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Senate Bean Soup

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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. 

bowl of senate bean soup with ham and salad on wooden table

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.

senate bean soup ingredients ham hocks navy beans onion

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.

bowl of senate bean soup with ham and salad on wooden table

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.

senate bean soup recipe

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.

Sometimes people ask if this can be made in a crock pot or instant pot.

The answer is yes! The instant pot will certainly speed the cooking time due to the high pressure. That said, you will have to adapt the cooking times for a crock pot or instant pot on your own; I am an old-fashioned pot person!

Finally: This Senate ham and Navy bean 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?

bowl of senate bean soup with ham and salad on wooden table

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bowl of senate bean soup with ham and salad on wooden table

Senate Bean Soup (The Official Recipe)

Senate Bean Soup is a historic recipe that's always on the Senate menu for a reason. With not much more than navy beans, a ham hock, and water, you can have one of the country's most satisfying, and famous, ham and bean soups.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time3 hours 30 minutes
Course: dinner, lunch
Cuisine: American
Keywords:: beans, comfort food, easy, ham, patriotic, senate, soup
Servings: 4 people
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Ingredients

  • 1 pound dry navy beans
  • 3/4 pound smoked ham hock
  • 2 quarts cold water
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (optional, but I recommend as it will help the beans soften)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • kosher salt, to taste (I do about 2 teaspoons)
  • fresh black pepper, to taste

Instructions

  • Rinse the navy beans and pick over. Place beans into large pot with the ham hock and two quarts of cold water and the baking soda, if using.
    PRO TIP: Baking soda is not part of the official recipe, but it is my secret weapon when cooking dried beans. The alkaline pH helps soften the beans' tough exterior and helps speed cooking a bit.
  • Bring just to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for approximately three hours (yep) in a covered pot with the lid barely cracked, stirring occasionally, until the beans have fully softened.
    TIP: The water quantity should be accurate, but If the pot of beans starts to look a little dry, add more water until you have a very thick, creamy soup consistency.
  • Remove the ham hock and set it aside on a dish to cool. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until translucent and lightly brown. (Mmm..butter and onions. Doesn't that smell good?) Add the diced, buttery onion to the soup.
  • Pull meat from the ham hock into bite-sized pieces and return the meat to soup. Stir. Discard the picked-over ham bone.
    Before serving, bring the soup to a boil and season with salt and pepper. Serve on its own or with a nice green salad to complement the richness of the soup.

Notes

This Senate Bean Soup recipe is based on the original. The ingredients and quantities are exactly the same, with the addition of a little optional baking soda to help soften the beans and speed the cooking a bit. 
This soup will keep in the fridge for up to three days, and freezes well. 

118 comments

  • George

    5 stars
    I added celery and a bit of tomato paste when cooking the onions.

  • 5 stars
    Great soup that’s easy to make and true to the current day recipe. I couldn’t help but notice that somebody in the comments referenced the recipe with mashed potatoes. Supposedly, the original recipe from the early 1900s included mashed potatoes, and makes 5 gallons worth of soup. It also has celery and fresh parsley in it, along with onion and garlic, and of course ham. The lore around the senate bean soup has taken on a life of its own, and at this point, I’m not sure anybody knows what’s true and what isn’t, but I think we can all agree that this is a great soup.

  • 5 stars
    Oh my goodness! Eating this soup took me right back to my childhood. I’ve never eaten at the Senate, but my mother could cook like no other. and this tasted just like mom’s. Thank you for sharing!

    • Unpeeled

      What a wonderful comment, Susie. Thank you so very much for writing and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Barb Hiner

    5 stars
    Ate at the Senate. This tastes just like the soup we ate there in D.C. .GREAT!°

  • 5 stars
    I finally made this soup exactly as written and it was as delicious and filling as I expected it would be. However, after sitting in the refrigerator overnight it got terribly thick. Do you recommend just adding some water when reheating it to make it more “soupy”? Is that typical or should I just plan to add another cup of water the next time when making it to allow for that?

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Andi! So glad you liked it. Yes, bean soups have a way of thickening a lot when cold. It will loosen back up a little when heated, but I recommend adding a little water as well as you heat it. The amount will vary depending on how much you heat up at any given time. Add just a bit to start, then see if you need to dose it with more once it’s warmed. That way you don’t risk thinning it too much. Hope this helps!

  • Elizabeth

    5 stars
    Excellent soup recipe. Thank you very much. It is just as I remembered from the Senate dining room.

    • Unpeeled

      Thanks, Elizabeth! I am so glad you have personal memories of eating it in the Senate dining room like I do.

  • Dorothy Harper

    Very good for winter..I have had the soup in dc

  • I have my mother’s cookbook from the 70’s and was curious about the Senate Bean soup since an option was to use marrow beans & mashed potatoes. Also 1/2 bay leaf. In the end the soup (minus the ham) was to be put through a sieve or food processor and the served over the meat. Your recipe is simpler so I’ll go with it. 😉

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Stuart! That’s so interesting that her recipe called for using mashed potatoes and making the soup more of a purée. I hope you enjoy this recipe. I’d love to hear how it turns out.

      • I made your recipe since it was easier and besides I didn’t have saffron. I soaked the beans over night since I was interrupted just when I washed the beans, so I decided to soak them over night and pick up on it today, and it turned out very good. 😉 I will definitely make it again!

  • Patrice Peairs

    5 stars
    Absolutely fabulous recipe! Best bean soup I’ve ever made! Thank you!

  • Alan Richardson

    Don’t you soak the beans for 24 hours first? Then cook beans and ham hock together?

    • Unpeeled

      Great thought. You certainly could do that! I tried to adapt this recipe as closely as possible to the original Senate Bean Soup recipe, which does not do that. But you’re absolutely right that soaking beans in advance is a great and classic technique for softening dried beans and speeding up the cooking process.

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