If you’re from New England, chances are good you grew up with oven baked beans. There’s a brand that’s emblematic of that heavenly dish – beans from the B&M company. As good as they are, those are canned, and we can do much better at home, from scratch.
Boston is known as Bean Town, and one of B&M’s venerable offerings is their Boston Best version, so you wouldn’t be out of line assuming that the company is based there – but it’s not. Way back in 1867, George Burnham and Charles Morrill got together in Portland, Maine to start a canning company. They’re still at it right there, at 1 Bean Pot Circle. Their beans are still slow cooked in brick ovens, and they’re still damn good canned beans.
Beans came to New England colonists via the natives, who taught them to plant them as the Three Sisters, with corn and squash, a scheme that enriches soil, mutually supports, and discourages weeds and pests. Baked beans naturally followed, especially as a sabbath meal that kinda cheated, by cooking them Saturday night so they’d still be hot the next day.
Baked beans became specifically a Boston thing in the late 1700’s, when the town was a major rum producer and exporter – molasses was used to make rum, and it also made great beans. A fair amount of salt pork also moved the through town, headed for ships stores and provided by local farmers. Thus a legendary dish was born.
A traditional New England baked bean sports major notes of pork and molasses, with minors of onion, garlic, mustard, and smoke. Tomatoes were generally accepted as food around the middle of the eighteenth century, and gradually found their way into baked bean recipes. Plenty of other herbs and spices are fantastic there too – The ever musical parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are great starting points for further exploration.
As for the bean itself, you’ll find plenty of advice to the effect that Navy beans are the only proper one to use, but that’s bunk. Navy and Great Northerns were and are used by canners because they hold up well to cooking, canning, and long term storage. While New Englanders appreciate those characteristics, they also like a little variety in the garden. Baked beans were and are still made with other local heirloom varieties, like Soldier, Yellow Eye, or Jacobs Cattle. If you’d like to try those out, Green Thumb Farms of Fryeburg, Maine will sell you some.
With a recent resurgence in heirloom bean cultivation, you can and should do some sleuthing and find new favorites – Check out your local scene to see what’s being grown around you. Online, Rancho Gordo is the place for stunningly delicious beans. If you prefer Navy or Great Northern, I highly recommend Camellia as a source.
A very common complaint about home made baked beans centers on bitterness. It’s assumed that the problem is not enough sweetener, and most folks simply throw more brown sugar at the mix, but that’s not really a solution. Too much sugar disrupts the delicate balance of flavors, and I n any event, the problem probably lies in the molasses you’re using.
Dark and blackstrap molasses dominate in stores, enough that many of us don’t know there are other options out there. Frankly, neither of those is what you want in your beans. Blackstrap molasses is boiled three times, resulting in a very thick, dark, bitter product. While it’s relatively high in vitamins and minerals, it’s absolutely not good at all for cooking. Dark molasses is twice boiled, meaning it’s still pretty bitter.
What you want is light molasses, also called sweet, first, mild, or Barbados – That’s the stuff that will produce great baked beans in your kitchen, and it’ll do well in just about any recipe calling for molasses. Sulphured molasses, by the way, means it was treated with sulphur dioxide as a preservative – and yes, you can taste that, so, look for unsulfered on the shelf. Grandma’s brand, which is fairly ubiquitous, is light if it’s the original yellow label version – their ‘robust’ green label is dark.
What pork to use? Anything with a good fat content will do. Bacon, belly, fat back, and salt pork all come to mind, and there’s nothing wrong with sausage if you like that best. Whatever you choose can go raw into this recipe, so long as it’s cut fairly small – It’s going to have plenty of cooking time.
I get powdered smoke from Butcher and Packer, and it rocks – it’s 100% natural and can’t be beat. They have hickory and mesquite. If you must, you can use liquid smoke, but I find that stuff pretty harsh.
Mixteca salt comes from Rancho Gordo and is amazing stuff. It’s mined in Puebla, and has a high bicarbonate content – Added at the beginning of cooking, (I do so after the brief initial boil), it will soften your beans appreciably. It ably replaces baking soda, which imparts a taste I don’t care for at all.
What to bake your beans in? If you’ve got clay or earthenware, that’s a top choice – It imparts a subtle note you can’t get elsewhere, and is hard to describe if you’ve never experienced it. Barring that, a really heavy vessel like cast iron that will really hold heat will work great.
My recipe isn’t a classic anything, and frankly, there’s no such thing – Everybody’s Mom and Gramma did things their own way and so should we. This is what I love best when I make New England baked beans. Try it, and then tweak it to make it your own favorite.
Urban’s New England Baked Beans
1 Pound Dry Beans
1/2 Pound Bacon, Belly, Fat Back, or Sausage
1 small Sweet Onion
2 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Cup Light Molasses
1/4 Cup Agave Nectar
6 0z. can Tomato Paste
2 teaspoons Dry Mustard
1teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1 teaspoon powdered Smoke
2 Turkish Bay Leaves
Pinch Rancho Gordo Mixteca Salt
In a single mesh strainer, rinse beans and check for stones, (I’ve never found one in any Rancho Gordo bean package, but you should always check)
In a heavy sauce pot over medium high heat, add beans, bay leaves, and at least 2” of water above bean level.
ALWAYS maintain at least 2” of water above cooking bean level. Have a kettle ready to go for hot water to add as needed.
Bring beans to a boil for 10 minutes, then add a pinch of Mixteca salt and reduce heat to the barest simmer you can achieve – you literally want a lazy bubble now and again and nothing more.
Simmer beans until they are al dente – not done, but not tooth breaking hard. Cooking time varies depending on the variety you use.
Peel, trim and fine dice onion.
Peel, trim and mince garlic.
Dice whatever pork you’re using.
When beans are al dente, pour them carefully into a single mesh strainer over a stock pot, reserving the bean broth.
Preheat oven to 300° F and set a rack in the middle position. NOTE – If you’re cooking in clay, do not preheat your oven, start with it cold.
In a large mixing bowl, combine onion, garlic, tomato paste, agave nectar, salt, pepper, smoke powder, and dry mustard. Stir well to fully incorporate.
Add beans to the bowl, along with 2 cups of bean broth. Stir well to fully incorporate. You want a very soupy mix, far wetter than you want your finished beans, so add more liquid if needed to achieve that.
Transfer the bean blend to your cooking vessel, and slide that bad boy into the oven.
Cooking time will be at least 3 hours and may be longer. Check beans and give a stir after the first hour, and then about every 30 minutes.
If your beans look too dry, add bean broth 1/2 cup at a time and stir well to fully incorporate.
Beans are done when they’re tender, bubbling nicely, and at the consistency you like – some go for a wetter bean, some drier – do what you like best.
Serve nice and hot, and accept the myriad accolades from your adoring diners.