how beef was ever-present.

That was my Aha Moment!

Of course!

  • If we live near the sea, we set traps for lobster and crab.
  • If we live on lakes and streams, we throw in a line for walleye and trout.
  • If we live in a place where plants grow into jungles, we learn to worship lettuce and citrus.
  • But if we live in the plains where cattle graze? We cook beef.

Or at least we used to eat like this, when the so-called 100-Mile Diet was inconceivable because a 100-Yard Diet was everyday sustenance.

#2 THE ELK Last fall, I was shocked at how few coolers it took to carry home a whole Missouri farm-raised elk. Steaks and roasts? A few, but plenty. Elk tenderloin? Exactly two. Stew meat? Sure. Mostly? Pound after pound after pound of ground elk meat.

Another Aha Moment!

Of course!

If we have an abundance of ground meat, we tuck it into every dish we can. It’s the thrifty, resourceful and frugal way to feed a family.

RESOURCES The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food--Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation's Food Was Seasonal (yeah, must be the world's longest book title) by Mark Kurlansky Just so you know, I personally selected this book — and if you buy something through the link, Kitchen Parade may earn a small commission. Every bit helps, so thank you! My Disclosure Promise

Calico Beans aka Alanna's Famous Cowboy Beans ♥, a potluck favorite. High Protein. Slow Cooker Friendly. Great for Meal Prep.

Different Names for Calico Beans

Calico Beans? Who gives recipes their names and why do they stick? Tis another puzzle.

In my history, these beans are called "Calico Beans" – just look at the multi-colored beans, such a colorful dish, a motley collection of color.

But we also call them "Cowboy Beans".

But just this week I learned that they are also called "Roosevelt Beans". They are so famous at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming that the park kitchens print out the recipe as a souvenir for park visitors. (We visited Yellowstone for the very first time yesterday! What a privilege, especially viewing the wolf pack at dawn in the Lamar Valley.)

But now there's another name, Alanna's Famous Cowboy Beans!

Why? Because Calico Beans are my #1 most-requested and most-anticipated recipe!

I cook up big pots for family parties, carry a slow cooker-ful to church potlucks, serve it from extra-large cast iron Dutch ovens at outdoor parties – and send it along to elk camp and deer camp, hearty food for for hungry hunters.

Super-Easy to Make

What’s no puzzle is that these doctored baked beans are a breeze to throw together and a sure-fire hit at your next barbecue, neighborhood potluck or church supper.

This recipe has been a favorite for so long, taken from a dog-eared Iowa church cookbook with a dozen similar variations, many with more bacon and ground meat, also more sugar. Over the years, I’ve dropped most of the sugar and on occasion, even throw in another can or two of beans, different kinds and colors to live up to the "calico" name.

About This Recipe

  • Calico Beans have been around so long, they are called by other names like Roosevelt Beans and Cowboy Beans. I suspect every church cookbook has a recipe, that's where mine first originated though I've adapted it considerably over the years.
  • Whatever you call these beans, they're basically baked beans but amped way up with bacon, ground beef, different kinds of canned beans, plus extra flavor additions.
  • The distinctive ingredients are several different kinds of canned beans (my favorites are pork 'n' beans, black beans, red kidney beans, white beans and butter beans), bacon, BBQ sauce and molasses.
  • Ingredient List = bacon + onion + ground meat + ketchup + brown sugar + mustard + molasses + chili powder + canned pork 'n' beans + other kinds of canned beans + salt & pepper
  • This dish needs cooking time for it to really shine. So if you're thinking, like I did once, that once the bacon, ground meat and onions are cooked and tossed together with the rest of the ingredients, that "it's done" ... just don't. Give it all an hour in the oven or several hours in a slow cooker before serving, otherwise you'll wonder why I'm making such a fuss about just doctored baked beans.
  • After time in the oven, the beans become thick and a sweetish crust forms near the edges of the baking dish.
  • This is a great dish to cook at home and then rewarm in a cast iron kettle over a campfire. It's no wonder I sent Calico Beans and the makings for hot cornbread out to deer camp. There's nothin' like hot, hearty food for hunters!

Bookmark! PIN! Share!

How do you save and share favorite recipes? recipes that fit your personal cooking style? a particular recipe your mom or daughter or best friend would just love? If this recipe old-time church potluck favorite hits the mark, go ahead, save and share! I'd be honored ...

Calico Beans aka Alanna's Famous Cowboy Beans ♥, a potluck favorite. High Protein. Slow Cooker Friendly. Great for Meal Prep.


Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Time to table: 90 minutes
Makes 6 cups
  • 1/2 pound (225g) bacon, cut into small pieces (see ALANNA's TIPS)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 pound (225g) ground meat (beef, elk or turkey)
  • 1/4 cup (70g) ketchup
  • 1/4 cup (65g) barbecue sauce or steak sauce
  • 1/4 cup (50g) brown sugar (see TIPS)
  • 2 tablespoons mustard (any old ballpark mustard will do)
  • 2 tablespoons molasses (mild or blackstrap, either one)
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 16 ounces canned pork & beans
  • 16 ounces canned kidney beans or black beans, drained if you like
  • 16 ounces canned butter beans or white beans or chickpeas, drained if you like
  • 1/2 cup water, if you drained the beans
  • Cooked Bacon
  • Cooked Onion
  • Cooked Meat
  • Cooking spray, for the casserole dish

Heat oven to 350F/180C.

COOK THE BACON In a large skillet or Dutch oven, cook the bacon pieces until crisp. Lift out the bacon onto paper towels to drain. Pour off all but a tablespoon of the bacon fat. (Why cook the bacon separately? So the bacon crisps up and so the excess bacon grease can be removed.)

COOK THE ONIONS Add the onions, stirring to coat with fat. Deglaze the pan with water, then let the onions cook until golden. Lift the onions out to a bowl large enough to mix everything together. (Why cook the onions separately? So they turn golden and stay rich-flavored and distinctly onion-y.)

COOK THE MEAT Add the ground meat and cook on medium high, breaking the meat into chunks at first, then letting it cook without stirring for several minutes, enough so that it chars slightly, creating a crust on meaty chunks. When the meat is nearly cooked, if needed, drain off any excess fat. (Why cook the meat separately? So that the meat can stay chunky not grainy and so the excess fat can be drained off without losing, say, the onion flavor.)

COMBINE Finally! While cooking the bacon, onion and meat, collect all the remaining ingredients in the large bowl (depending on your timing, it might already hold the Cooked Onions). Stir in the Cooked Bacon and Cooked Meat, stirring really well to evenly distribute all the ingredients.

Transfer to a large casserole dish. If making ahead, cover and refrigerate until ready to bake. Let warm to room temperature before baking.

BAKE until the beans are hot and bubbly all the way to the center, about 1 hour (longer if the beans have been chilled), either covered (the beans will stay quite wet and soupy) or uncovered (they'll form a nice crust on top) or covered part of the time/uncovered part of the time.

Good served hot or at room temperature.

ALANNA’s TIPS No kidney beans or white beans? No problem. Just substitute two different cans of beans, try to use beans with different colors and shapes. For vegetarian Calico Beans, omit the bacon and ground meat. Then cook the onion, perhaps a bell pepper or two, even a tomato, in a little olive oil. You’ll also want to select a vegetarian can of "pork" (ahem) and beans. For a little smoky heat, stir in a teaspoon of the adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers. Over time, I've taken to using only 1/8 of a pound of bacon and skipping the sugar, reducing the richness and sweetness. It's still rich, it's still quite sweet, just not as much. I also usually skip cooking the bacon, onion and meat separately: nobody complains. :-)

FOR MORE INFO If you "skipped straight to the recipe," please scroll back to the top of this page for ingredient information, ingredient substitutions, tips and more. If you print this recipe, you'll want to check the recipe online for even more tips and extra information about ingredient substitutions, best results and more. See .
COOKING for a CROWD This is a real crowd favorite! To cook ahead, cook and freeze everything except the canned beans. For a huge 4X batch, I cook two double batches in side-by-side Dutch ovens, cooking the bacon, meat and onions separately. Collect these in a bowl, then stir in everything else except the beans. Just before serving, combine what's been cooked ahead and the canned beans and bake over an open fire in a huge cast iron Dutch oven if need be, preferably next to a mountain stream, with a cool breeze whistling through the fir trees. Feed to hungry hunters with hot cornbread!
USING A SLOW COOKER For the flavors to meld, it’s important to actually “cook” this dish, not just mix it and rewarm. (That's experience talkin', darlings ...) So if you use a slow cooker, let it cook for several hours in the slow cooker itself, not just heat it up. Another option would be to cook it ahead of time in the oven, then transfer to a slow cooker to heat through for convenient serving or carrying.
TO DRAIN OR NOT TO DRAIN That's up to you. There's no need to drain the beans! But if you like, do drain the beans, that's how to do it now, it's a great way to remove excess sodium. That said, don't drain the pork and beans since the sauce is so flavorful. And some times a can of beans, Trader Joe's kidney beans for example, are so thick that it's just not worth the effort to drain the beans. You might taste the liquid in the can, if it tastes good, keep it; if it doesn't drain it. If you do drain the beans, add about a half cup water or another liquid.
NUTRITION INFORMATION Per Half Cup (assumes ground turkey and drained beans): 157 Calories; 2g Tot Fat; 1g Sat Fat; 14mg Cholesterol; 662mg Sodium; 27g Carb; 5g Fiber; 10g Sugar; 11g Protein. WEIGHT WATCHERS POINTS Sorry, due to technical issues during a laptop conversion, WW points will be updated later. This old recipe has been "Alanna-sized" with reductions in meat, sugar and portion size and increases in low-calorie flavors.
Adapted from a church cookbook from Webster City, Iowa

Bean Lovers, I Gotcha Covered

~ recipes with canned & dried beans ~
How to Cook Dried Beans from Scratch Mexican-Style in a Slow Cooker or Slow-Cooked in the Oven ♥, easy, healthy and delicious.

White Chicken Chili ♥, spicy-but-not-too-spicy, just chicken, spices, chilies and white beans.

Vegetable Chili with Sweet Potatoes & Chipotle ♥, a confetti of colorful vegetables and beans warmed with chili spices.

Shop Your Pantry First

(helping home cooks save money on groceries)

~ bacon ~
~ beef or elk or turkey ~
~ dried & canned beans ~

~ All Recipes, By Ingredient ~
~ How to Save Money on Groceries ~

Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Quick Suppers are Kitchen Parade favorites and feature recipes easy on the budget, the clock, the waistline and the dishwasher. Do you have a favorite recipe that other Kitchen Parade readers might like? Just send me a quick e-mail, you'll find my current address in the FAQs. How to print a Kitchen Parade recipe. Never miss a recipe! If you like this recipe, sign up for a free e-mail subscription. If you like Kitchen Parade, for more scratch cooking recipes using whole, healthful ingredients, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture. If you make this recipe, I'd love to know your results! Just leave a comment below.

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Alanna Kellogg
Alanna Kellogg

A Veggie Venture is home of "veggie evangelist" Alanna Kellogg and the famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.


  1. These look delicious and look perfect for autumn.


  2. I wrote a column called Kitchen Korner for the Leesburg Times-Mirror. On January 4, 1973, the featured recipe was for Calico Beans, and it used pork and beans, dark red kidney beans, and green lima beans. It was actually quite pretty and I always assumed the name was because of the contrasting colors of the beans.


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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna