How to Create Smoky Flavor without Bacon

I Can't Believe It's Not Bacon!

Use Herbs and Spices to Get a Smoky Taste Without Smoked Meat

Southern cooking, also called "country cooking" or "soul food," often describes foods loaded with fat, salt, and pork – sometimes all three in the same dish! Traditional dishes include fried chicken, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and fried squash. See a pattern? Fried, fried, fried. What's not fried is likely to be cooked with bacon or a chunk of fatback as "seasoning."

That "seasoned" taste is so common that many people can't imagine cooking beans without side meat. As Scarlett O'Hara notes in Gone With the Wind: "Black-eyed peas are no good without bacon. There's no strength to them."

Here, as in so many areas, Scarlett was wrong.

Want that good, smoky taste without the fat and salt? Set the pork aside in favor of these three ingredients: sweet marjoram, epazote, and black cardamom. You'll never add bacon again.

How to Create Smoky Flavor without Bacon

Sweet (and smoky) marjoram
Marjoram is related to oregano, but has a softer, less intense flavor. The most common use is in Italian and Mediterranean cooking (but the French love it too), where it's used to flavor meats, vegetables, and beans.

Add dried marjoram to beans – especially peas and pintos – at a measurement of approximately ½ teaspoon to each 2 cups of cooked beans. Add more or less to taste, keeping in mind that herbs and spices lose their aroma over time. If your marjoram is old, you may need to even double the amount to get the correct flavor.

Marjoram is aromatic and adds just a hint of smoky flavor. Add a dash of olive oil or a pat of butter and you get the flavor and feel of bacon seasoning.

Epazote has other benefits
This Mexican herb (pronounced eh pah ZO tay) grows wild throughout Latin America and is known by a number of different names, including Mexican tea, skunkweed, pigweed, and goosefoot. Epazote has a pungent scent that some have described as "old gym socks."

But wait! It gets better when cooked! Why else would it have been used for thousands of years as both a medicinal and cooking ingredient?

Epazote's flavor is pungent and lemony. It combines well with other flavors in a dish and helps intensify them. When cooked with beans, the herb acts as a carminative – meaning it reduces gas. Some people experience, well, discomfort after eating beans, so epazote can be a welcome addition to bean dishes.

Add dried epazote to beans at about the same proportions as marjoram – ½ to 1 teaspoon for every two cups of cooked beans. It doesn't add much smoky flavor, but helps intensify the flavors of the marjoram and cardamom.

Black cardamom - who needs pork when you have pods?
Don't confuse black with green cardamom. The latter is used mainly in baking, in combination with other sweet flavors. But black cardamom has a strong, smoky scent and taste that won't go well with your cookie dough. The smoky flavor of black cardamom comes from the traditional method of drying the spice over open flames.

Black cardamom is used a lot in Indian cooking, and it's the secret ingredient in many soups and bean dishes. The flavor is so authentically smoky and bacon-like that I've had vegetarian guests who were reluctant to eat dishes flavored with it. I had to show them the pods!

Cardamom degrades quickly after it's ground. For best flavor, buy whole black cardamom pods and store them in the refrigerator. Just before adding the cardamom to your dish, cut open the pod and scrape out the seeds. You can also toss in the pod for extra flavor, but rinse it well first and remove it before serving.

Marjoram, epazote, and cardamom in combination
All three ingredients work well for canned beans as well as dried beans cooked from scratch.

Smoky Pintos from the Can - Guests will think you got up early to cook a big pot of beans just for them! Note that a 1-pound can contains approximately 2 cups cooked beans. In our house, that serves two people. This recipe is for one can; you may need to double or triple it for a larger crowd.

Smoky Pinto Beans - From the Can
  • 1 can vegetarian pinto beans - Read label carefully because many brands contain pork or pork broth.
  • ½ can water
  • 1/3 cup diced onions
  • 1-2 teaspoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
  • ½ teaspoon dried epazote
  • ½ black cardamom pod
Heat saucepan over medium heat, add olive oil and onions. Cook until onions are softened. Add marjoram, epazote, cardamom, water, and beans. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer at least 10 minutes. 20 minutes is better because it helps the flavors meld together. Remove cardamom pod before serving.


Smoky Pintos from Scratch – Dried beans are cost-effective and great sources of soluble fiber and protein. They're easy! You can cook them using a pressure cooker, slow cooker, or in a saucepan on the stove. Not many dishes give you so many options and nutritional value for such a low cost.

I Can't Believe It's Not Bacon!
Recipe type: Side or Main Dish
  • 1-pound bag dried pinto beans
  • 1 large onion, diced.
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter (this small bit adds a lot of flavor, but replace it with olive oil if desired)
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon dried marjoram
  • 1 tablespoon dried epazote
  • 2 black cardamom pods, rinsed and cut in half
  1. Soak beans according to directions on package. Note: it's important to soak and rinse the beans before cooking. Don't skip this step!
  2. Heat olive oil and butter over medium heat in large, heavy-bottom pan. Add onions and cook on low heat (you don't want to burn the butter) until onions soften.
  3. Add vegetable broth, water, soaked beans, marjoram, epazote, and cardamom. Bring to a boil..Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until beans are soft - about 1½ to 2 hours.


Pintos cook in a pressure cooker much more quickly. About 10-12 minutes after coming up to pressure. Be careful not to cook them too long, or you get pinto mush instead of pinto beans.


  1. Jill, The Veggie Queen 29 April, 2008 at 14:32

    This is all great information, and obviously, I think that using a pressure cooker is the way to go. There are 2 things that you didn’t .mention which are chipotle (either whole peppers or powder) and pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika) which are both wonderful with beans.
    I haven’t tried the black cardamom but I’m going to now.

  2. larisa 6 May, 2008 at 06:12

    Thanks Jill!

    I use chipotle a lot, but it does add some heat to the dish. My mother is very sensitive to any sort of hot food, and I know others who have the same problem, so I’m careful about using it for guests. But I have a fabulous black beans soup recipe that uses chipotle. I’ll post when I get a chance.

    And I have a jar of smoked paprika, but never thought of using it on beans. Thanks!! I’ll try that this week!

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