Baked Beans · Low and Slow · My Family

Boston Baked Beans

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I don’t know why I haven’t made these until now.  So simple, so warm and sweet and savory and yummy.

The recipe is part of a collection of family-and-friend recipes my mother put together before Bill and I were married.  This one came from Bill’s mother.  Actually, from his mother’s mother-in-law.  And who knows where it came from before that. 

Someone in Boston, presumably.  Heh heh.

The recipe itself is easy, but it’s not something you can whip up half an hour before dinner.  You have to plan ahead a bit.

First, you need to soak the beans overnight. 

Yes, you use dried beans for this.  Pea beans according to the recipe, but I accidentally bought navy beans and they worked just fine.  Canned won’t do.  Canned beans are already fully cooked, so if you cook them longer (say, the 6 hours called for in this recipe), you’ll just have beany mush at the end.  It would probably taste good, but….

So – you pour your measure beans into a larger bowl, cover with plenty of water (they’ll expand), and let them sit overnight. 

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In the morning, you put the beans and water in a pot, stir in a little baking soda, and bring to a boil.  Cook them for about ten minutes – you are only parboiling them – and then drain and rinse with cold water.

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Here’s a cool bit of info….  According to my late mother-in-law, her mother-in-law would

“blow on a spoonful of parboiled beans to see if cooked enough.  If the skin curled when blowing on them, they were done enough.  Pappy (her father-in-law) made his beans like this.  It is like the on Durgin-Park in Boston used.”

Durgin-Park is a restaurant in Fanuil Hall, a part of Quincy Market in downtown Boston, that’s been around since the early 1800’s.  They serve traditional New England foods, including – you guessed it – baked beans.

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Anyway, once the beans are properly parboiled, you drain them and rinse under cold water.

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At about this point you can preheat the oven, place a rack in the lower third of the oven, and get the rest of your ingredients ready.

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You’ll definitely need salt pork.  A whole delicious, fatty pound of it.

I have loved the salt pork in baked beans since I was little.  I remember there would always be one soft, pale cube of it in the can of baked beans, and sometimes – sometimes – it was given to me.  But only if Dad didn’t want it. 

With this recipe, there’s plenty of salt pork, so everyone who wants some can have some.

The other big component is a whole onion.  Peeled, with the stem end cut off, but that’s it. 

Then there’s the liquid – you mix together hot water, sugar, salt and pepper, dry mustard powder and molasses.

Time to assemble.

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In the bottom of your bean pot (and if you don’t have a pot, you could use a dutch oven or any other cooking vessel that’s got a lid and is oven-proof), put half the salt pork and the whole onion.

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Now – I cut my salt pork into chunks, but Bill said when he was a kid, his mom would cut the pork into smaller pieces.  But he liked the bigger pieces, so that’s the way I will be making the beans henceforth.

Pour the rinsed beans over the pork and the onion, top with the rest of the salt pork, and then add the mixture of hot water, molasses and everything else.  Add more hot water if you need to, to cover the beans by half an inch or more.  Cover the pot, place in the oven, and cook for about 6 hours.

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Yep, 6 hours.

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It’s one of those low-and-slow recipes. 

Now, I do have one warning.

The smell – no, the aroma – will torture you eventually, and you will wish you’d just opened a can of already-baked beans and cooked them on top of the stove because if you had, you’d be EATING them by now, not just SMELLING them and wiping the occasional stray tears from your cheek.

But be patient.  These are way better.

Every now and then you should check the beans to make sure they are still just covered with liquid – you don’t want them to start drying out on top.

They’re done when the beans are tender, but just how tender is really your call.

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The first time I made these, they were tender and cooked through, but a bit firm.  Just a bit.

The second time I cooked them, the beans were perfect – creamy and sweet and full of flavor.

Actually, I did a few things differently the second time around.  The molasses is great for color, but the flavor was a little..darker…than we liked.  So when I made these again on Sunday, I used maple syrup and just a little molasses.  They weren’t as dark, but they tasted sublime.  (Sorry, no pictures.)

I’m hooked on baking beans.  Not only that, but I’m hooked on slow cooking beans in a bean pot and coming up with other versions.  AND – this will be fun – I’m planning on cooking them in the fireplace, too, once the weather’s a bit colder.  I’m SO looking forward to a winter of hearthside cooking.

Below, there’s the recipe from my collection, and below it, the slight changes I made recently.

Boston Baked Beans

Ingredients:

2 lbs dry pea beans, California or NY State

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 lb salt pork

1 whole medium-sized onion

8 tablespoons sugar (mix brown and white)

4 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

2/3 cup molasses

What to do:

Soak beans overnight in water to cover.  In morning, add baking soda and parboil for 10 minutes.  Drain and run cold water over beans.  Cut salt pork into good size pieces.  Put half in bottom of 2 quart bean pot.  Add whole onion, beans and then remaining pork on top.

Mix together remaining ingredients in hot water.  Add to beans with enough water to cover the beans.  Bake at 300 degrees F. for approximately 6 hours.  Check periodically to make sure beans are just covered with water at all times.  Do not let beans dry out.

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My notes and changes:

~ I use about 4 cups of hot water to start with, when combining the other ingredients.  Then you can top the beans off with more water after.

~ I used white sugar because I was out of brown.  Both times.  I know.  I’m a sugar slacker.

~ Variation:  instead of 2/3 cup molasses, I used about half a cup of good maple syrup, and maybe a quarter cup of molasses.  I also used 3 teaspoons dry mustard instead of 2.  Also, I set the oven temp at 315 F, and after 6 hours, I shut the heat off and left the bean pot in the oven for another hour or so, partly to keep them warm, and partly because we were making sausage and every surface in the kitchen was covered with…STUFF…and it was just easier to leave them in there until we broke for lunch.

Thanks, Elsa!

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Enjoy!

4 thoughts on “Boston Baked Beans

  1. My recipe is quite similar, but if you ever have the opportunity, make this with smoked hog jowl instead of salt pork. Jowl has wonderful fat, but also a streak of meat with a lovely smoked bacon/ham sort of flavor that is like nothing else. Use it once and you will be hooked!

    Another tip — put salt in the soaking water, not in the beans. I think I put 1 Tbsp. salt per gallon of cold water. I learned this from America’s Test Kitchen and it always results in perfect, perfectly seasoned beans.

    I have half a jowl in the freezer and about half a pound of last years’ dried beans left. I guess I should pull out the small bean pot and make a half-batch for the weekend!

  2. The onion just gets soft and only falls apart when you dig into it. At family gatherings when my husband was younger, people would practically fight (as I understand it) to get a piece of that onion. Sriracha sounds like a great addition! Ill have to try that next time.

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