To tell the truth, I’ve never been a big fan of baked beans. Here in the South, people make them too damn sweet. Cloyingly sweet. Sickeningly sweet. Sometimes it tastes as if people just pour a big bottle of Karo Syrup over their beans and serve ‘em up. Hmm, maybe they do.
Store-bought beans are no better. I’ve tried pretty much every brand and it’s pretty much the same thing: Sugar city.
It’s not that I don’t want to like such an old time, down home, ubiquitous dish. I do, I really do. But nothing I had ever been served could satisfy me.
Yes, recently we had a day in Boston on our way to Maine, and we supped at the venerable Union Oyster House,
where I ordered some of the local Skrod fish, which came out battered up and fried. It also came out with a side of Boston Baked Beans.
I was credulous, but I tried them. Wow, just a hint of sweetness, but otherwise some nice savory complexity going on here. I was hooked. Boston baked beans seemed to be an different animal than the super sugar beans I’d been getting back home. I had to make these babies for myself.
So I did a little research, and it turns out the sweetener in Boston baked beans is molasses, for which the town has a historical association. Molasses has some sweetness to it (I used to make a brown ale with it in my beer brewing days), but it’s also got some almost coffee-like roasted complexity and bitterness and add a unique flavor to the beans. Salt pork or bacon is also a usual guest at this party, adding a savory, smoky flavor to the mix.
I did my usual tricks. Tried several different recipes, added, subtracted and combined until this is what I came up with below. It was pretty damn close to the Union Oyster House, and so, I hope it is a good rendition of the dish.
Boston Baked Beans
1.5 pounds dried white beans
3 Tablespoons Butter
1 onion, chopped
3/4 Cup Molasses
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1/4 Cup Tomato Paste
1/4 Cup Brown Mustard
1 8 oz smoked ham steak, cubed and pureed (optional)
1/4 lb salt pork or bacon, diced
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Pinch ground cloves
Pinch Smoked Paprika
5 Cups water
So basically, making baked beans is sort of like smoking a brisket in that you’re going to do it low and slow. Adding sugar and calcium (in the form of the molasses) to beans tends to toughen them, so it takes a longer cooking time to make them nicely soft. The advantage to this arrangement is that during that long, slow cooking time the other ingredients you have put in meld to create an amazingly flavorful and rich sauce for the beans, and the beans absorb a bit of that flavor as well. It’s all good.
Most of the recipes I found called for just adding most of your ingredients to the pot with the beans and cooking away, low and slow. I thought we could develop a bit more flavor if we sautéed the onions and the bacon first, so that’s what we’re gonna do.
First, the night before, soak your beans in enough water to cover them by a couple of inches. Next morning, drain the beans and discard this water. Set beans aside.
Preheat oven to 300F.
Melt the butter in your bean pot or Dutch oven and add the chopped onions.
Sauté the onions for 8-10 minutes until they turn clear and start to brown. Dice your bacon or salt pork...
And add it to the onions, stir, and sauté this mixture for five minutes more or so.
While this is going on, make your molasses infusion. To a mixing bowl, add the molasses,
the brown sugar,
Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, cloves and paprika. Add a cup of water to this and whisk it up well and set aside.
If you’re using the ham steak,
and puree it
and add it to the onion bacon mixture. This is my little twist/secret ingredient to boost the savory, smoky flavor of the beans. It’s not trad, dad, but since you’re pureeing it, no one will notice anything but the boosted, amped up flavor, which they should love.
Next, add the beans to the pot, then top up with four cups water.
Finally, add your molasses mixture.
Do not stir the beans at this point. We want everything layered for the initial cooking stage so that he sugars don’t sink to the bottom and potentially burn.
Cover the pot with its lid
and place in the oven. Bake for eight hours or more, checking the pot every couple of hours to add a bit of water if it gets below the level of the top of the beans. After four hours you can stir your beans. After eight to ten they will be ready to serve. They should look like this:
Serve ‘em up and enjoy!
Until Next Time,
Bake ya some beans,