Homemade beans are not only yummy but, they also bring back fond memories.
As a kid, one of my favorite meals was Boston Baked Beans, Boston Brown Bread and steamed hot dogs. It wasn’t the most colorful meal, but on a cold, dreary day in New England, it hit the spot. In our family, beans were on the buffet at just about every family gathering and my grandmother Lucille was notorious for making a good batch. She even liked to add a side of thinly sliced raw onions mixed with a bit of white vinegar — the sweetness of the beans offset by the bite of vinegar and crunchiness of cold onion. Those old French Canadians. . .they knew good food!
In the 1930s and 1940s my relatives in the Fall River, Massachusetts area frequently used local bakers to cook their beans, especially during warm weather so they didn’t have to keep their ovens on for hours. While the ovens were still warm after bakery items were finished early Saturday morning, they popped in those bean pots, identified by an ID tag with the family’s name. Bakers tended to them all day, adding a little water to each pot as needed, and families picked them up late in the day. What a cool piece of history 🙂
What makes these Boston Baked Beans so flavorful is the use of molasses and salt pork. Since Boston was a trade route for rum in the Caribbean, and molasses is used to produce rum, Bostonians had easy access to it, so it ended up in bean pots across town. The challenge with molasses is the high level of sugar and calcium — great for keeping beans firm while cooking but, unfortunately, requiring extended cooking time (2-3 hours in a traditional oven). As for the salt pork, I imagine Bostonians had easy access to that too, since they cured the meat themselves. Whatever the history, the savory-sweet combination is a definite crowd-pleaser.
I think baked beans are best during cold weather because they warm up the whole house, and offer the most amazing aromas. I don’t make them often, but when I do, I love using my old bean pot. It was my mom’s, who received it as a wedding present, which means it’s more than 50 years old! Here’s a pic of all the good stuff in that old bean pot:
My husband, a native of Chicago, was fascinated by the whole bean-making process this week. He regularly asked when they’d be done and I regularly replied “When they’re ready.” When he finally tasted them, he exclaimed “These are delicious! I want more!”
My first spoonful tasted like a step back in time 🙂
- 1 lb. dry navy beans
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- 4 Tb. dark brown sugar
- ⅓ c. molasses
- 1 Tb. dry mustard (I sometimes use plain yellow mustard for extra tang)
- 1 Tb. ketchup (optional, but delicious)
- 2 tsp. salt (I used kosher)
- ¼ tsp. black pepper
- 1 small onion, quartered
- ½ quart hot bean water (see notes)
- ½ lb. salt pork, cubed (traditionally this is used raw but you can saute it for extra flavor)
- Rinse beans in a colander; remove any stones or bad beans.
- Transfer beans to a large bowl and cover with cold water. Allow to sit overnight (at least 8 hours), uncovered.
- Drain water and transfer beans to a large sauce pan. Cover with fresh water, mix in ½ tsp. baking soda, and simmer on low heat.
- After about 30 minutes, check a bean to see if it’s soft. If not, continue simmering, but check every 10 minutes or so.
- When beans are soft, remove from the cooking liquid (but don't toss it!) using a slotted spoon, transferring them to a 1-quart bean pot.
- Heat oven to 325 degrees.
- In a small bowl, whisk together brown sugar, molasses, mustard, ketchup (if using), salt and pepper; add to beans, along with about ½ quart of the cooking liquid (enough to just cover the beans).
- Place salt pork & onion on top of beans.
- Cover and place pot in the oven.
- Check beans after 1 hour. If still not soft enough, return to oven, but check every 10 minutes.
Note 2: if you don't have a bean pot, simply use a crock-pot. After soaking and pre-cooking the beans, toss all the ingredients into a crock-pot and set to about 8 hours. Keep an eye on them to ensure there's still enough liquid in the pot. If they start looking dry, simply add more bean water.