The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

How Do You Bake Your Beans?

January 13th, 2009 · 9 Comments · Posted in Recipes

Boston baked beans and steamed brown bread spread with Philadelphia cream cheese. Isn’t this a dinner we all grew up with?

The memory leaped to mind when I went searching for bean recipes yesterday. It’s high time The Slow Cook gives more attention to legumes, meaning dried beans of one sort or another. Beans are packed with nutrition, and one of the best sources of calories. No fat, lots of fiber. What more could you ask for? Plus, you can easily grow them in your home garden, even right here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House.

I cracked open my copy of The Bean Bible, by Aliza Green. It’s overflowing with excellent background information about beans. Unfortunately, the first three recipes I tried were failures in one way or another. Not by a little. By a lot. Green’s recipe for Boston-style baked beans, for instance, took me at least 10 hours to cook. There was simply too much liquid in it. Mea cupla for assuming that a “bean bible” is actually the last word. I have since returned to my library and done some additional research.

Fact or fiction: Beans need to be soaked before cooking.

Some cooks insist on soaking beans to make them more digestible,or simply to reduce the cooking time. I usually soak mine overnight. Green advocates a hot soaking and a pre-cooking process, wherein 1 pound of Great Northern beans are brought to a boil in 8 cups of water and cooked for 2 minutes, then taken off the heat and allowed to soak for 1 hour. The beans are then drained, covered with another 8 cups of water, brought to a boil and simmered for 1 hour. All this before any other ingredients are added. Meanwhile, The New Best Recipe, the kitchen tome put out by Cook’s Illustrated, says their numerous trials showed that soaking or pre-cooking is completely unnecessary.

Fact or fiction: Salt added too early to beans will toughen the skin, preventing them from absorbing liquid.

Aliza Green contends that both salt and sugar have the toughening effect. Hence her convoluted process of pre-soaking and pre-cooking her beans. Harold McGee, meanwhile, writing in his seminal On Food and Cooking, says salt does slow the absorption rate somewhat, but that beans pre-soaked in salted water actually cook faster. Furthermore, acids and sugars strengthen the cell walls of beans. Hence molasses–with its classic mix of acid and sugar–is particularly good at helping beans keep their shape during a long cooking process.

Boston baked beans traditionally start with a small white bean (smaller than Great Northern, but that’s what I had in my pantry), along with molasses, dark brown sugar, dry mustard and salt pork. These are all classic ingredients that permeate the cuisine of New England. How to finish the beans becomes a matter of taste, and deciding how much of each ingredient to use.

The baked beans I made following Aliza Green’s instructions eventually turned out fine–a dense mass of dark beans with a strong molasses flavor. They were much closer to the baked beans I remember from childhood than the beans from a can of Bush’s Boston Recipe Baked Beans, which to me tasted like ordinary beans. (But then Bush’s Beans hail from Tennessee. What do they know about Boston baked beans?) You can see the difference in this photo–my beans on the right, Bush’s beans on the left.

I like the Best Recipe approach, which offers some simple refinements to the classic recipe. For instance, they added diced onion for flavor (Aliza Green calls for placing a whole onion studded with cloves in the bean pot). Also, they suggest cubing the salt pork and browning it before mixing it with the beans. Again, more flavor, compared to the traditional method of simply laying a scored slab of salt pork on top of the beans. They prefer using prepared mustard rather than dry mustard on grounds that most home cooks are more likely to have a jar of prepared mustard on hand. And they like a bit of cider vinegar added to the mix to cut the sweetness of the molasses.

So where does that leave us? I’m not exactly sure, since I liked the end result of Aliza Green’s method, but I would gladly incorporate some of the suggestions from Best Recipe. If you pre-cook the beans as described above, proceed by lightly browning 6 ounces salt pork, trimmed of any rind and cut into small cubes, at the bottom of a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add 1 onion, finely diced, to the pot and cook until the onion is soft, another 8 minutes or so. Remove from heat, skim off excess fat and reserve.

In a large bowl, mix 3/4 cup molasses with 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons prepared brown mustard, such as Gulden’s, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper and 4 cups water.

Pour the prepared beans into the pot with the salt pork and onion. Mix well. Add the molasses mixture,which should easily cover the beans. If not, add more water. Cover the pot and place it in a pre-heated 300 degree oven and cook for about five hours, or until the beans are almost cooked through, adding water to the pot from time to time as needed. Remove the lid, stir the beans, and continue baking until the beans are completely tender and all of the liquid has been absorbed or cooked off. What you should have is a thick muddle of beans, not a sloppy bean soup. If necessary, continue baking with the lid off until any excess liquid is eliminated. Finally, stir in a tablespoon of cider vinegar.

If you do not pre-cook the beans, Best Recipe calls for adding 9 cups of water to the molasses mix and cooking for 4 hours, then removing the lid and baking another 1 hour.

Note: Cooking times for these baked beans are all over the map. I consulted all of my New England cook books, as well as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Farmer, a real person, ran the Boston Cooking School for a time around the turn of the 20th Century). Most call for a cooking time of six or seven yours. Be your own judge.

But enough of how I bake my beans. Let’s return to the original question: How do you bake yours?

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at steamed brown bread. It’s hard to beat the stuff out of a can for childhood memories. But if you can’t find it at the store, you can make your own.

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  • Skud

    Here’s how I baked mine, just recently:

    I didn’t grow up anywhere near Boston, so can’t speak to their authenticity, but they sure were tasty!

  • foodhoe

    what an interesting combination, I have never had real boston baked beans nor have I had steamed brown bread, so it’s hard to imagine the concept.

  • eatclosetohome

    Cooked white beans, topped with a raw diced onion and freehand blobs of molasses, ketchup, mustard, and dried mustard powder. Bake uncovered for 1 hour.

    I have no luck cooking raw beans if I don’t soak them first.

  • Charlotte at Great Big Veg Challenge

    I have made these once – they were delicious.
    Now I will make them again – for the food flask lunches that the children take to school.
    In the UK Heinz baked beans are very popular – but once you try your recipe they will seem a very pale imitation….
    I have never heard of steamed brown bread…post, post haste!!

  • Chris

    I do mine Boston Baked Beans Julia-style, from The Way to Cook.A Yankee in a Southern Kitchen wrote about how see reduced the cooking time from 16 hours to 8 by pre-cooking, here:

    Most of the time when I’m cooking beans, I soak them overnight, but for this recipe, I follow Julia’s suggestion and just start them the night beforehand in the slow cooker going to bed and wake up to the most amazing aroma.

  • Ed Bruske

    Skud, thanks for the link. You are very lucky living in the vicinity of Rancho Gordo, known for its fabulous beans. They also have a great blog that I link to on the right-hand side. I like the looks of your recipe–more southern or southwestern.

    foodhoe, Boston baked beans and steamed brown bread grew up in New England, but somehow we knew about them in the Midwest. They may be an acquired taste, if you aren't used to sweetness on your dinner plate. Nice looking pork roast on your blog….

    eat, you have an interesting shorthand technique. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea of baked beans cooked in one hour. I think part of the charm with the Boston baked variety is the gooey mess of beans you get cooking them all day.

    Charlotte, that's so amusing you have the Heinz bean variety there. I didn't see it at our local supermarket. There used to be a New England company that made baked beans but the name is escaping me–B & M beans?–and I didn't see them either. I wonder if they still exist. We used to see their factory from the highway passing through Portland, Maine. I will be getting to the brown bread presently.

    Chris, I looked at your post–spot on. I'm glad to hear others are cooking their beans interminably. I will go find Julia's recipe right now. Until you mentioned it, it had not occurred to me that she might have written about baked beans. But she did live a long time in Boston….

  • Janet

    I’ve made the hot and smokey baked bean recipe from Smitten Kitchen’s blog, which I prefer to traditional baked beans as it’s not just sweet:

    But my friend’s Portuguese mother makes The Best baked beans ever, with chorizo (a Portuguese sausage) and lots of onion. Man, it’s just great. Not so much healthy, but delish.

  • Jennifer

    Organic tomato juice, brown sugar, chunks of bacon (salt pork is almost impossible to find in our neck of the woods) diced onion, mustard powder and 2 large, tart baking apples, finely diced. Presoaked and or boiled depending on your preference. Slow cooked in a crockpot, or in a slow oven for the better part of a day:)
    I have spent the day reading your blog, and I have to say, I LOVE IT!

  • Ed Bruske

    Jennifer, I’m blushing. And thanks for the baked beans tips.