Do not mess with a New Englander over the proper way to cook baked beans. You soak them, you parboil them, you add a few things from the pantry and then you bake them for a very, very long time.
But within those limits you can find many variations, depending on where you live or where your family comes from. A church lady in Brewer, Maine, will use a different kind of bean than a fisherman Downeast. A Franco-American in Vermont won’t use the same sweetener as a Boston Irishman.
How you cook your baked beans also varies with your latitude. The Penobscot people in Maine will probably tell you to cook your beans in a bean hole. But in Connecticut, Jacques Pepin prefers his oven.
History of Baked Beans
Food historians liked to quibble over the origin of baked beans. The traditional story has indigenous people teaching the Puritan settlers how to bake beans in an earthenware pot.
Then the Puritans, who wouldn’t work on the Sabbath, baked beans for Saturday night supper, along with brown bread. On Sunday morning the beans came out of the still-warm oven for a breakfast without toil.
Some food historians say they can find no direct evidence that indigenous people baked beans in earthenware pots. Kenneth Roberts, a Maine novelist with strong opinions about ketchup, argued against the legend of the baked bean. Instead, he said, baked beans had been a traditional Sabbath dish among North African and Spanish Jews.
Whatevs. Today the baked bean is unquestionably linked to Boston and the rest of New England, especially Maine. There they bake beans in a hole in the ground.
The baked bean tradition probably has to do with New England’s long winters back in the day. Game was scarce and fresh produce long gone. Dried beans helped keep people alive.
The baked bean belongs to the Three Sisters of the indigenous tribes of the Northeast: corn, beans and squash. Together they provide unequaled nutrition and soil enrichment.
Along with corn and squash, baked beans contain all nine amino acids, complex carbohydrates, fatty acids, protein and Vitamin A.
Today, baked beans have a side benefit, especially when oil prices rise. They keep drafty New England kitchens warm on a winter day.
Baked beans are the reason Boston is called Beantown. They’re the reason four college hockey teams compete in an annual tournament called the Beanpot. And they’re why a tourist slogan from the 1920s claimed, “You don’t know beans until you’ve bean to Boston.”
An old bit of doggerel goes:
And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.
The Boston version of the baked bean uses molasses, as the city was the epicenter of molasses (and rum) production in the United States. Bostonians bake their beans in a beanpot, once sold as souvenirs. They prefer the Navy bean to the yellow eye or the kidney. On June 23, 1993, the Massachusetts General Court determined the Navy bean had been the original bean in the venerable Boston Baked Bean recipe. Thus the baked Navy bean became the official Massachusetts State Bean.
See below for a recipe from Boston’s venerable, but now defunct, Durgin Park restaurant.
Baked Beans with Syrup
The farther north from Boston you go, the more likely you are to find your baked beans sweetened with maple syrup. In Hopkinton, N.H., you can actually get baked beans at Breakwind Farm. Breakwind makes traditional beans with molasses, maple syrup, onions and garlic. It also makes a version with Kombu (edible kelp), but takes it out after boiling to reduce the gas. Those beans come with a catchy slogan: “No more need to avoid beans before weddings and long flights!”
Vermonters have their own version of the baked bean. It uses bacon instead of salt pork and maple syrup instead of molasses.
Maine Baked Beans
Tread carefully when discussing baked beans with an old-school Mainer. Do not even suggest baking beans with other than State of Maine beans, made by the Kennebec Bean Company in North Vassalboro.
Mainers prefer the bean-hole bean, cooked over hot coals in a hole in the ground (seriously). That’s the way the Penobscot people did it back in the day. Adding bear fat and maple syrup used to make for a sublime winter dish.
Today churches hold bean-hole dinners as fund raisers and the Common Ground Fair has one going in August.
Beans were ideal sources of protein for hungry lumberjacks, and every Maine lumber camp featured a bean hole.
According to the Maine Folklife Center,
In the logging camps, beans were served at every meal. The bean hole is a stone-lined pit in which a fire is built until a good bed of coals forms. A cast iron bean pot (holds about eleven pounds of dried beans) is lowered into the pit, covered over with dirt and allowed to cook, usually overnight. Several bean pits could keep beans cooking at all times.
But which beans? Depends on where you live. According to the Folklife Center, Yellow-Eye beans, with a clean, mild flavor, rank No. 1 in Maine. But certain places have certain preferences. In Lewiston they prefer the white Navy bean, but the Jacob’s Cattle bean is the one for people just west of Fryeburg and North Conway.
You’ll find the old Marafax bean – dense, chewy and flavorful — Downeast in Jonesport and Addison. St. Joseph Church in Brewer prefers the Pea bean, though Brewer itself is Sulphur, or China, bean territory.
Opinions are strongly divided, however, on the addition of baking soda to cut down on the musicality of the fruit. Some say it ruins the taste; others say it doesn’t, and it’s definitely worth it.
The Tragedy of B & M Beans
Portland’s B & M Baked Beans for a century slow-cooked baked beans in brick ovens, the way they’re supposed to cook. Tragically, the parent company sold the factory in 2021 and moved production to the Midwest. A nonprofit planned to turn the iconic factory into a digital life sciences center. B & M Baked Beans’ 86 employees had to find new jobs. The plant manager in August 2021 said he thought manufacturing in Maine would be excited to have employees of that caliber. (If they can find manufacturing in Maine or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter.)
What To Eat With Them
In Boston, baked beans go with brown bread, made from rye or whole wheat, corn meal, molasses and raisins. It’s ok to steam it in a can, but it is not ok to steam beans in a can the way a certain company whose name rhymes with mines does.
Rhode Islanders eat baked beans with johnnycake – fried pancakes made from ground corn. You can still buy stone-ground corn meal in Usquepaug , R.I., from the Kenyon Corn Meal Co. They grind it in a mill that dates to the early 1700s.
If in doubt, there’s always the frankfurter.
Traditional Boston Baked Beans
Here’s the Durgin Park recipe for Boston Baked Beans.
1 lb dried Navy beans
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
½ lb salt pork
1⁄2 medium onion (peeled and uncut)
4 tablespoons sugar
1⁄3 cup molasses
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
Soak beans overnight.
Preheat oven to 325°. Place the baking soda in a Dutch oven and fill halfway with water.
Bring to a boil, add the beans and boil for 10 minutes.
Drain beans in a colander and run cold water through them. Set aside.
Dice the salt pork.
Put half of the salt pork on the bottom of the bean pot, along with the onion.
Put the beans in the pot.
Then put the remaining salt pork on top of the beans.
Mix the sugar, molasses, mustard, salt and pepper with 3 cups of hot water and pour over the beans.
Cover pot with lid and place the pot into the preheated oven.
Bake for six hours.
Check pot periodically to make sure the amount of liquid is okay.
Add water to the beans slowly as needed to keep them moist; DO NOT FLOOD THEM.
Remove the pot from the oven and serve.
Images: Baked beans By Victorgrigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23943506. 1980 Beanpot By Nusportsinfo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5677874. Beanpot: By FiveRings at en.wikipedia – self-made, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16968646. Lumberjacks: Collier, J., photographer. (1943) United States Maine, 1943. May. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017855691/. Three Sisters By Garlan Miles – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97241939. Durgin Park By Pmcyclist – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6655738.