Baking Beans: What's Your Secret?

"Bring a side" is what our friend J told me when I insisted on bringing an edible contribution for his bon voyage cookout this weekend.

After last week's slow-cooked smoked ribs, I've still got the barbecue theme on the brain and decided on a batch of baked beans. For years, I couldn't stand them because they were either too sweet, too mushy or too salt-porky. When I finally got my lips around beans that were smoky, tangy and kind of spicy (like a good ole campfire), that's when I knew I hit the flavor jackpot.

Baked beans just out of the oven. (Kim O'Donnel)

Baked beans is everyday, everyman's (and woman's) food, and somewhere along the line, we've all encountered them in one incarnation or another depending on where we grew up.

If you're from upper New England or Canada, you might know them as maple syrupy sweet. Bostonians may have grown up with molasses-sweetened beans, a historical holdover from the rum-slave trade during colonial times. Down in Texas, they're known as cowboy beans, seasoned with ground beef, a variation on the 'franks n' beans" theme. Down south, you might hear of a mustard-y tang with pork flavoring, and if you're from the U.K., you might like yours tinned and on toast.

The recipe below, inspired by "Peace, Love and Barbecue," one of my favorite books on barbecue, draws on several regional influences, and I add a few of my own flavor notes as well.

Vegetarians, don't worry when you see the addition of bacon in the recipe; it is hardly necessary as I've come to realize and as long as you use a chipotle chile in adobo sauce, you'll get plenty of smoke that you'd otherwise get from the pig.

Since there are so many variations on the baked bean theme, I'd love to hear how you grew up eating them and how you fix'em now that you're all grown up. Recipes, stories and baked bean tips are all welcome.

Today is chat day; join me for this week's What's Cooking.

True-Blue Baked Beans
Inspired by "Peace Love and Barbecue" by Mike Mills

1 pound dried great northern beans (KOD note: I used thin-skinned cranberry beans from Rancho Gordo with great results. Pinto beans would be great, too.)
1 cup marinara sauce (alternatively, use ketchup, but be mindful of salt and corn syrup content)
¼ cup molasses
¾ cup-1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (alternatively, Picka Peppa sauce)
1 tablespoon yellow mustard (you can use dry mustard)
1 teaspoon chili powder or smoked paprika
½ teaspoon cumin
½ chipotle chile in adobe sauce, diced
4-6 slices bacon (KOD note: completely optional, in my opinion. You can get plenty of smoke from the chipotle chile, above.)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced

Place beans in a large saucepan and cover with water, two to three inches. Soak beans overnight.

The next day, drain and rinse beans. Return to pot and cover with fresh water by about four inches. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 90 minutes, or until beans are tender but not bursting open.

While beans are cooking, mix marinara sauce, molasses, brown sugar, Worcestershire, mustard, chili powder and cumin in a large bowl.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

If using, cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon. Drain bacon on paper towels, crumble it and set aside.

Add onion and garlic to bacon drippings and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about two minutes. Onion should still be a little crunchy.

If you are omitting bacon: substitute peanut oil to cook onion and garlic mixture.

Drain beans, reserving up to two cups of bean water. Pour beans into bowlful of sauce. Add onion (and bacon if using) and stir to combine. Add as much bean liquid as necessary.

Pour beans into a lightly oiled 13x9 baking dish and bake for one hour or until bubbly, about two hours. Will keep, refrigerated, for up to one week.

Makes 8-10 servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 27, 2008; 11:00 AM ET Beans and Legumes , Side Dishes
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Epicurious has a GREAT recipe for smoky baked beans. They use white beans (canned, although you could certainly cook your own). I've only made them without the bacon and using vegetarian worcest. sauce, and they get compliments every time. They're pretty easy to put together too. Hmmm, maybe it's time to make some.

Posted by: eggplant | May 27, 2008 11:44 AM

Kim - what is the baking time? One hour or two? Thanks!

Posted by: MBinDC | May 27, 2008 12:12 PM

Your recipe looks great, but baked beans are cook-out food that need not take all afternoon to prep. Everyone raves about my baked beans. No quantites for the "add-ins" - let your taste dictate your preference.

Base - 3 large cans Campbell's Port and Beans OR Bush's Baked Beans

Worcestershire Sauce
Yellow Mustard
Dried Minced Onion
Brown Sugar OR Maple Syrup
Morton's Natures Seasoning Blend

Posted by: Mitchnrva | May 27, 2008 12:25 PM

Hi Kim:
Should be beans be cooked covered? I always thought that beans were cooked in a crock-like pot with a lid (not an electric "Crock-Pot" slowcooker, but an earthenware pot with a lid).

Posted by: Bethesda Mom | May 27, 2008 1:18 PM

Mitchnrva, I'm sure that you mean Campbell's PORK and Beans, but Port and Beans DOES sound pretty interesting. ;-)

So, does anyone use leftover beans in sandwiches? My great-grandmother's favorite was to spread the cooled leftovers between two hearty slabs of white bread, wrap in paper, place in pocket, and devour later in the day. Anyone?

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | May 27, 2008 1:21 PM

Bethesda Mom: Thanks for pointing out my omission -- I will add to recipe. I covered with foil, but for the first 30 minutes kept half of the dish uncovered to allow the sauce to reduce a bit.

MB in DC: Mills's original recipe suggests 1 hour or so, but I discovered it took closer to two hours.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | May 27, 2008 1:49 PM

centre of nowhere - my mom's a fan of the baked bean sandwiches, too. i used to eat them when i was growing up. only thing different is that we'd usually add some cheese. b/c you know, everything's better with cheese!

i'm also a fan of baked beans and toast, which was my favorite part of breakfast in ireland and scotland.

i don't have much to add to the discussion of baking beans, though. we don't actually *bake* our beans. they come out of a can (bush's, veggie). if you're feeling really fancy, you add some ketchup, mustard, and brown sugar. or maybe some crushed pineapple.

Posted by: gk | May 27, 2008 5:56 PM

I usually do them the way my mom did them. Chop up the better part of a pound of grocery store bacon into half inch pieces and brown them in a large dutch oven. About half way into the cooking, add a chopped onion and cook until bacon is done. Add a large can of Campbells (pour off some of the liquid) or Bush's, a couple of tablespoons of ketchup, about the same amount of brown sugar and a little mustard of your choice. Where I differ from Mom is that the secret is to then add some ground cloves. The amount depends on how much you like cloves, they are strong, so be careful. Heat all this up until bubbling, then put it in the oven covered for about an hour, then uncover and let it thicken up a lot. These make great picnic beans, and most dutch ovens can sit on a grill to rewarm without a problem.

Posted by: Tres Amie | May 27, 2008 11:34 PM

My mom used to make really great baked beans (soaked overnight, bubbling for hours in a cast-iron pot in the oven the next day, sweet, dark, delicious) but I've never gotten it right. Thanks for the recipe! Maybe I can finally produce some good baked beans.

Posted by: Dave | May 28, 2008 6:19 AM

Recipe sounds good. I haven't made baked beans in sooo long, I couldn't even remember how I made them, though I imagine I'd stick some cloves in my recipe!

Posted by: Bren | May 28, 2008 8:54 AM

Does anybody else top their grilled hot dog with baked beans? I love that combo!

Posted by: Mmmm.. | May 28, 2008 9:29 AM

For Shabbat lunch (when no cooking may be started), Jews eat slow-cooked bean based dishes (cholent in Europe, Hamim in Spain-Mediterranean), begun Friday before sunset & cooked 18 hr +/- in 175-200F oven. The best part is the crust that forms, seconded by the contents - beans, beef, eggs in the shell, vegetables, etc. Ashkenazi spicing is on the onion, garlic, paprika axis; Sephardi spicing favors cumin, cardamon, saffron. Everyone's mother has the best recipe, and so do many cookbooks. Note: you'll see many variant spellings of cholent & hamim.

Posted by: monticello | May 28, 2008 11:27 AM

My recipe is always a hit. Even with folks who are a little leary of baked beans. Quantities are guesses. I usually eye-ball the amounts.

1/2 cup each chopped onion and green pepper- simmer until tender
add 1/2 cup bbq sauce (sweet baby rays)
1/3 cup brown sugar
couple table spoons of chili sauce
table spoon plus of molasses
1/2 tablespoon of freeze dried coffee crystals (or 1 cup strong brewed black coffee)
2-3 tablespoons bourbon
2 large cans Bush's baked beans
heat thru and allow to bubble for 15-20 minutes

Posted by: bbqbeans | May 28, 2008 12:17 PM

I was born at the end of the Great Depression in Oklahoma's Dust Bowl. My mother didn't bake beans but she cooked beans every day except Sunday when we had fried chicken. Mainly she cooked pinto beans but sometimes what she called Navy beans that I think were actually Great Northern. There was never a sweetener of any kind added to the beans. Not very often she might add a piece of pork to the beans. A meal would consist of beans, boiled potatoes and cornbread. Believe it or not, I still love meals like that.

Posted by: Mary Frances | May 29, 2008 7:08 AM

My grandmother in Wakefield MA always served baked beans and brown bread for Sat. evening supper. Growing up my brother and I were grossed out by our dad's cold bean on white bread sandwiches. However we did like warm beans and it was a family ritual to roll the car windows down as we drove past the Portland ME B&M Brick Oven Baked Bean Factory to smell the wonderful aromas. Stopping at a bakery in New Brunswick Canada on a Sat. a.m. I was surprised to see locals bringing in crocks of beans to be slow baked in the store's ovens.

Posted by: Cynthia | May 29, 2008 12:43 PM

I learned to make Baked Beans in Northern Maine many years ago. We had them every Friday night with Brown Bread. Here is the recipe, actually more like a method.

Use one lb dried Soldier Beans or Yellow Eyes. Soak over night in water.

In the morning drain off the water, boil beans one hour with an onion (whole) and new water to cover

Put the beans in a Bean Pot along with the water and onion

Add 1/4 cup molasses, 1/4 lb salt pork (in one piece) 1/2 tsp of dried mustard, salt and pepper.

Bake at least 8 hours in a low oven-285

Check frequently to make sure they are not dry and add water if necessary.

Enjoy! This recipe is a Bean-Hole Bean Supper recipe like the woodsman cooked in the ground many years ago.

Posted by: Lib | May 29, 2008 3:38 PM

Ina Garten's maple baked beans from her "Barefoot Contessa at Home" cookbook are the best I've ever made and worth the eight hours cooking time.,1977,FOOD_9936_126589,00.html

Posted by: Megan | May 29, 2008 10:53 PM

If you are still taking comments on "beans":
When I was growing up in west Tennessee (1940's and 1950's), we cooked navy beans with hamhock and onion. Served it plain, but poured molasses over the top. The kids sometimes added both molasses and ketchup. Served always with cornbread, which most likely was also bathed in the molasses or dipped into the bean liquid. This democratic meal could be eaten everyday in every home, main street cafe and school cafeteria.

Posted by: Paula | June 5, 2008 4:42 PM

Some variations here - I soak the onions and garlic overnight with the beans. To thicken, I cover at the beginning. Then an hour so before eating I scoop out a cup of beans, mash them and stir back in. This gives a thick and creamy texture. I'm British but now in Canada, so I use Keene's Mustard powder but also the Asian herbs. I use only brown sugar - about 3/4 cup. I supplement with sweet herbs such as tarragon, rosemary and fennel. It's always been the remains of a pork roast I use but now I shall try with ground meat. Thanks for so many inspiring variations.

Posted by: Carol | June 5, 2008 6:39 PM

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