Senators come and go. One ham and bean soup recipe stays the same.
Here’s the authentic, official U.S. Senate bean soup recipe, a hearty and easy ham and bean soup that has been on the Capitol Hill menu for ages. Perfect for cozy fall and winter nights.
Why I Love Senate Bean Soup
As a former U.S. Senate staffer, I can testify to the merits of the Senate Bean Soup recipe.
For my first job out of college, I worked as an entry-level Senate staffer in one of the country’s most expensive cities. The job barely paid the rent — though I did once ride an elevator with Mikhail Gorbachev. On the days I did not bring a sad, homemade lunch, I headed to the Senate cafeteria and got a cup of (very affordable) Senate Bean Soup — stuffing a fistful of free Saltine cracker packets into my bag for good measure.
This easy Navy bean soup, though sometimes labeled touristy, is salty and thick and stick-to-your-ribs. Maybe that’s why it’s been on the menu every day but one, for over 100 years.
Food History of Senate Ham and Bean Soup
According to the U.S. Senate, the history of Senate Navy Bean Soup is more legend and guesswork than verifiable fact. One story says that in the early 1900s, Idaho senator Fred Dubois actually passed a resolution that the soup remain on the menu every day. (In its early days, the Senate Bean Soup recipe included potatoes; it no longer does.)
Another story says that in 1903, Minnesota senator Knute Nelson expressed his fondness for the soup.
Either way, some form of Senate bean soup has been on the menu every single day for 110 years — with one exception. For one day during World War II, the bean soup was unavailable due to food rations.
The House of Representatives has its own competing bean soup, which likewise remains on the House cafeteria menu every day.
Senate Bean Soup: Recipe Notes
If you want to enjoy official Senate Bean Soup today, there are two options. One option is to head to the Senate cafeteria, on the ground floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The other is to make the recipe yourself.
Because this is an easy soup to make, and requires no more travel than to the grocery store, the “make your own” ham and bean soup option gets my vote. Just a few notes:
- Start with the ham and beans. Many soups call for cooking the onions first, and then adding everything else. But here, the ham and beans cook together first. This not only makes a delicious ham stock, but the beans cook and get infused with flavor from the outset.
- Cook the onions in the butter just until translucent, then add to the soup. Stir, simmer, and season.
Adapting the Senate Bean Soup Recipe for Home Kitchens
The soup flavors are best described as hammy and beany. Probably because those are the only ingredients other than an onion and dab of butter! That is a good thing.
The original recipe is vague, so I have added a few specifics, like a suggested quantity of salt and pepper. I start with cold water, instead of the suggested hot water, because hot tap water generally is not as clean. This should be a very thick soup.
Technically, I would have liked to add something like, I don’t know, a bay leaf? But I stuck to the original as much as possible, so that is why the recipe is so simple.
Also: This soup makes a fantastic recipe for those leftover ham bones around Easter or Christmas.
Did you make this Senate Bean Soup recipe? How was it?
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Senate Bean Soup (The Official Recipe)
- 1 pound dry navy beans
- ¾ pound smoked ham hock
- 2 quarts cold water
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- kosher salt, to taste (I do about 2 teaspoons)
- fresh black pepper, to taste
- Rinse the navy beans and pick over. Place beans into large pot with two quarts of cold water and the ham hock. Bring just to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for approximately three hours in a partially-covered pot, stirring occasionally, until the beans have fully softened.
- Remove ham hocks and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, lightly brown the onion in butter and add to the soup. Pull meat from the ham hocks and return to soup. Stir. Before serving, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper.
Creamy and excellent flavor even though it is just a few ingredients.
Ellen in TX says
This is fantastic. It tastes exactly like the “real” Senate bean soup — because it is, haha. I ate this when I visited Washington last year. Now I am glad to make it at home. Definitely make sure to cook the beans a very long time to get the soup very creamy.
Wondering if you can cook it in instant pot?
Great question! I think that this is actually a great candidate for a pressure cooker. Soups generally are. I am not sure how to do an exact conversion, but thought this Taste of Home article helpful: https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/how-to-make-any-recipe-work-with-your-instant-pot/. Let me know if you do it; I’d love to hear about the result.
I just made this yesterday. I took the liberty of adding 2 cloves of minced garlic.. place unsoaked dry navy beans on bottom of pot. Place ham hocks, garlic and onion on hocks. Add water, seal and pressure cook for 30 minutes. Slow release for 20 min. Open lid and remove hocks and allow to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, remove about 2 cups of beans and set aside. Purée and add back to pot. Shred hocks and add back to pot. Give all a good stir and ENJOY ! EXCELLENT!
Fantastic!!! I love the idea of pureeing some of the beans to make the soup even more creamy.
Lynn Raner says
I have been using my instant pot about 3 years. I use canned beans so its a lot faster. Comes out delicious.. l start out on #2 then put it on#1. Cook for about 3 hours
Sheryll Ziemer says
I just made a batch. It took 65 minutes plus a 25 minute natural release. It was wonderful
So glad you enjoyed! It’s such a great soup for fall and winter.
Delicious and just four ingredients! Thick, creamy and perfect for a cold night…
Delicious ! Very easy to make, so few ingredients and so good. I used a ham bone from Easter and it turned out well. Great recipe we all enjoyed it.
Fiona Marshall says
This was delicious. I couldn’t believe that it was only three ingredients and essentially no work. But Incredibly flavorful nonetheless. So glad to have this recipe.
Thanks, Fiona! That is always my thought as well: How can something this good be this simple?! Glad you enjoyed.
You don’t soak the beans first? Isn’t that standard procedure for any dry bean?
Nope! I initially had the same question. It’s seriously the easiest recipe ever. You could probably soak the beans overnight first, which would decrease the cooking time slightly, but starting the recipe with dried beans, ham hock, and onion allows the beans to fully infuse with the flavor from minute one. Hope you enjoy!
Not soaking just increases cooking time, so choice is up to you
Can you make it in a slow cooker and if so how long?
I think that would be absolutely doable! I have not tried this as a slow cooker recipe, but my guess is that it would take anywhere between 7 to 9 hours on low, or about 4 to 5 hours on high, due to the dried beans. I’d love to hear how it goes, so please keep me posted! Enjoy.
Alan Maslowski says
This works well in a slow cooker. I mash up the beans after they have softened up a bit..
This is so easy and good. We enjoyed the whole pot.
I was delighted by how good this tasted for how basic it is. I confess that I did add a few carrots with the onions, but I do not think it was necessary. this is a very good soup, and I will make this again. Thank you! I enjoy your blog.
Ann-Marie Meyers says
I add a few carrots, too, because my mom always did,and a bay leaf.
I’ve got a pot on the stove now. My neighbor gave me the bone from one of his Christmas hams this year.
Good soup makes good neighbors.
I’m cooking this pot of beans now! I like that there is only a few ingredients and cannot wait to share them with my family!!
I hope you all love it! One of my favorite soups of all time.
Wow this is very, very good, which seems unlikely from such a simple recipe, but it really is that delicious. If I ever come to D.C. I’d be interested to try the version in the Senate cafeteria for comparison!
Sherri Borowski says
Absolutely delicious! Perfect for a cold evening!
So glad you liked it! One of my favorites.
Jay R Kaplan says
Try cooking the beans covered in a 265 oven after you get them simmering on stovetop. Leave the beans in the oven for 3-4 hrs.
Paul Koeltzow says
Do I need to soak the Navy Beams?
Hello and no! No soaking necessary. It will cook in about 3 hours total. If you’d like to speed up the cooking time a bit, add a 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. The alkaline pH softens the beans (cool cooking trick, huh?). Enjoy!
Joann Burns says
Do you emolsifi yours after
Hi, Joann! No, no need to emulsify. The long cooking time will break the beans down enough where the soup is thick and creamy all on its own.
My father in law has been purchasing the Senate Navy Bean soup from a magazine and it’s very good, but the sodium level is outrageous. So, we’re going to try this in the crockpot today, New Year’s Day! Couldn’t find black eyed peas, so I thought I’d give this a shot. We have a ham hock from a couple of days ago, so that came in handy and can’t wait to try it!
Happy new year everyone!
Happy New Year and I hope you enjoy! It’s such a nice, cozy soup — and easy, which makes it even tastier, in my opinion 🙂
Roux not rue sorry
Thanks again Lee
Where is the word “rou” even mentioned?
Nancy Colwell says
I’m making these today. I have never used a dutch oven but received one for Christmas and was wondering if the bean soup can be made in it? If so, do I need to change anything?
Hello and my apologies for just writing back now. I dutch oven should be a fine size; and what a lovely Christmas gift! I love mine. As long as the raw beans and water don’t come up the sides of the pan more than halfway, you’ll be fine.
Sharon Gallo says
My mother-in-law who has passed at 80 some years old always ded a little instnt mashed potatoes to thivken the soup to her liking. I still do the same
Her recipe took 5 hours due to soaking, boiling, resting the beans etc
This will be much uicker
I hope you enjoy. Thank you for sharing this story…I love this mashed potato trick!
This recipe is very good. I normally use Honey Baked Hams soup mix but decided to try from scratch. This tasted just as good or even better , without all the added sodium, then the HB ham mix. I did add two bay leaves while it was simmering. I also added one diced up carrot and 2 cloves of minced garlic to the onion mixture. The only seasoning I added was. A pinch of salt to the veggies while sautéing. This will be my forever bean soup recipe from now on !
I followed Cochise’s instructions and used my Instant Pot and unsoaked (Rancho Gordo) beans. Before serving, I used an immersion blender for a few seconds to thicken the soup slightly. This was the perfect meal for a chilly, rainy, windy spring day!
I am going to try this Senate bean soup recipe. Am going to cook in my slow cooker. I will also add potatoes at the end, because I like potatoes. I can see that nobody added potatoes which was pointed out that the original recipe had them. so I will them. I will also use a smoked ham shank instead of the hock, better cut of meat for this process. As for the beans great white northern beans to be exact. Otherwise called Navy Beans. I did enjoy the history behind the soup. It was probably a cold day in D.C. and that was the only stuff on hand in the kitchen.
I discovered this soup much the same way — but I was an unpaid college intern way back in the day. My lunch was very frequently a bowl of soup with a small salad from the salad bar in the private cafeteria.
Adding this to my list of things to make, even if nobody else in my house will touch it, I will!
Good for you! And I love hearing that you also had to find a very budget-friendly lunch 🙂
Emma G says
So delicious and easy , even better the next day too, if there is any left.
Thank you !!!
Very good! I added a little apple cider vinegar. It enhanced the flavor just a little bit.
Great idea. Sometimes a bit of acid really does help round out flavors. Glad you liked it!
I was also a senate staffer (Russell Bldg) in the mid 80’s and ate at the Senate Cafeteria often. The Navy Bean Soup was, and remains, a fav. As I recall, they made 5 gallon pots and added mashed potatoes to thicken and make creamy. With my home recipe, I prepare one bag of Idaho Buttermilk instant mashed potatoes per the package directions, then add to the soup at the tail end of cooking. Yum!
Hi, fellow staffer/Senate bean soup alum! I was in the Hart Building 🙂 I love the addition of the mashed potatoes to help thicken it. I’m going to try this next time. Thanks for the note!
I prepared as directed. No changes or additions needed. It’s soooo good!!!
Awesome!! Thanks for the great note and so glad you enjoyed.
It must be a rip, roaring good time in the Senate. I’ve not cooked beans this way without there being a flatulent explosion.
I grew up eating my Mother’s Senate Bean Soup, not knowing where it originated. I just knew that I liked it! Then, when visiting a friend in DC, I had lunch in the Senate Cafe. Lo and behold, there it was, on the menu. Some congress person got me a copy of the recipe and I’ve been making it ever since. All the menu items back then, around 1980, were very inexpensive, but I looked up their menu today, and it’s $7 for a bowl of this delicious soup!
It costs about that to make a whole pot of it, and that’s with the higher cost of smoked ham hocks. I’ve got a pot on the stove right now, and can’t wait to have a bowl!
This is such a great story! It’s $7 now?! Oh my–times have changed. I hope you enjoy the soup.
Kathleen Timlin Weily says
I’m going to make this soup today but I would like to triple it is there a secret to doing that or just triple all of the ingredients?
I think the main secret is to just have a very big pot! It might take slightly longer, and you’ll need to stir more frequently because of all the beans. But it should work out. Good luck and enjoy.
If I don’t have a ham hock will cut up ham work
Hi, Marlene! Hmm… good question. Simmering the beans for hours with the ham hock really will give you the best flavor. But if you can’t find one, I imagine that a nice chunk of cured ham will do, or even a few slices of good bacon.
I loved this soup. It was the best bean soup I’ve made. However, it got so thick the next day? I had to use quite a bit of broth/water to thin it. Did I cook it too long or any other advice?
Hi, Janet! This is a very common problem with most bean soups. Beans (as well as other starches, such as pasta) will continue to absorb liquid, even when cold. That’s why the next day, beany soups can look congealed. Feel free to just add a splash or two of water and keep adjusting from there, though not too much at a time because it will loosen when you reheat it; this is totally normal.
Thanks for the info! It is delicious! And adding liquid just makes it last that much longer!
Delicious! It was perfect for a make ahead weekday dinner.
Fantastic! Thanks and so glad you enjoyed, Renee!
Stacey Tease says
So I’m American living in Ireland for years. Always loved my Mom’s bean soup. This recipe looked familiar. Had a ham hock and ham leftover. Stood in Tesco on my phone trying to find substitute for navy beans- decided on cannellini beans. Made in crockpot- 1 quart cold water, 1 quart boiled water from kettle. Only about 1 1/2 lb ham/ ham hock but was plenty. Took 2 hrs to boil (started at 8 am) on high. Moved lid to leave open slightly and let it go until 4. Took out ham to cut up ,added onion, salt and pepper and 4 slices smoked American style bacon as ham had clove flavouring. Left on low another hour and it was so thick, hearty and delicious.!
I am so very glad you liked it! It’s great to know that cannellini beans worked well. Isn’t it such a good, hearty soup? And please let me know if you have come across a good Irish brown soda bread recipe; I am eternally in search ever since I ate it every day there on a vacation!
Sari Goldman says
I love this soup. If you don’t eat ham you can buy a smoked turkey leg and thigh to add to the beans.
What a great idea! Thanks so much for writing.
barbara stroud says
I made this yesterday – it turned out EXCELLENT! I was hesitant to use the potato, but through it in, and I’m so glad I did, it was FABULOUS – an interesting addition. Smelled amazing!
So glad you enjoyed!! Doesn’t it smell so good and hammy while it’s cooking?
Linda D. says
I grew up with soup made this vary way, but as I got older, I needed more. I make mine with both onion and celery and a can of drained Rotel tomatoes with hot chilis. I also add a couple tsps of Better than Boullion chicken to the 2 cups of water. I think the addition of the celery, tomatoes & bouillon make it a much tastier recipe..
joanne a. says
I followed the recipe exactly. After three hours the beans still aren’t cooked. I”m on hour five. I thought it was odd that the beans weren’t soaked overnight. I should have trusted my gut. Very disappointed.
Hello and thank you for the comment. I am sorry to hear that this did not work out! Was the water simmering enough, and did you have a lid on as directed to help the beans cook faster? Five hours is a VERY long time to have to cook beans–even without pre-soaking them! I would be so frustrated as well. Those are the troubleshooting ideas I can think of. Again, I empathize with you; having a recipe not work out can be so disappointing.