How to make the perfect Boston baked beans – recipe – The Guardian
Baked beans, but not as we know them: Despite all the Native American tales that “gifted” the notion to early European immigrants, there’s (yet) no evidence that they cooked beans this way, and Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald’s America’s Founding Food suggests that the “immediate progenitor” of this New England classic is more likely to have been an Old England-flavored ham-flavored pease stew.
Whatever the truth, however, the beans, and the
molasses used to flavor them, make this an indisputably American dish, and useful to those Puritans who sanctified the Sabbath, because it could be prepared on a Sabbath and, according to Eleanor Early’s 1954 New England Cookbook, taken from the oven on Sunday morning for breakfast. before being returned there to keep warm for their return from the church.
The mind is surprised to think of the cumulative effect of such a bean-rich diet in a home, but at least these baked beans, molasses candy, spicy with cider vinegar and rich in pork fat, are more of a balanced meal than our beloved cans of turquoise, rather like an American cassoulet, In fact, and just as worthy of your time in the kitchen. Although, in reality, the oven does most of the work.
Let’s start with the easy part. Early mentions tend to be fairly nonspecific as to which variety to use, although white peas and white beans appear in some examples. Joe Yonan, who includes his own version of “an old Vermont family recipe” for New England baked beans in his book Cool Beans, prefers: “Jacob’s cattle or other plump, creamy beans, such as… Borlotti or Pinto”. Unsurprisingly, they’re quite interchangeable after so long in the oven, so use whatever you have on hand.
The question of preparation is more interesting. Most writers soak beans in cold water before using them, so when I see Yonan skipping this step, I’m so nervous that I contact him on Twitter to check that I haven’t missed anything. He confirms that he rarely gets upset unless he’s not sure how old the beans are: “It usually doesn’t speed things up enough to make it worthwhile, and I get more flavor and color in the beans when I skip them.”
However, he suggests adding kombu, or dried seaweed, which, I learn from Cook’s Illustrated magazine, apparently “neutralizes the hard-to-digest small carbs in beans” and, as a rich source of glutamates, “increases the flavor of the bean [and] also improves texture: pinto beans soaked and then cooked in water with a strip of kombu had smooth skins and smooth interiors; The soaked beans cooked only in water were more grainy and harder.” This is apparently because “sodium and potassium ions from seaweed swap places with minerals in grains to create a smoother, creamier consistency.” All you really need to know, however, is that it works. If you don’t have kombu on hand and don’t want to buy any for cooking beans in the future (it keeps for years), then both Cook’s Illustrated (CI) and Yonan recommend soaking them with a tablespoon of coarse salt instead. Instead of making them hard, as culinary tradition suggests, “the sodium in saline replaces some of the calcium and magnesium in bean skins, making them more permeable and resulting in more tender beans inside and out.”
Less scientifically, but equally usefully, Florence Brobeck’s 1937 New York Times article on “Yankee cooks” explains that “any old-fashioned cook knows that the only way to know when [beans soften] is to pull out a spoonful… and blow on them. If they finish, the pale shells explode.” At this point, you’re ready to lower the heat and cook them slowly, just like those Sabbath-keeping Puritans.
absolutely desperate for Boston baked beans, and you don’t have a few hours to play with, you could do worse than try the canned bean recipe at The Joy of Cooking, which requires just an hour in the oven: they lack the depth of flavor of the slow-braised variety, but they’re still pretty good.)
settlers had to stretch some protein a long way, so the meat in Boston baked beans tends to be a fairly minor element, albeit of disproportionate importance to the finished dish, because salted pork or bacon melts its fatty, salty flavor in the sauce. which means Yonan has a challenge on his hands to make it plant-based. It gets away with judicious application of smoked paprika, though we think your beans would be even better with a butter knob (or a little oil) mixed in at the end.
However, if you eat meat, this is a very good dish to make the most of minimal amounts. As CI observes, salted pork, the traditional option, can be so soft as to be disappointing, while its testers found smoked bacon to be “too smoky and overwhelming” on its own: the two together, they decided, gave the perfect combination of cordiality and richness. As salted pork is not easily available in the UK, I make a slab of pork belly my own, a process that takes four days. Having done this, I feel able to confidently assure you that fat striped green bacon is a very good substitute; I also don’t think you need the smoked type, although feel free to use it instead if you prefer.
More important, in my opinion, is how you distribute it. Most recipes call for it to be cut into pieces, which dry and disappear after so long in the oven, but Brobeck leaves it on a single slab and “nests” it in the middle of the beans, so it ends up deliciously soft and tender, but still recognizably bacon. That said, many rashers are now cut so finely that you may need to go to a butcher who cuts yours, or make some salted pork, or glue a few slices together and hope for the best.
onion, although “a controversial ingredient in classic recipes,” according to CI, adds a salty balance to the sweetness of the obligatory molasses, so I’ll include it, although, again, instead of cutting it into small pieces and browning it first, I’ll add it in half, so that it infuses the sauce. This saves you from dicing something that, after five hours in the oven, is unlikely to be recognizable anyway, and also, I think, gives a more onion end result.
We all prefer the warmth of mustard to the slightly British-tasting sweet and sour tomato sauce in The Joy of Cooking recipe. I can’t locate any brown mustards, which CI recommends to “impart pleasant sharpness without attracting attention” – it seems to have disappeared from the shelves here – so I try whole grain, but, as with Daniel Gritzer’s version for Serious Eats, which uses spicy dijon, I miss the English mustard fire in Yonan and Brobeck’s recipes.
That said, I like it enough to add a little at the end, along with the essential cider vinegar to cut the sugar from the molasses. As for molasses, which is the ingredient that gives New England baked beans their characteristic sweet and sour note, it’s easily found in health food stores and online, but you can substitute for the more one-dimensional molasses if you don’t want to invest in a jar. Yonan also uses maple syrup, but I would prefer my beans to be less sweet than most modern versions; Lydia Maria Child’s 1832 recipe makes no mention of sweeteners, while Amanda Hesser, editor of The Essential New York Times Cookbook, notes that Brobeck’s recipe is not “as sweet and syrupy” as “cloying modern baked beans… [with] a real balance of sweet and salty,” which is exactly why I enjoy it so much.
If you’re not adding meat, you might want, like Yonan, to increase the spice content: add ginger and the aforementioned smoked paprika — but it seems to me that cloves would also be good, just like American chili.
With such a simple dish, the method is very important. CI writes that, “to some extent, taste and texture [are] in opposition. The longer the beans are cooked, the better the flavor of the sauce, but after a certain crucial moment of balance, time plays against the beans, turning them into porridge.” The best way to deal with this is to cook the beans quickly (either in the oven or on the countertop), and then lower the heat and stew them until they are soft and creamy. Personally, I don’t mind if some disintegrate to thicken the sauce, but they still need to be loose, rather than a starchy porridge.
On that note, don’t throw away the bean cooking liquid and replace it with fresh water, as Brobeck suggests: Gritzer nails it when he calls this “a terrible idea.” That bean water is loaded with starch and bean flavor, two things you absolutely want to keep in the bean pot.” However, you should drain any excess before moving on to the second stage: for maximum flavor, the beans should be barely covered at all times. Once they are done, however, you can remove the lid and let the sauce reduce.
Serve with whole-grain bread and pickles, to be true to Brobeck’s recipe, or “overroasted potatoes and with a fresh salad from the garden,” as Yonan recommends for a “real Maine settler meal.” Just don’t tell the people of Boston.
Perfect Boston Baked Beans
Preparation 5 minCook 5 hours Makes 6-8 servings
450g Small dry beans 1 kombu strip 2 teaspoons English mustard powder, made with a little cold water 1teaspoon salt3 tablespoons molasses225 g smoke-free striped bacon , preferably on a thick slab 1 onion, peeled and cut in half 1 tablespoon cider vinegar1 tablespoon wholemeal mustard (optional
Heat oven to 200C (fan 180C)/390F/gas 6. Place the beans in a baking-proof pot for which it has a lid and add cold water to cover about 4 cm.
Add kombu and simmer on the countertop (alternatively, do this in a saucepan and transfer it to an oven-proof dish afterwards). Cover the pan, transfer to the oven and bake for 60-90 minutes, until the beans are soft and the skins peel off when you blow on them.
Lower oven to 150C (130C fan)/300F/gas 2. Drain enough liquid from the beans into another container until what’s left in the pan is just above the level of the beans, then stir the English mustard, salt, and molasses into the beans.
Push the bacon, skin up if you still have your rind, and the onion cut down into the beans, cover again and bake for three to four more hours, until the beans are creamy and soft; if at any time the beans appear to be drying, use the drained liquor reserved to refill them as needed. Once the beans are ready, remove the lid and put them back in the oven for a last 45-60 minutes, until the sauce is thick.
Add the vinegar and whole mustard, if you use it, then season to taste, adding more molasses if you want sweeter.