In The Land of The Bean – Boston Baked Beans
I love complicated, traditional, wholesome recipes that take a long time to prepare, especially those that involve stewing meats or legumes in sauces. Today I am going to write about an old New England favorite Boston Baked Beans and I’m not talking about the ones in a tin can, I’m talking about the ones that take time and love to create, the ones that will make people respect, adore and worship you after you serve them on a Saturday night.
Why Boston Bake Beans you may ask? Well, today I emailed a friend who I knew in New York and who recently moved to New England and I told her she must make homemade Boston Baked Beans in order to be a true New England Yankee. I wrote this to her in an email as if I were a true Yankee Doodle Dandy myself. Although born and raised in Boston, I was showing off to my friend because the truth is, my mother who made many things from scratch when I was a child, never made homemade Boston Baked Beans. In fact the first time I had homemade Boston Bake Beans was when I made them myself back in 1996 when I was living at home the summer I finished graduate school. Since then I make them about three times a year and it is a grand event equivalent to when I make my French Country Pate. (And I will insist again, as I have in past blogs, I am not a food snob, I despise food snobs, they scare people away from the good food we should all be enjoying and eating and I fear that when I say, “Pate” some people will get intimidated and go running. Perhaps I should say French Meat Loaf? Back to the Boston Baked Beans.
There is quite a history to Baked Beans, the Irish have their version and so do the Brits, Maine and Quebec have there’s too. Go on Wikipedia and find out about their versions if you wish. I’m here to tell you about the best version, the most popular one, Boston Bake Beans, after all, I’m from Boston and it would only seem appropriate. But given the fact Boston Bake Beans are so mad good that even if I were from let’s say, Rhode Island, I’d rather eat and make the ones that I consider cover all of New England, Boston Bake Beans. In any case, we don’t boast here in Boston, but the fact is, we are the spine of New England.
My father said his mother made bake beans and I bet they were terrific. My Grandmother Emily was an excellent cook and like most foodies and chefs I was influenced by my two grandmothers. Although Grandmother Emily was 100% Italian, she resembled in her looks what most people would think a stereotypical Yankee woman would look like rather than a stereotypical Italian woman who traditionally dressed head to toe in black attire. Grandmother Emily was tall, had gray curly hair, always poised and reserved, she wore an apron as she worked methodically around her kitchen that I must add had a kitchen pantry. (God, I love kitchen pantries) One would think because of Grandmother Emily’s physique, aura and love of food that she had a good dash of Julia Child in her soul. Perhaps that is way I love Julia Child so very much. Grandmother Emily loved to make “American food” as she called it and my mother said she made the best fried sea scallops. My Aunt Florence said Grandmother Emily could boil potatoes and meat like the best of them. I devoured her hamburger turkey stuffing every third Thursday in November. On every George Washington Birthday she made Boston Cream Pie and on the Fourth of July she made salmon cakes with peas. My second cousin Frannie said she made the best cod cakes and my Dad said her boiled ham shoulder was to die for. And yet she could cook a mean Italian dinner, I loved her pizza and Braciole (rolled, stuffed meat) and her lentils are legionary. But I am losing myself here, back to the beans. I was lucky enough to have tasted for my first 37 years of life most of my Grandmother Emily’s cooking, but regrettably I never had her Boston Bake Beans. When I made them two years before she passed away at the age of 97 I brought her some and she told me after eating them that she made them quite often as a young mother. She said, like always, I was a “fancy and educated cook” and that when she cooked she, “only put things together and hoped for the best”. Not so, none of it, she was from the generation that when you cooked, it was an all day affair, an affair to remember. She was the fancy cook.
My mother bought bake beans in a can and served them with our Saturday night hot dogs. My Dad, brother and I were the only ones who ate them and my sisters frowned upon them. Well, after making my own baked beans for the last fifteen years, I frown upon canned bake beans too and soon so will you. Simply put, making your own bake beans is worth the time and effort. They are magnificent.
You don’t need a bean pot to make Boston Bake Beans, you can be modernistic and use an electric crock pot, I guess, but I’d be pretty disappointed if I found out. I don’t like those electric baked bean crock pot recipes, you see, sometimes I am a traditionalist and not to be too literal but they are called “baked” beans for a reason. Hello, they’re not called electric crocked beans. Also there’s a special “Boston Bake Bean Pot” you can use to make your beans in and I think this fact alone is incredibly exciting! And about 8 times out of 10 you can find a Boston Bake Bean pot in a Goodwill or at a yard sale and definitely on E-bay. I have two that I proudly display in my kitchen. If you can’t find a Bean Pot you can use a casserole dish with a cover or use a Le Creuset pot. The great teacher and queen of all good things, Martha Stewart has a version of Le Creuset Pots available at Macy’s they are always on sale and I think a nice less expensive substitute to a Le Creuset pots. But really, find a Bean Pot, it’s very exciting and people will be impressed, I know I would be, plus it is all part of the big bake bean adventure. Imagine how nice it would be to say to your friend Louise, if you had a friend named Louise or any friend for that matter,
“Oh, Louise, today I went looking everywhere for a Boston Bake Bean Pot and I finally found one! Would you like to come over this Saturday for some homemade Bake Beans?”
See how nice that sounds. If Louise had any good sense she would jump at the invite.
Here are some tips when making Boston Bake Beans. Some recipes say to use salt pork, yes, it’s traditional and yes it is true that after salt pork stews in the sugary sauce for five hours it becomes a soft and sinful tiny square pillow of deliciousness. Yet the flavor is not as good as when you use bacon, yes I said B-A-C-O-N. Okay, I’ll give you permission to not be traditional on what fat you use in your Boston Bake Beans. Hey, as far as I am concerned, you can even use both fat products if you wish, God knows I would. My motto has always been, the more fat the better. As far as what kind of bacon to use, you can use the sliced stuff or you can use the expensive slab bacon the butcher cuts, ask for a hunk and cut it into cubes.
Also, make sure you soak the dry navy beans overnight and when you boil them the next day put baking soda in the water. It’s a bit messy and you have to skim off the white thick foam that forms on top, I think it is called “scum” I’m not kidding. Trust me, it’s worth boiling the beans in water and baking soda and whoever you live with will thank you. —Okay, I’ beating around the bush very quickly said, if you boil them in baking soda, you won’t have gas. Well, enough of that!
As the Boston Bake Beans bake in your oven your house will smell like an old Yankee kitchen. I advise to periodically uncover them, check their liquid, talk to them, love them, invest time in them, BUT DO NOT STIR THEM as they are baking! And please proudly know you are making something rich in history and not taking the slothful short cut and using a tin can brand. Rejoice in the rich scent that will perfume your house; the sweetness from the brown sugar and molasses, the tartness from the mustard, and smokiness from the bacon, trust me when I say all these wonderful basic ingredients create a smell like no other, your home will have a warm inviting smell or let’s call it a nostalgic smell shall we?. And by the way, a dry bag of navy beans cost a buck, one buck! Besides the cost, it’s a fun Saturday project. Remember to soak your beans on a Friday night for use Saturday morning and by 5pm, you’ll be calling me your new best friend, I promise.
Buy some good quality hot dogs from the deli counter or pork chops or make homemade cod cakes and serve them with your homemade Boston Bake Beans. I will allow you to buy the brown bread, but hell, if you want to make some Boston Brown Bread go for it (traditional Boston Brown Bread is a dense, somewhat sweet bread made with raisins and molasses, and steamed rather than baked. It’s usually cylindrical, from being steamed in a can) Personally, Brown Bread seems like it would be interesting to make, perhaps this week I’ll try it. Anyway, if you have any leftover beans serve them with eggs in the morning just like the old Boston Yankees do or did? Does anyone know if they still exist those Cabots’ and Lowells’ and did they really eat bake beans in this land of the Bean and the Cod?
I found the below recipe on line. This is the one I use. To this, if you wish, add a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce and a half cup of Ketchup.
- 1 pound dry navy beans
- 6 cups water
- pinch of baking soda
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 strips bacon, cut in 1/2-inch pieces (traditionally salt pork is used, and if desired 4 ounces can be substituted for the bacon)
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Soak the beans in the 6 cups of water overnight in a large bowl
In the morning, drain and place in a pan with fresh water. Add a tablespoon of baking soda and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Skim off the top of foam. Drain the beans. They are not going to be fully cooked. Just boil 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
Transfer the drained beans into bean pot if you have one, and add the rest of the ingredients. Stir until combined. Add water to just barely cover the beans.
Cover the pot tightly and place in the oven for 1 hour. Uncover and check the liquid level – do not stir the beans. Add some water if the beans are getting too dry. Cover and cook 1 more hour. Uncover and test the beans; they should be getting tender, but if they’re still firm, cover and cook a bit longer, adding a splash of water if they’re getting too dry.
When tender, turn the heat up to 350 degrees F., and continue to cook uncovered for another 30 minutes or so. This last 30 minutes is to give the beans a nice crust on top, as well as reduce the liquid to a thick, syrupy consistency. Remove when ready and serve hot or room temperature.