Simple Boston Baked Beans
"I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday." Raymond Chandler
They don't call it Beantown for naught. For it was in Boston that the notion of mixing beans with molasses was conceived and still reaches the peak of perfection there.
Because beans can be dried and stored forever, they have been a popular source of protein for centuries. In France, stewed or baked beans reached their zenith in cassoulet, a recipe for beans baked in an earthenware pot with sausages, poultry, pork, and even pork skins. In Spain it was Alubias con Arroz, Beans and Rice, often perked up with chorizo, a spicy sausage, or another version without the rice called Fabada. In Portugal it is Feijoada, beans, beef, and pork stewed together. In Germany Westphalian Stew was built on with bacon and beans.
The Boston bean tradition may have been pilfered from native North Americans. The Penobscot tribe in Maine was known to cook beans by digging a hole in the ground, lining it with large rocks, heating them by starting a wood fire, and then placing a clay pot of beans in the hole, covering it with dirt, and letting it simmer for up to eight hours.
Boston became a major port of entry for goods to the colonies, and among the highest volume imports was molasses, dark cane sugar from the Caribbean. Nobody knows who had the bright idea of baking beans in a pot with salt pork and molasses, but the canned combo now occupies miles of shelf space in every American grocery. Well, you can buy it canned, with all the additives and artificial ingredients, or you can make it properly and to your taste from scratch, with real molasses. And it's easy.
These are not sweet, but you can make them sweet
The original Boston Baked Beans were baked in a earthenware pot, but it can be made in just about any pot or saucepan. The original recipe was sweetened with molasses, but the beans were not as sweet as you expect them to be, and I have stayed true to tradition with this recipe
Your kids are probably not gonna like the traditional original Boston Baked Beans recipe below because the dominant taste is, well, beans. Most of us are used to the sweet stuff. Here's how you can amp these up the way barbecue restaurants do. This is how the beans in the picture above were cooked.
Make the recipe below and then taste them. If you want them sweeter and richer, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sweet tomato based Kansas City style barbecue sauce. The exact amount will depend on the brand of sauce. Then taste again. Not sweet enough? Add brown sugar a tablespoon at a time. When it is just right, cook another 5 minutes.
Makes. About 4 servings of about 1 cup each
Preparation time. 1 hour
Cooking time. 2 to 3 hours
6 strips thick bacon or 1/4 pound pork fatback
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
2 (15 ounce) cans of Navy or pea beans
1/4 cup dark molasses
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
salt to taste
About the beans. If you use dried beans, use 1/2 pound and follow the instructions in my article The Science of Beans for soaking them. Plan on them taking hours to soften. Start soaking at least 24 hours before serving time.
Optional add-ins. At the beginning of the cook, add a pinch of cinnamon and/or a pinch of ground pwdered cloves. A teaspoon of lemon juice and/or some diced jalapeños just before serving can provide lift.
1) You can cook in a pot on a burner, in your indoor oven, in your smoker under the meat, or on your grill for 2-zone cooking. Whatever method, get a heavy pot with a lid.
2) Over the hot part of the grill, on the sideburner, or indoors on your stovetop, warm the pot and add the bacon, lid off. Cook the bacon until brown on both sides, but remove it before it is hard and crunchy and put it on some paper towels on top of some newspaper to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat and save it in the fridge for another day. If you are not using bacon and are using leftover barbecue meat, put 1 tablespoon of cooking oil in the pot first and hold the meat for now.
3) Add the onion and cook until it is limp, but not brown. The bacon residue on the bottom of the pan may get really dark. If this happens, add a few tablespoons of water to deglaze the bottom, and scrape off this flavorful fond with a wooden spoon. As the water evaporates, the onions will fry and sizzle.
4) Add 2 cups hot water or stock if you use canned beans. If you use dried beans that have been prepared according to my instructions in my article The Science of Beans, add 3 cups of hot water or stock to the pot with the onions. Dump in the beans, molasses, mustard, bay leaf, pepper, and bacon. If you are using leftover barbecue meat, add it now. Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil and cut it back to a simmer immediately.
5) Cooking time will be about 2 to 3 hours depending on several variables. Exact cooking time will have to do with the variety of bean, your grill, the weather, and other variables. If you used dried beans, cooking time will depend on how long you soaked. Regardless of method, stir regularly to make sure they don't stick and burn. If the beans begin to dry out, add water. If they are too watery, take off the lid and turn up the heat to evaporate water. Taste the beans to see if they're the right tenderness for you after about 1 hour if you used canned beans, and 3 hours if you used dried. If needed, when they are ready, you can turn the temp down to low and hold beans for hours. Just before serving, taste and add salt, pepper, barbecue sauce, or more molasses if you like.
On a grill. If you are cooking on a grill preheat it to 325°F in the indirect heat zone with the lid down and put the pot in the indirect side as far from the fire as possible. Every 30 minutes rotate the pot 1/4 a turn so one side is not always facing the heat, and stir, scraping the bottom, to prevent the beans from sticking to the bottom and burning.
On a stovetop. Put a cover on and turn the flame to just above low and simmer, don't boil, for 2 to 3 hours.
In the oven. Put the pot, cover on, on a middle rack and set the temp for 325°F.
Bake them below the meat. If you have a grill or smoker, put the beans uncovered in a pan in the indirect heat zone, below your ribs or pulled pork or beef brisket for about 3 hours at 225°F. They take a bit longer at the lower temp. A 6 x 8" disposable aluminum pan will work. Resting beneath the meats, the beans will collect flavorful, smoky drippings from the meat, laden with seasoning from the rub. Check and stir every 30 minutes or so to be sure they don't burn or dry out, and taste them to make sure they don't get too smoky. Depending on how smoky the atmosphere, you may want to cover the pan with foil after an hour or two so they don't get to smoky. Don't worry, it won't hurt the meat if you open the lid. You will probably need to add water occasionally.
This page was revised
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