Baked beans are a simple, homey dish that’s surprisingly complex. When I opened my restaurant, East Coast Grill, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I served them on every barbecue platter because their sweet and savory, porky flavor, almost toasty with molasses, complements spicy, smoky meat.
Boston baked beans can be traced to Native Americans, who would dig a hole, burn wood down to coals, bury a cast-iron pot filled with beans, water, fat, and maple syrup, and let everything cook overnight. This practice became a favorite in lumber camps, and then at family gatherings and church suppers. Over time, people began cooking their beans in ovens instead of holes and incorporating regionally popular ingredients, such as salt pork and molasses.
Get the recipe:Classic Boston Baked Beans
With my barbecue background, I have a great fondness for cooking things in pits, and I actually do have a bean hole in my yard, which is great for when I want to fritter away a day. But as a citizen of the 21st century, I also cook these beans in the oven, and frankly, they taste just as good. I use salt pork, molasses, maple syrup, and brown sugar to flavor and sweeten the beans. First, I bring everything to a simmer on the stovetop, and then I bake it all, low and slow, until the beans are soft, which can be anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, depending on how “fresh” the beans are (older dried beans cook slower). It’s a snap compared to cooking them in a hole, and they’re always well worth the wait.
Need to Know
Use molasses to help the beans keep their shape. Its acidity makes the beans cook slower, so they don’t fall apart during the long baking time that gives them all their flavor. I like to use robust unsulfured molasses, sometimes labeled dark or full body. It is more concentrated and caramelized than mild molasses, yet lighter and less bitter than blackstrap molasses.
Layer pork and onions underneath the beans. As the pork fat melts, the onions will flavor it. This oniony fat infuses the cooking liquid as it floats to the surface. Salt pork—made from the same cut as bacon, but cured only with salt and not smoked—is a New England staple. Bacon can easily be substituted with no noticeable difference in flavor.
Bake uncovered. This allows some of the liquid to evaporate, leaving behind a flavorful sauce.
Test more than one bean for doneness. Sometimes beans cook at different rates, so to avoid under- or overcooking the whole pot, try a few.
Let the beans rest before serving. The sauce will look thin even after the beans are tender, but it will thicken as the beans sit at room temperature. And because they’re in a heavy-duty pot, they’ll stay warm for a long time.