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This southern green beans recipe has been in my family for generations. Slow cooked in a vitamin-rich broth with smoked meat, this cultural side dish is on every Southern holiday table!
If you are a Southern lady, you may have memories of snapping green beans into a wooden bowl with your grandma or mama as a little girl.
I grew up with a house full of ladies on Thanksgiving, usually at my grandma's house in a small town in Georgia. My dad usually watching tv (possibly with some uncle, neighbors, or cousins), and my aunts and grandma in the kitchen with my mama.
I'd be snapping fresh green beans into a big woven wood bowl sitting on an old stool at the kitchen table while they were cleaning greens fresh from grandma's garden, mixing pies, and yammerin'. There's always yammering in the kitchen with a bunch of women.
Whether you are making this easy green bean recipe for Sunday dinner, as a delicious side dish for a southern meal, or making the best childhood memories snapping the beans for the holidays with your kiddos, it's a delicious side dish that the whole family will enjoy. Even the picky ones.
What are Southern Green Beans?
It's super simple: they're the best green beans you'll ever eat! Fresh green beans are snapped and thrown in chicken broth with garlic, onion, a bit of pepper, and salty meat like smoked turkey, bacon, or ham hock to give the green beans a ton of flavor as they simmer in a slow cooker for hours.
Traditionally, these savory homemade green beans are reserved for your Easter lunch after church, made in large quantities for a holiday feast, and are always getting cozy with the southern baked mac and cheese on your plate at Christmas. But that doesn't mean that it's a difficult dish to make! In fact, you'll be blown away by how easy it is to make these old fashioned green beans.
Origins of Southern-Style Green Beans
Slow cooked green beans are --yep-- a big part of soul food and black culture. Greens and beans slow cooked in pot likker is something Africans brought with them when they were kidnapped and brought to the U.S., according to culinary historians.
The enslaved Black folk had to make do with what they could, often scraps of undesirable meat and leftover vegetables. Slow simmering green beans in a vitamin-rich savory broth --which we call potlikker or 'pot liquor'-- with bits of meat filled their bellies, added calories, and gave them more energy to work.
By the late 1870s, it was common practice in the South to slow cook green beans with some sort of fatty pork parts like bacon, fatback, salt pork, or ham hock, even making its way into 19th-century cookbooks.
How to Make Them
Like I said, making southern style green beans with ham hocks is mind blowingly simple. Dump all the ingredients into your crock pot and let cook for 3-4 hours on high or 6 hours on low.
I like to use the ham hocks as a measure; when they're falling apart and fork-tender, you know your green beans are done and full of flavor!
We only need a handful of ingredients, but each one imparts amazing flavor in seasoning the green beans so don't skip them!
Fresh Green Beans. Science has mostly bred the strings out of string beans now but you can use either string or pole beans. The only real difference between them is that pole beans have to be grown on a trellis or pole for support in order to flourish.
Snap your green beans instead of cutting or chopping them. Snapping --or bending the stem ends of the beans and then snapping in half to bite-sized pieces-- lets you feel and see how fresh each green bean is. You don't want a limp, sad bean and you definitely don't want a bean that a critter has munched on in the garden or one that is starting to rot.
Snapping beans (besides being a wonderful tradition to have with little ones who just want to soul-sit under you so you need to give them something to do) lets you ensure that every single bean is of good quality. We're looking for snap, firmness, and a bright green color, which gives us the most tender green bean.
It's not as tedious as you'd think, either. Bean snapping a few pounds takes about 10 minutes at the most. Sit on the couch and watch tv or chat with someone while snapping a whole mess of beans and it'll be done before you realize.
Garlic and Onions. Some like fresh garlic and sauteed onion in their potlikker. I don't, it's just a preference. I use garlic powder and onion powder or minced and dried. They give you so much flavor without your kids refusing to eat them because they see a big ole chunk of onion on their plate.
Meat. A smoked piece of meat is quintessential to your southern style green beans. It just won't taste the same without something in there.
I personally use ham hock. It's what I grew up on. What's ham hock? It's the shank or ankle of a pig that has been smoked. You can also find it called 'pork knuckle' in certain regions.
Ham hocks have a distinctive meaty flavor and are tough with tons of fat, connective tissue, and more often than not have the skin still wrapped around the meat of it tightly. All of this is good, it means that it imparts tons of collagen into your potlikker, the connective tissue and skin loosen up as if cooks for several hours and the meat becomes fall-apart tender by the end of the cooking process while still holding fantastic smoky flavor.
You can find ham hocks at many local big box supermarkets, but you can also find them at butcher shops and ethnic markets for dirt cheap. They can come in giant knuckles or in horizontal slices.
But if you can't find them, you can use bacon! Pan fry the strips until you have crispy bacon on your hands, then chop them up and add the bacon pieces to your cooking liquid. Use the leftover bacon drippings to saute a diced yellow onion for extra flavor, if you're using them. A little bacon grease never hurts a southern vegetable dish.
Pro Tip: Don't eat pork? Smoked turkey necks and turkey bacon have been a widely used pork substitute for collard greens and green beans. They still give a delicious smoky, meaty flavor and are a big part of southern cooking.
But I am Team Ham Hock til the day I die.
Broth. The traditional is chicken broth (homemade chicken broth recipe here!), but vegetable broth is also a great addition to create pot likker.
Red Pepper Flakes or Cayenne Pepper. Optional, but I like the slightly spicy kick it adds.
A splash of red wine vinegar or white vinegar. The acidity cuts the richness and adds a contrast to the meatiness.
Making it Ahead of Time, Freezing, and Storing
Preparing your old fashioned southern green beans before a big feast like Thanksgiving is a breeze. These green beans stay in your fridge for up to 7 days when stored correctly in an airtight container inside your fridge (not the door). Store the beans and meat in the potlikker to keep them from drying out.
To freeze the leftover green beans, add about 2-4 servings each into gallon sized, freezer-safe, zip-top bags. Freeze them as flat as you can, this helps them thaw faster.
Thaw your southern green beans in the fridge overnight. To reheat for serving, you can nuke it in the microwave for a few minutes until everything is heated through. You can also put all of it into a large saucepan or large Dutch oven and heat on the stove top over medium-low until hot.
Put them in a serving dish when ready to eat with just enough liquid from their storage to keep them from drying out.
What to Serve with Them
These southern green beans are a great side dish for classic homemade comfort food dinners. I love them with a whole roast chicken or served with creamy mashed potatoes and melt-in-your-mouth tender pot roast on a cold evening.
They're also the absolute perfect addition to your Thanksgiving menu. I have an entire Thanksgiving category for you to take a peek at with plenty of side dishes, desserts, and plenty of ways to make a juicy turkey!
More Southern Side Dishes:
- Southern Sweet Potato Casserole with Brown Sugar Topping
- Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread
- Grandma Reid's Southern Candied Yams
- Parker House Yeast Rolls (Sister Schubert Copycat)
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- 2 lbs fresh green beans
- 1 or 2 smoked ham hocks
- 1 cup (200 mL) chicken stock
- 2 cups (50 mL) water
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon granulated onion
- ½ tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, more is optional
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, optional
- Rinse, dry, and snap the ends off your fresh green beans, discarding any green beans that are limp, brown, or otherwise not fresh.
- Set your slow cooker to low (six hours) or high (3 hours) and toss in the ham hocks, chicken stock, water, snapped green beans, garlic, onion, kosher salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes and vinegar, if using.
- Stir to make sure all the spices are mixed into the chicken stock. Secure the top of the slow cooker and let the green beans cook until the ham hocks are fork tender.
- After the time is done, serve hot. Keep in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 7 days.
Make Green Beans Ahead
Preparing your green beans before a big feast like Thanksgiving is a breeze. These green beans stay in your fridge for up to 7 days when stored correctly in an airtight container inside your fridge (not the door). Keep the beans and meat in the potlikker when storing, it keeps them from drying out.
To reheat for serving, you can nuke it in the microwave for a few minutes until everything is heated through. You can also put all of it into a large saucepan or small Dutch oven and heat over medium-low until hot.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 12 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 39Total Fat: 1gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 2mgSodium: 367mgCarbohydrates: 7gFiber: 2gSugar: 3gProtein: 3g
All nutrition facts are estimations. Please see a physician for any health-related inquiries.
Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.