Our first adventure with Boston Baked Beans all started one day while sauntering down the back aisle at the grocery store. (We food blog types tend to saunter when surrounded by food.)
And out of the corner of my eye I spied salt pork. From a local (Kansas City) meat company. Calling to me from the refrigerated display case.
I stopped short when I spotted it and grinned. My wife raised one eyebrow and asked simply, “What?”
“I’m thinking New England. Baked beans. Maybe a fish chowder.”
You might remember, once upon a time I shared our version for a doctored-up baked beans, perfect for the picnic or the potluck.
Here’s how to do the beans without the cans!
Normally, I would start with bacon because salt pork is hard to find these days. Or at least, so I thought. Our local meat market butcher doesn’t bother with it (I’ve asked). Sure, I could buy pork belly and cure it myself, I suppose, but there’s a line there to be crossed and I probably won’t.
But there it was in the store and I got excited.
“But, Dad, you can buy baked beans. Good ones. Cheap. Even organic for people just like you and Mom.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“Baked beans aren’t supposed to be fun, Dad.”
First, I sat on the couch surrounded by the conflicting smells of old cookbooks and scribbled in my notebook.
My 1896 (replica edition) Fannie Farmer calls for one quart of pea beans soaked overnight. Pea beans?
“Hey Google, what are pea beans?”
The navy bean, haricot, pearl haricot bean, boston bean, white pea bean, or pea bean is a variety of the common bean native to the Americas, where it was domesticated. […] The term “Navy bean” is an American term coined because the US Navy has served the beans as a staple to its sailors since the mid-1800s. – Wikipedia
Perfect. Start simple: dried navy beans. I can do that.
But I decided to skip the overnight soaking – these beans weren’t very old and didn’t necessarily need it. I gave a few cups a good rinse in a colander, picked through for any stray debris (there was none), covered them in my pot with a couple inches of cold water, and let them simmer for 30 minutes beforehand.
My plan was to cook the beans at 300°F for about four hours. I could have pre-soaked them, added salt or a little baking soda, or even busted out a pressure cooker. But I’m not in a hurry. I like the way a slow-cooked dish scents the house, slowly, creeping up and down the staircases. Plus, it drives the cats crazy. In a good way, I think.
Oh, I have to tell you this. In that 1896 Fannie Farmer, it says:
Drain beans, throwing the bean-water out of doors, not in sink.
That just tickled me. My 1936 Boston Cooking School Cookbook (which I found for two dollars at a used book sale!) has the identical recipe but not that instruction. So, I’m guessing the improvements in plumbing over the intervening forty years were quite impressive.
Maple syrup was used before molasses became common, I learned from an old James Beard volume. Though, that must have been a time before my cookbooks. I stuck to the best I could determine traditional and historical method of making this.
While the beans were simmering away, I cut the salt pork into small pieces and dropped them into a small pan of boiling water for about five minutes, then rinsed them off in a colander. I learned that from Julia Child. Salt pork can be really, really salty. (I know, thank you, Captain Obvious.)
Then, beans and pork both into the pot and I stirred it well.
I whisked the seasonings into a cup of boiling water (to help thin out the molasses) and then poured it over top of the beans and pork. Once more, stir it all up well.
Add enough water to cover everything plus about an inch. Lots of water leeches out flavor, nutrients, and color from beans – although, these were white beans so that last one wasn’t as much of a problem.
Cover the pot and into the oven it goes.
I checked on it once an hour, tasted for doneness, gave the pot a good stir, and added a little water as need be. I didn’t adjust the salt along the way because I knew it would change as it cooked down.
Once done, there might still be a tiny bit of liquid left. Don’t worry, it will absorb in a few minutes while the pot cools. But if it bothers you, just spoon it off.
Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. You will not believe how good these are. Not as sweet as the canned ones tend to be. And there’s still a slight firmness and texture to the beans. The salt pork is like candy. All in all, just a great result.
By the way, beans reheat fabulously but if you decide to use a microwave, cover them, they tend to pop.
Boston Baked Beans
Boston Baked Beans are an American original which are easy and inexpensive to cook. And that homemade taste is well worth the time.
- 3 cups dried navy beans see notes
- 9 oz salt pork
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt or 1/2 tablespoon table salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ cup molasses, unsulphured more or less as desired
- 1 teaspoon mustard
Dice salt pork, blanch 5 minutes in boiling water, and rinse.
- Simmer dried beans in enough water to cover plus an inch or two for 30 minutes. Drain.
- Mix salt, sugar, molasses, and mustard in a bowl with a cup of boiling water.
- Add the beans and the pork to the baking pot. Pour the seasoning mixture over top. Stir well.
Add about two inches of water to cover the beans.
- Cook in a 300°F oven for about four hours or until beans are tender as desired. Stir once an hour during cooking and add additional water as needed.
- Taste first, then adjust seasoning as desired.
Basically, 1 cup of beans per quart of pot size, mine was 3 qt. Adjust other ingredients accordingly.