A tradition in Maine of “bean hole” cooking may have originated with the native Penobscot people and was later practiced in logging camps. A fire would be made in a stone-lined pit and allowed to burn down to hot coals, and then a pot with 11pounds of seasoned beans would be placed in the ashes, covered over with dirt, and left to cook overnight or longer. These beans were a staple of Maine’s logging camps, served at every meal.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baked_beans
Full disclosure: I did not actually cook these in a pit in the ground, nor did I make a full 30 serving batch. I have a fairly small back yard, and don’t really want to create a fire pit in it, even if the ground wasn’t frozen. Maybe once the pandemic is over I will go dig a hole at my parents farm and invite a bunch of people over. I’ll probably need to find a bigger pot though.
So the bean hole is a long standing tradition in Maine, going back at least to the logging camps. Most sources say that European settlers developed baked beans from a cooking method they learned from the Native Americans, cooking the beans in a clay pot buried in a hole in the ground. There is of course not much in the way of source material on how native people were cooking prior to European contact, so there are people who say that’s inaccurate. It seems fairly logical that if your primary heat source is a campfire someone will fairly quickly discover that if you bury your pot of food with some coals it will keep cooking unattended for many hours more than food on an open fire will.
Anyway, whether or not they learned from the Native Americans, early settlers in New England and beyond used this method. If you’re trying to feed a camp full of hungry lumberjacks it’s an easy way to cook a giant pot of filling food without having to keep a close eye on it. Apparently traditional recipes called for eleven pounds of beans. That’s a big pot.
So besides baking in a hole in the ground, what’s the difference between these and the other baked bean recipes I’ve shared? Honestly, not a whole lot. I chose to put both molasses and maple syrup in this recipe, and I think that this balances out the flavors and may even be better than the pure maple New England baked beans recipe I shared last week. I also included some smoked pork as well as the salt pork. (The grocery store I went to didn’t have ham hocks, so I used a smoked pork chop)
But the biggest difference is the amount of water. Since you’ll be burying the pot you can’t add more water when things start to dry out, so you need to start with enough water for the whole cooking time. Even though I was cooking in the oven and could have checked them periodically, I just put about an inch of water over the beans to start with and ignored them for 4 ½ hours. Because they are fully submerged and covered for the whole time the beans don’t get as dark as my other baked beans recipes. This batch wound up slightly soupier, but not in a bad way, and I don’t know how 8-12 hours buried in the ground vs. the shorter time in the oven would effect that.
After last week’s crunchy beans fiasco, I par-cooked the beans here. Fully cooked beans are definitely more enjoyable to eat.
If you actually want to cook your beans in a hole, here’s what I’ve gathered about the process.
Obviously you’ll need a heavy duty iron pot with a tight lid that will stand up to a little abuse- you are going to be putting it directly in the fire and burying it. If you don’t have a traditional bean pot, my choice would be a non enameled, cast iron, dutch oven with a bail type handle. Something like this.*
Your hole wants to be at least 1 ½ times the size of your pot. You’ll want at least 6 inches of dirt on top when you bury it, plus several inches of coals on all sides. Lining the hole with some fist sized rocks or old scrap metal (a number of people suggested old chains) will help hold extra heat. Try not to use rocks that have been submerged in water (i.e. river rocks), as they can have water trapped inside and explode when heated.
A few hours before you want to bury your bean pot, start a fire in the hole. It can take 3-5 hours or more to build up enough coals to surround your pot. The larger the pot, the longer it will take. Using wood 2-3 inches in diameter will create coals the fastest. Larger logs will take longer to burn down, while smaller ones will burn up too fast.
You want the beans to go into the hole boiling hot, so use boiling water and wait until the coals are ready to add it to the beans. Sealing the pot with a layer or two of foil under the lid will help prevent dirt or ashes from getting into the beans if the lid is accidentally moved in the process fo burying or digging up the pot.
Use a shovel to remove about ⅓ of the coals from the hole. Nestle the pot down into the remaining coals and put the rest back on top and around the sides. Then fill the hole with dirt and pack it down. There should be at least six inches on top of the pot. If you see steam escaping, add more dirt. If rain is in the forecast you might want to put a tarp or piece of sheet metal over the bean hole.
A small pot beans should be ready in 8-10 hours. Those big 11 pound batches for the logging camps could take 24 hours or more.
Maine Bean Hole
Prep: 15 minutes hands on + 45 minutes boiling.
Dig hole and tend fire: 4+ hours
Bake: ~12 hours.
Total: Allow 24 hours, plus soaking time.
9 cups dry beans (great northern, yellow eye, navy, pea, marfax, soldier, Jacob’s cattle…)
1 ⅔ lbs. salt pork
3 onions, quartered
1 ham hock
1 ⅓ cup molasses
1 ⅛ cup maple syrup
2 Tablespoons dry mustard
8 teaspoons kosher salt
2 ½ teaspoons black pepper
½ cup butter
1 ⅞ teaspoons ground ginger
⅜ teaspoon dry thyme
Pick over your beans and remove any damaged beans, stones or other foreign objects. Rinse the beans thoroughly and cover with 3-4 inches of cold water. Leave to soak overnight.
Meanwhile, dig a hole about 1 ½ times the size of your pot- you will want at least 6 inches of soil on top when you bury it, plus a couple inches of coals on all sides. Line the sides with some fist sized rocks or old scrap metal to retain heat. Three to four hours before you intend to start baking the beans, build a fire in the hole. Using 2-3 inch diameter wood will create coals faster than larger logs, and your goal is to have at least 6 inches of hot coals.
Once your fire is going good, drain the beans and cover with fresh water. Bring to a boil on the stove, and simmer for about 45 minutes. To test if they are ready, take a few on a spoon and blow on them, as though you were trying to cool them down to taste them. If the skins split and curl back they are ready. Drain the beans.
Slice the salt pork ¼ – ½ inch thick and spread it on the bottom of your dutch oven. Add the onion pieces and the ham hock and cover with the beans. Mix molasses, maple syrup, mustard, salt and pepper and stir into the beans.
When the coals are ready, add boiling water to the beans to cover by about an inch, cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil, and put the lid on.
Shovel about 1/3 of the coals out of the hole, and discard any large pieces of burning wood that have not turned to coals. Carefully lower your pot of beans into the hole and shovel the coals back around the sides and top. Cover with soil, packing it down tightly, and cover with a tarp or piece of metal if rain is in the forcast. Leave to cook overnight, or at least 8 hours.
The next day, carefully dig up the beans and serve. If the beans seem too dry, add a little hot water and allow to sit for a few minutes.
To cook indoors, place the pot of beans in a 300F oven for about 4 ½ hours.
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