A Culinary Journey Through the Cowboy Diet: Staples, Extras, and Treats

The rugged and romanticized image of the cowboy evokes a sense of adventure, independence, and a close connection with nature. But beyond the iconic Stetson hats and leather chaps lies a fascinating culinary story, revealing the food that fueled these legendary figures of the American West.

The Staples of the Cowboy Diet:

The cowboy’s diet was primarily composed of simple, yet hearty and nutritious staples that could withstand the rigors of the trail and provide sustenance for long days of work. These staples included:

  • Beans: A staple of the cowboy diet, beans were a rich source of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates, providing essential energy for long hours in the saddle. They were typically cooked in a large pot over an open fire, often with the addition of salt pork or bacon for added flavor and fat.
  • Hard Biscuits: These dense and durable biscuits, also known as “hardtack,” were made from flour, water, and salt, and baked until they were hard and dry. Their long shelf life and portability made them ideal for trail provisions, as they could withstand harsh conditions without spoiling.
  • Dried Meat: Beef jerky, a staple of Native American cuisine, was adopted by cowboys as a convenient and protein-rich snack. The meat was thinly sliced, dried in the sun or over a fire, and seasoned with salt and pepper.
  • Dried Fruit: Dried fruits, such as apples, peaches, and apricots, provided a source of sweetness and vitamins to the cowboy’s diet. They were often packed in saddlebags for a quick and nutritious snack on the go.
  • Coffee: A quintessential cowboy beverage, coffee was brewed strong and black, providing a much-needed energy boost during long days and nights on the trail. It was typically made in a large pot over an open fire and served in tin cups.

The Extras and Treats:

While the staples formed the foundation of the cowboy’s diet, there were also occasional “extras” and “treats” that added variety and flavor to their meals. These included:

  • Pan de Campo: This type of “camp bread” was cooked on a skillet over an open fire, providing a warm and comforting addition to the cowboy’s meals. It was typically made from flour, water, salt, and baking powder, and could be enjoyed plain or with butter, jam, or honey.
  • Sugar: Sugar was a rare treat for cowboys, often reserved for special occasions or to add sweetness to coffee or other beverages. It was typically stored in small sacks or canisters and used sparingly.
  • Fresh Meat: When available, fresh meat, such as beef, venison, or wild game, was a welcome addition to the cowboy’s diet. It was typically roasted over an open fire or cooked in a Dutch oven, providing a hearty and flavorful meal.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: When in season, fresh fruits and vegetables, such as apples, oranges, potatoes, and onions, could be found in trading posts or purchased from local farmers. These provided essential vitamins and minerals to the cowboy’s diet.

Cooking Techniques:

Cowboy cooking was characterized by its simplicity and resourcefulness, utilizing basic ingredients and readily available cooking methods. The most common cooking techniques included:

  • Open Fire Cooking: Cooking over an open fire was the most common method used by cowboys, as it required minimal equipment and could be done anywhere. A campfire provided heat for cooking, and a tripod or makeshift grill could be used to suspend pots and pans over the flames.
  • Dutch Oven Cooking: Dutch ovens were heavy cast-iron pots with tight-fitting lids, ideal for slow-cooking stews, beans, and other hearty dishes. They could be placed directly on the coals of a campfire or hung from a tripod over the fire.
  • Skillet Cooking: Skillets were versatile cooking tools used for frying, sautéing, and baking. They were typically made of cast iron and could be heated directly over an open fire.

The cowboy’s diet was a testament to their resilience and adaptability, providing them with the sustenance they needed to thrive in the harsh and unforgiving conditions of the American West. The staples, extras, and treats that made up their meals were simple yet nutritious, reflecting the resourcefulness and ingenuity of these iconic figures.

Grandma said to leave the rocks in and they’ll float to the bottom and be good for your gizards.

Although the ingredients in my beans are traditional, they have an extra flavor that will make you want to eat your hat off.

Before adding the beans, make sure the water is nice and warm.

My usual recipe involves jalapeno, onion, garlic and cilantro. However, after some time on the trail, Old Cookie ran out of fresh ingredients and would instead use spices and dried chiles. To enhance the flavor of the bean pot, I plan to coarsely grind a dried guajillo chili using a masher, not until it becomes a fine powder, but rather just coarsely chopped. If you can find them, Ancho or Cascabel are excellent chiles to add to the pot.

Old Cookie wouldn’t have brought a ham hock on the wagon, but I’m going to add one to my beans. He would use leftover meat, such as salt pork, from whatever game the cowboys brought back from the trail.

Mash the garlic and chop the onion with your hash knife. I love a white onion in beans. Make sure the onions are not too tiny so you don’t lose them in a pot of beans. You can use a half onion per pound of beans, as I’m using two onions for every four pounds.

You all know that I enjoy food that bites back, so I won’t be taking the seeds out of my jalapeño. I’m going to chop it up and add it to the pot with the seeds on top. Scrape out the insides of the pepper and rinse out the seeds if you want those beans to be mild.

As we previously discussed, Old Cookie’s trail was lacking in fresh ingredients, such as cilantro. I like to use dried cilantro because fresh cilantro often tastes soapy.

After the beans have been boiling for a while, we want to add more spices, so if you use dried cilantro, stop there. If you season your beans too early, some of their flavor may be boiled out.

Put the Beans on the Fire

Light them up and allow them to reach a vigorous rolling boil. After a vigorous boil for 15 minutes, reduce the heat to a simmer. Now is the time to season. In addition to my homemade and mesquite seasoning, I’m using chili powder, cumin, and smoked paprika. Season to taste, folks. My suggested spices will help you make a tasty pot of beans, but feel free to add more salt or garlic if necessary.

how did the cowboys cook their beans

Traditional Cowboy Beans


How did cowboys prepare beans?

One could soak beans all day before cooking them, cutting the cooking time. But cowboys eating out of their saddle bags only had a skillet. The beans were mostly boiled in the skillet for a couple of hours, usually without letting them soak.

What beans did they eat in the Wild West?

They were most likely pinto or possibly red beans. Think southwest cuisine. They may have had tomatoes cooked with them, along with onions, garlic and chile peppers. Cooked beans spoil or sour quickly, so cowhands wouldn’t have eaten beans on the trail unless they were traveling with the chuck wagon.

What did cowboys use for cooking?

The cooking set of a chuckwagon cook usually included wood for cooking, a coffee pot, hand-forged utensils, plates and bowls, and cast-iron pots and skillets. Chuckwagon cooks often prepared simple meals such as coffee, beans, biscuits, and stews.

Did cowboys eat beans for breakfast?

I love breakfast any time of day, but I guarantee you back in Ol’ Cookie’s day going down the trail was a whole lot different to what we have today. Fellers back in the 1880’s didn’t eat very well. A typical breakfast for them consisted of: coffee, biscuits, maybe a little salt pork and even beans.

Why did Cowboys eat beans & rice?

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture speculates that beans and rice were likely added to “a bowl of red,” otherwise known as chili, to make the meal stretch further. After all, feeding up to 20 ravenous cowboys at a time meant that a cook had to be seriously efficient.

What is the best way to eat beans?

The best way to eat beans is to first cook them in a large pot of water, about 4 cups of water to every 1 cup of beans. Adding lemon grass or other herbs to the water can improve the flavor. Once beans are cooked the best thing to do is combine them with cooked rice, this is because beans are low in methionine and rice is low in lysine, so combining them makes a more complete protein.

Do Cowboys eat dried beans?

Lightweight dried beans are highly portable and could soak all day in the wagon, making prepping them fairly simple in the evenings once the crew had settled down for the night. Additionally, dried beans keep for a long time and are an excellent source of protein, making an incredibly filling meal for cowboys out on the range.

What did Cowboys eat on the trail?

The usual coffee formula on the trail was one handful of ground coffee per cup of water. It was often called “six shooter coffee”, as it was strong enough to float a six shooter. Next on the list of trail essentials was a constant supply of sourdough biscuits. The cowboys preferred biscuits to bread in loaves.

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