Baked beans are one of the oldest “American” foods. Native Americans were slow cooking beans with bear fat and maple syrup before European colonists arrived, and likely taught the Pilgrims, or other very early settlers. You’ll find slight variations on the recipe in different parts of New England. The variety of bean and the sweetener might vary from place to place. Some people add tomato products. Some people swear by salt pork, others bacon.
Boston baked beans probably aren’t the grand daddy of them all, but they are the most widely known version. Boston is, after all, called “bean town” (although my understanding is no self respecting Bostonian would ever call it that- the name was the result of a marketing campaign or something) In the 18th and 19th century Boston was one corner of the “triangle trade”, which brought slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, to harvest sugarcane which was then turned into molasses and shipped to Boston to be turned into rum, which was then shipped back across the ocean and traded for more slaves. Molasses became the sweetener of choice in Boston.
My research shows that a truly classic batch of Boston baked beans contains beans, molasses, salt pork and maybe an onion and some mustard. I did sneak a couple extra ingredients into my recipe; some garlic and a bay leaf to add flavor when par-cooking the beans, and a touch of cloves, which work well with molasses. Feel free to omit those if you are a purist.
When you cook beans with molasses there is some chemistry that takes place that causes the cellular structure of the beans to stiffen up, so it takes an extra long time to cook them. Traditionally everything would be thrown in the pot on Saturday evening and left to stew on the edge of the hearth all night, to be ready for Sunday dinner without having to cook on the sabbath. In the modern world we don’t usually have a fire burning all night, so most recipes now call for par cooking the beans before you add the rest of the ingredients. We still wind up with a 4 ½ hour bake time, but most of that is about flavor building rather than softening the beans.
For many families in New England through the 20th century Saturday supper was traditionally baked beans, hot dogs, and Boston brown bread. Brown bread is another dish with roots in our earliest colonial times. Settlers mixed barley, rye or wheat flour with cornmeal, and lacking ovens would steam the batter, creating brown bread. I suspect the “Boston” name comes from the use of molasses again. My mother’s family has roots in New England, and she used to occasionally make baked beans and brown bread when I was a child, and it’s a meal I remember fondly, so I was excited to rediscover it.
Boston Baked Beans
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 5 ½ hours
Total: 5:45 plus soaking time
2 cups dry navy beans
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt
½ lb. salt pork, cut into ½” pieces
½ lb. slab bacon, cut into ½” pieces
1 onion, diced
6 Tablespoons molasses
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 ¾ teaspoons dry mustard
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/3 cup brown sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
3 ⅔ cups bean cooking liquid
¾ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
½ cup ketchup
1 ¼ Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ carrot, whole, cooked with beans, removed before baking
2 sprigs thyme, cooked with beans, removed before baking
1 pinch baking soda when cooking beans
¼ cup white sugar
Pick over beans and remove any discolored or broken beans or foreign objects. Rinse, drain, and cover with cold water by several inches and leave to soak overnight.
Drain beans and place in a heavy dutch oven or other oven proof pot with a tight fitting lid. Add water to cover by about 2 inches, garlic, bay leaf and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until beans are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove garlic and bay leaf and drain beans, reserving cooking liquid.
Preheat oven to 350 F
If your salt pork has a visible layer of salt on it, rinse it off before chopping. Place 1/2 of the salt pork or bacon, and all of the onion in the bottom of the dutch oven. Add the beans, and put remaining pork on top.
Mix molasses, pepper, mustard, brown sugar, cloves and 3 ⅔ cups of reserved bean cooking liquid. Pour over beans. Add additional bean cooking liquid to just cover beans. Put the lid on the pan and bake for about 4 ½ hours, checking every 45 minutes to 1 hour and adding additional bean cooking liquid (or boiling water if you run out) to keep beans barely submerged. Do not stir. Remove lid and stop adding liquid for the last hour of baking. When done the beans should be fully cooked, the top should be nicely browned (even a little crusty), and the sauce should have thickened to a nice glaze on the beans and pork.
Add the vinegar and mix everything together. If they beans are too dry add a little water. If too wet you can bring them to a boil on the stove and reduce for a few minutes until the sauce reaches your desired consistency.
Alternatively, you can cook the baked beans in a slow cooker on low for about 10 hours. I would put all the pork on the bottom layer if doing it this way.