Boston baked beans

Home-made Boston baked beans are deliciously, wonderfully, shockingly different from the canned variety. When you try these, you’ll wonder just exactly what happened in the long-ago board meeting when Heinz made their plan to pass off their sweetly uninteresting beans as the real thing. There’s so much more going on here than a thin tomato slime surrounding stiff little beans. In beans made properly you’ll find delicately soft beans in a thick, rich sauce packed with clove-studded onions, herbs like bay and cinnamon, and deeply savoury chunks of ham.

Baked beans want your time and your love. You’ll be baking them at a low temperature for six hours, stirring attentively every now and then. Your house will fill up with some really, really good smells. Eat these beans as main course with some good bread, or to accompany a porky barbecue or some pulled pork. This happens to be one of those recipes which improves after a night’s refrigeration, which will help the flavours meld to an even deeper degree.

I’ve used part of a ham I cooked according to this recipe. That ham yielded three meals: the ham itself with fried potatoes, a Pasta alla Medici, and these beans. One of the ingredients in the beans is the liquor the ham cooked in. If you haven’t made a ham yourself, or have made a ham to a recipe which doesn’t yield a sweet cooking liquid, just replace the 500 ml of sweetened stock with 500 ml cola (not diet). It sounds barking, but it tastes divine.

To make six servings, you’ll need:

500 g dried haricot beans
1.5 l water
500 g cooked, smoked ham (recipe here)
500 ml stock from a ham cooked in cola (see above for substitution)
1 large onion
10 cloves
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon molasses (treacle)
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 dried chipotle pepper (use any hot chilli pepper if you can’t find chipotles)
1 head garlic
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons salt

Put the dried beans in a large bowl and pour the cold water over them. Soak overnight. The next morning, simmer the beans in this water in a covered pan without salt (which will make them tough) until they are soft – about an hour.

Heat the oven to 180° C (350° F). Drain the beans, reserving their soaking liquid, and put them in a heavy casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid. Quarter the onion and press the cloves into it, and chop the garlic. Push the ham, onion, garlic, chilli pepper, bay and cinnamon into the beans, stir in the garlic, then combine 500 ml of the soaking liquid from the beans with 500 ml of the ham’s cooking liquid in a jug and stir in the molasses, the maple syrup, the salt and the mustard. Pour this over the bean mixture, put the lid on and put in the oven for six hours.

Stir the beans every hour or so. You’ll notice that very gradually, the beans will take on colour and the sauce will thicken. If you think the dish is looking too dry, add some water to the casserole dish – if you reach the last hour of cooking and the mixture is looking wetter than you would like, remove the lid.

The beans will keep in the fridge for over a week, but they’re so good that you’re very unlikely to be able to keep them in the house for that long without eating them.

6 Replies to “Boston baked beans”

  1. Liz, over here in the southern US my grandmother and mother told me (warned really) to always soak the beans overnight but be sure to drain the beans then add the same amount of fresh water back to them before simmering. In other words NEVER use the soaking water to cook in. I have always done them as prescribed. Have you heard of this before?

    Your recipe sounds marvelous. I would probably substitute some good local southern country ham.

  2. Hi YD – that’s really interesting. I’ve had a trawl around the web, and have also had a look through some recipe books (one in particular is good for things like this – an old book I found in Boston with some pre-Civil War recipes from New England). There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on soaking liquid – more of the recipes I found used it to cook the beans in than did not.

    I’m thinking this *might* be because in the bad old days, when you really needed to pick over your beans, you’d end up with gritty soaking water, but I really can’t think of any other reason your family might have been so adamant on the issue. Anyone else have any ideas?

  3. Hello again Liz. I spoke with my mother and (she’s 83) she does not know why except it got passed down from her family. I think you are on the right track about the bad old days. It is also a good idea to pick through the beans of today as I have found the odd stone from time to time.

  4. I just made these and they were so delicious.

    This was something of a last minute affair so I used a widely publicized ‘quick soak’ method on the beans rather than soaking overnight. So far so good, I think the real test will be…is the overnight soak necessary to avoid harsh gastrointestinal consequences.

    Time (about 12 hours I reckon) will tell.

    Regardless, I have some seriously good beans on toast waiting for me tomorrow.

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