Baked beans, first made by Native Americans, have held steadfast as a favorite classic American dish. While there have been some major changes—pork fat in place of bear fat, a pot instead of a deer hide, an oven in lieu of a stone-lined pit—this tender, sweet side dish has not only persevered but is still immensely popular. I know this because I bake more than 100 pounds of beans a week at my restaurant, Summer Shack, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Our Saturday night special is franks and beans with brown bread, and we serve baked beans every day alongside our cod cakes. People also order them a la carte to go with everything from steamed lobster to fried chicken. And I personally think this humble dish is great with roast pork.
There isn’t one perfect dried bean for baking; choose a regional favorite
Most Yankees will agree that the pea bean, similar to the navy bean, is the most authentic and traditional baked-beans bean. That is, unless you’re from Maine, where the yellow-eye bean, also called the Stueben yellow-eye, is more popular. Still others will tell you that a bean called Jacob’s Cattle is the secret to great baked beans.
You can try this recipe with almost any dried bean; I’ve even had great results with dried lima beans. You just need to adjust the cooking time (allowing more for larger beans, like yellow-eyes), and adding more water as needed. Actually, you need to make adjustments every time you bake beans, as even beans of the same variety vary: older beans, for example, take longer to soften, and they absorb more liquid.
I’ve tested this particular recipe with both navy beans (which are easy to find and are often actually pea beans or a mix or pea and navy beans) and yellow-eye beans; both taste great, but the yellow-eyes generally take longer to bake.
Soak the beans in plenty of water overnight before baking. There are those who believe you can skip this step; I guess you could, but your baked beans will take forever to bake.
What else besides the beans?
Salt pork, which comes from the belly of the pig (like bacon), is salt-cured but not smoked. Look for salt pork with pearly white fat and lots of streaky pink meat. Most supermarkets carry it, but you can substitute slab bacon; the smoky flavor bacon adds isn’t traditional, but it is pretty tasty. (In fact, it’s hard to say whether my family prefers beans made with salt pork or beans made with bacon.) Whichever you use, remove the rind in one piece and add the rind to-the pot with the beans; it will give the beans a creamier consistency. Also, if you partially freeze salt pork or slab bacon first, it’s easier to dice.
Another break with tradition: cooking the pork until golden. Traditionally, the salt pork should cook slowly with the beans. But I’ve come to realize that the soft, unrendered pork fat is a textural experience that’s foreign to most modern Americans. I now cook the salt pork (or bacon) to a crisp golden color to render most of the fat before I add anything else to the pot. These little meaty pieces seem far more acceptable to the modern palate, and because I leave the fat in the pot, the dish doesn’t suffer at all.
Sweeteners, yes, but a little heat is nice, too
The beans in my recipe taste like you’d expect New England style beans to taste. I sweeten them with equal amounts of molasses and maple syrup, but you can use a different ration or all of one or the other. I also add flavorings for more complexity but in modest amounts so that the flavor of the bean won’t be completely masked. Dijon mustard, ketchup (or my preference, Heinz Chile Sauce), and Worcestershire sauce add a little heat and spice to cut the sweetness. A bit of chopped garlic, sautéed with the salt pork, would also be welcome. I add apple-cider vinegar after the beans are fully cooked, since the acid would otherwise toughen the beans.
Cook the beans relatively hot
Baking beans in the oven provides a steady heat that cooks them evenly. Cooking them on top of the stove would require stirring them occasionally, which might break them up and make them too mushy.
Traditionally baked beans cook at a very low temperature, between 225° and 250°F. I found (by accident, if you want to know the truth) that baked beans can cook at a higher temperature with great success. By starting at 350°F, my beans not only cook in half the time of more traditional recipes, but they also require less tending.
Stir lightly before serving. The beans are done when they’re very soft and tender yet still retain their shape. At this point, I stir them lightly to release some of their starch, which will thicken the liquid a bit. Be careful not to overmix at this point. Letting them sit for about 20 minutes before serving allows you to get the hot dogs and coleslaw ready and lets the beans come to their full flavor. The beans will last for a few days in the refrigerator and taste even better reheated.