One of the things I love about being Southern is having "brown beans" and cornbread for supper on a brisk fall day. I always do my beans in a slow cooker. I find it's much easier to control the temperature and there is less chance of cooking them dry than cooking them on the stove. (Although, I did once give my husband specific instructions to check my beans one afternoon when he was to get home from work well before me. He forgot and they cooked completely dry in the slow cooker and were actually starting to burn!)
When my husband and I first got married I struggled a bit with my beans. It wasn't so much I couldn't cook them, I struggled with getting the liquid quantities just right. Mine were always too soupy. But over the years I've practically perfected them, fortunately.
Start with a pound of brown beans to serve 6 people as an entree and pour your beans into the crock of your slow cooker. Sort through them, picking out any stones or shriveled up looking beans. Some batches will have lots. Some may not have any.
I like to soak my beans overnight. My grandmother always said soaking them several hours got the gas out of them. I don't know if that's true or not, but I do love hearing and remembering the old tales and theories about food. The beans swell a lot as they soak, so you'll want to pour enough cold water over them that they are covered by 4 or 5 inches of water. Set the crock back into the slow cooker, put the lid on and set it in a good out of the way place for 8 hours or overnight.
Once the beans have soaked, pour off all the water and give the beans a good rinse. You can do this by pouring more water into the crock and pouring it off or by dumping everything into a large strainer. Either way, once they are drained and rinsed, put them back in the slow cooker. Pour in enough water to just cover the beans plus about a half an inch. Plug in the slow cooker (you can't imagine how many times I've forgotten this step!) and set it to low.
Do not salt or otherwise season your beans yet. Let the beans cook for 5 or 6 hours on low, checking the water level occasionally. You want to still see some liquid in the crock when you peek through the lid. Resist the urge to lift the lid, as it will allow steam and heat to escape. If you need to add a little water, add hot water, give it a little stir, and replace the lid as quickly as you can.
After 5 or 6 hours, stir your beans and test for doneness. They should be firm but not crunchy. At this point you can add salt and pepper and about a cup of diced ham. This is an excellent use for leftover ham. Put the lid on and let simmer on low for another 4 or 5 hours.
Test for seasonings and salt and pepper if needed. Make up a batch of cornbread. If desired, dice some white onion to put on top of your bowl of beans. We dislike raw onion, so I don't do this, but it's very much a Southern tradition. Serve in big bowls.
Leftover beans freeze well, although they do tend to loose a little of their texture. If you don't make them with ham or you're willing to pick it out, you can also mash up the leftovers for refried beans. Or if you're at my house, eat them for lunch the next day too!