Ham and bean soup, made with white beans and pork, goes by many names: ham bone soup, navy bean soup, and Senate soup (the latter famously thickened with mashed potatoes) to name a few. Whatever you call it, countless versions abound. Some are brothy and keep the beans more or less intact, while others veer into creamy territory as the beans break down into the soup. My version borrows from both—combining aromatic vegetables, tender whole and puréed navy beans, fresh and dried herbs, and smoked ham hocks—to yield a comforting stew-like soup that’s packed with layers of flavor and texture.
Recipes for ham and bean soup run the gamut in terms of the type of white bean used, with navy, great northern, and cannellini all common. Ultimately, the bean you choose greatly influences the finished consistency. Out of the three varieties, cannellini and great northern beans retained their structure most, producing a soup with visible, prominent whole beans. Once blended, great northern beans, which have the firmest flesh of the three, yielded a soup with a slightly coarse and grainy texture. On the other hand, cannellini beans produced a creamier soup, but couldn’t hold a candle against my preferred choice—Navy beans, which have the softest flesh, break down the most, and give way to the richest, creamiest soup of the bunch.
To start, I opt for the quick soaking method and skip the tricks for speeding up the bean-tenderization time like adding baking soda to the pot—the ham hocks have to cook for a long time anyway, rendering a bean-cooking shortcut moot. They'll be cooked perfectly by the time the ham hocks are ready. While the beans soak, I sweat a medley of onion, carrots, celery, and garlic until softened to draw out their moisture and flavor. Once cooked, I scrape the vegetables into a bowl for later (this way they’ll add texture to the soup and remain tender, instead of becoming mushy, as everything simmers). Meaty, smoked ham hocks go into the pot next, along with the drained beans, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, and water. I keep the lid on for most of the cooking time to prevent the liquid from evaporating and reducing.
Once the beans are soft and tender, I reserve a portion of the beans, fish out the ham hocks and herbs, then blend a portion into a purée, which will contribute to the soup’s creamy consistency. An immersion blender makes quick work of it but a countertop blender will get the job done too. To finish, I stir in the reserved vegetables, beans, and meat from the hocks and let it all simmer together until the soup thickens and almost resembles a stew.
Finished with minced parsley leaves and freshly ground black pepper, this rich, hearty soup is undeniably satisfying. However, I’d argue it’s even better the next day. An overnight stint in the refrigerator will thicken it up quite a bit, making it even creamier than before.
In a 4-quart saucier, combine beans and 3 quarts (2.8L) water; season with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat, cover, and let soak for 1 hour. Drain and rinse beans; set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, carrots, and celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 60 seconds. Transfer vegetables to a small heatproof bowl; set aside.
In the same Dutch oven, add remaining 2 quarts (1.9L) water, along with thyme, parsley, bay leaf, and ham hocks. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover and cook until ham hocks are tender, about 1 hour.
Stir in beans and return to a gentle simmer, adjusting the heat if needed. Cover and cook, stirring halfway through, until beans are completely tender and meat is falling off the bones, about 2 hours. Discard thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Using tongs, transfer ham hocks to a cutting board and set aside until cool enough to handle, about 20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer 2 1/2 cups beans to a medium heatproof bowl; set aside.
Once ham hocks are cool, roughly chop meat using a sharp knife; discard skin, bones, and fat. Set aside.
Using an immersion blender, blend soup until smooth (if using a countertop blender, blend in batches, if necessary, and start blending at low speed before increasing to high, then return pureed soup to the pot). Add reserved beans, meat, vegetables back to pot, stirring to combine. Return to a gentle simmer, then cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and ham is heated through, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Divide soup among warmed bowls and sprinkle with parsley and pepper.
4-quart saucier, large Dutch oven, immersion blender or countertop blender
Make-Ahead and Storage
The soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. The soup will thicken after being refrigerated. If reheating, thin as needed with water to achieve desired consistency.