Baked beans is a traditional dish that was carried from New England to the Midwest and beyond. For early Puritans, cooking was considered work, and therefore not allowed on Sunday. A pot of beans left over the fire Saturday provided a “no-cook” hot Sunday meal for a pious family.
In my mother’s Cape Cod family, the beans were picked over carefully, washed, and put to soak Friday. They baked down all day Saturday. That night the beans (sometimes served with franks (hot dogs) when times were good) made a frugal Saturday night supper for the family of seven — or six during World War II when Papa was away in the Army.
Sunday morning it was cold beans on hot toast — a breakfast my mom still enjoys. I have yet to succumb to the charms of cold baked beans on toast, but since I’ve discovered dal and all its marvelous incarnations, I’ve softened my attitude toward other dried legumes.
For Christmas, I received a marvelous gift — an old-fashioned New England beanpot. Made of glazed clay, the beanpot has the traditional shape that holds in moisture and heat. It also has the tradtional color scheme — brown on top and natural on bottom. Many midwestern earthenware bean pots are entirely dark brown — but the New England bean pot is a two-tone affair.
The best beans for baking are one of three: navy, pea, or Great Northern. They are all relatively small white beans, Great Northern being the largest. Navy or pea beans are traditional in Massachusetts, while Great Northern is the bean of choice in Maine. All three made their way into the midwest with pioneering families, where bean soup and baked beans made two hearty meals from one pot.
There’s nothing quite like the smell of beans baking in a slow oven on a cold snowy day. Try sometime and see!
I believe the secret to good baked beans is threefold.
1. patience — soak the beans well — at least 8 and preferably 12 hours
2. boil them with baking soda before baking
3. patience again — they really do take ALL day
New England Baked Beans
1 lb great northern (or pea, or navy) beans
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 small onion, quartered
1/3 c molasses
1/3 c brown sugar or jaggery
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dry mustard (such as Coleman’s)
Pick the beans over and wash well. Soak overnight in at least 8 cups fresh cold water. Next day, preheat oven to 250 F. Put the beans in a saucepan with enough soaking liquid to cover. Add the baking soda and stir well. Bring to a boil, and simmer 10-15 minutes, skimming foam as it rises.
Drain the beans, reserving the liquid. Place quartered onion in the bottom of beanpot (or 2 1/2 qt oven-safe casserole with cover). Add beans. Mix molasses, sugar or jaggery, mustard and salt with 1 c. reserved liquid. Pour over the beans, adding enough extra liquid to cover them well. Stir it all up and cover the pot.
Bake 3 hrs at 250, then raise heat to 300 F. Continue to bake another hour. Check the beans — they should be bubbling. Stir everything up well and add additional liquid if needed to keep the beans covered. Reduce heat to 200 F and bake another 3 hours. At that point, if you wish, you can remove the cover, raise the heat and brown the top (another 30 minutes or so).
Serve baked beans hot with butter, ketchup or chili sauce, and any bread of your choice.
Little pickles go nicely with baked beans, too.