From the lumber camps of old to the family breakfast of the affluent, baked beans have graced our homes for centuries. It is quite simply one of the most perfect meals, from an economic standpoint to the “filling” aspect. The earliest mention of baked beans in my family was in the fall of 1786, when a certain Patrick Campbell canoed up the St. Croix River in Maine with an “Indian escort”. It began to rain while on their trip, so the two of them, along with Patrick’s pet dog, “beached” their canoe under a “sprawling birch tree” and sheltered themselves for a spell. Looking around when the rain let up somewhat, Patrick spotted a foot path. He inquired of his guide where it led, and his Native American friend mentioned that it led to the only settler in District 7(later Baileyville, Maine) by the name of Baillie. This was the phonetic spelling of Bailey used by the Scotsman Campbell.
To make a long story short, Patrick wrote in his diary that this Baillie was a man “of industry with a garden of great magnitude. We dined on baked beans and a small piece of pork which was not enough to feed his family and myself”.
There are many different favorite recipes for Baked Beans that have been handed down from one generation to the other but believe it or not, I would say over half of today’s population of the younger crowd have no idea how to bake beans, let alone what seasonings and ingredients go in it or even what type of beans to use. Allow me to give just a quick lesson in New England Baked Beans and offer a few different recipes for you to choose.
Let’s start with the dried beans. Firstly, let me tell you emphatically that you should never, NEVER boil beans, either to parboil or while cooking! You will always end up with mush and that is just plain uninviting.
Now the preparation of soaking. What does soaking beans overnight do? Simply put, it shortens the cooking time as well as helps to retain the nutrients and proteins so that the food value of the beans are maximized. Soaking beans, simply put, does NOT reduce these nutrients within the bean.
An old wives tale stating that soaking helps or eliminates the gas so often associated with baked beans is technically untrue. Certainly soaking does help to remove the oligosaccharides(indigestible complex sugars) but the association of these sugars and flatulence is a very thin veil indeed.
and one more substantial benefit of soaking beans would be to remove any dirt particles. Beans are a dirty lot and although machinery of today threshes and sifts the beans, they are not washed at the factory because moisture promotes mold, which in turn causes sprouting. Not to sound nasty but soaking also removes insect larva, rodent contamination, fertilizer or pesticide residues as well.
Types of beans one uses in New England Baked Beans vary as do the preparation methods. In order to truly stay authentically Yankee, yellow-eyes are the way to go. Now although I do love the meaty yellow-eyes, I have a favorite. That would be either the navy bean
or the Great Northern. Unlike the “yellow eye” found in yellow eyes, these two beans are minus the discoloration, being pure while. Navy (pea)beans are slightly smaller and more oval-shaped than the Great Northern. Other than those two differences, the choice is yours.
Jacob’s Cattle has been a favorite among many Downeast families as well but good luck finding these dried beans.
Regionally, Baked Beans have their own distinctive flavorings as well. In New Hampshire and Vermont, maple syrup is the choice for sweetening your crock, as opposed to molasses in other regions of New England. Brown sugar, onion and dry mustard is universal when it comes to adding even more flavor but the choice between protein differs. some families prefer bacon over salt pork while others are more contemporary, using flavored sausages, ham and other meats to “bulk” the old Saturday night supper. Find below the traditional Baked Bean supper as well as a Yanked version that I absolutely love, sorry Dad!
What to serve with Baked Beans? Brown bread of course. But if you find this New England sweet bread hard to find, just grab yourself a loaf of your favorite bread(even store-bought sliced) and start dipping! A great slab of grilled ham is always welcome, kept warm by the brown succulent liquid floating around you plate.
Classic New England Baked Beans
This recipe has not changed in over 80 years, being first served at the Bangor House(in Bangor, Maine) since the early 30s. My grandfather and father, the first and second Yankee Chefs, never deviated from this recipe. Why not? Because why fix something that isn’t broken?
1 pound yellow eye beans
1/2 pound salt pork
1/3 cup molasses
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 whole onion, peeled
3/4 cup brown sugar
Put beans in a large pot and cover with at least 3 inches of cold water. Let soak 12 hours or overnight. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 250-degrees F. Place the beans in a 4 quart Dutch oven or large pot with tight-fitting lid. Fill with enough water to cover beans by 3 inches. Add the remainder of ingredients, stir well and cover. Place in oven and simply let cook for at least 4 hours. Check every hour and stir to make sure the beans haven’t dried out.If you find the beans to be getting hard and the liquid has evaporated, add enough water until just level with the beans.
After the allotted time, remove from oven and test to make sure the beans are tender and the liquid has turned into a thick, aromatic broth. Enjoy!
About Ten 1-cup servings
1 pound Navy(Pea) beans
1/3 cup molasses
1 onion, peeled
1/2 pound hot Italian sausage, casing removed
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 ounce dark rum, optional
Put beans in a large pot and cover with at least 3 inches of cold water. Let soak 12 hours or overnight. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 250-degrees F. Place the beans in a 4 quart Dutch oven or large pot with tight-fitting lid. Fill with enough water to cover beans by 3 inches. Crush the sausage and add with the remainder of ingredients(leaving a half onion out), except rum, stir well and cover. Place in oven and simply let cook for at least 4 hours. Check every hour and stir to make sure the beans haven’t dried out.If you find the beans to be getting hard and the liquid has evaporated, add enough water until just level with the beans. when there is one hour left, add the rum, stirring well.
After the allotted time, remove from oven and test to make sure the beans are tender and the liquid has turned into a thick, aromatic broth. top with the other half of the onion minced before serving. Enjoy!
Many of you reading this post will remember that age old recipe using maple syrup in Baked Beans. The substitution of maple syrup in lieu of molasses in still truly authentic New England cuisine, and may be exchanged with the same measurements.
And as you are comparing my recipe with those online, you will often see many baked bean recipes using pork belly instead of salt pork. Want to know the major difference between the two? NOTHING!
If you would rather cook your beans in a crock pot instead of running your oven for such a length of time, by all means do so. Simply cover and cook on a low setting for about 6 hours, or until tender.
This has been a New England staple since records were kept, and definitely much longer. In wood camps of old, bean-hole beans were served at least once a day and were cooked in the ground. When an appropriate hole was dug, wood was burned until only the embers were left. The pot of beans, lid tightly closed, were set atop of these embers and the dirt was shoveled back on top. It was left to cook from morning till suppertime, when a long pole was “sewn” into the handle of the pot once dug out, and lifted out. There plainly is no substitute for bean hole beans, according to all three Yankee Chefs.
One more item of interest. Have any of you heard of a Boston Beanwich? Hahaha, my grandfather and father used to make them constantly for lunches through the week, of course after Saturdays feast of beans was over.
Butter one side of a slice of bread(my father always used whole wheat). Spread the unbuttered side with cold baked beans, crumbled some extra cooked, crumbled bacon on top and add some American or sharp Cheddar cheese. Cover with another buttered slice of bread and grill on both sides until hot, browned and the cheese has melted.
Oh, and don’t forget to serve these delicious leftover sandwiches with some sweet pickles.