Back along in this column, I ran out a few ideas for things to do with good old baked beans. Tim Burleigh in Dover-Foxcroft wrote and said, “I seem to have missed your column last fall about baked beans. It doesn’t appear to be on the Bangor [Daily] News Web site, although it’s referred to in a subsequent column that is on the site. May I please have your recipe for baked beans?” Well, there was a really good reason there wasn’t a recipe for baked beans: I didn’t write one. I wrote Tim and said I would, however, do it in the future. It is finally chilly enough that I am thinking about making home-baked beans again.
As a child of southern New England, I owe my understanding of Maine baked beans to my Belfast-raised husband, who was taken aback when I served him baked pea beans early in our marriage. He likes big beans, and in Maine the standard is the lovely large yellow eye, though Jacob’s cattle, soldier and others have their adherents. In Washington County, the wonderful little Marifax, a nice flavorful all-brown bean, is a favorite and I love them, too.
Years ago, when I began to look at the food history of New England, I learned that historically baked beans were not very sweet. Hardly any molasses was added in the recipes from the early 1800s until later 1890s or so. There are fortunately places in Maine where you can still get a very decent, not too sweet baked bean even in restaurants. I had baked beans for breakfast in a restaurant in Machias and was delighted to find a nice savory bean, barely a hint of sweetness. I push my luck at home, though, and if the beans aren’t sweet enough, Jamie gets up from the table and pulls out the jug of Crosby’s molasses and adds a dollop. As far as I am concerned, molasses, sugar, mustard, pepper and all are merely flavorings and you can add them to taste. In the recipe that follows, there is not much sweetening, so taste them after they have baked a couple hours, and if you think you would prefer something sweeter, add more molasses or brown sugar.
If I plan ahead, I will remember to soak my beans overnight. I have, however, a speed-soak method that you could use, too: I put the beans in a pan and add water to about 2 inches over the beans and bring it to a boil. Then I take them off the heat and let them sit for an hour. After that, I bring them to a boil again and cook until they achieve the time-honored skins-bursting stage. To tell if they are at that stage, pull up a spoonful and blow on them. If the skins peel back, then they are cooked enough to bake.
You can bake beans without salt pork, by the way, if you have to go easy on fat or have a vegetarian in your midst. Add some vegetable oil instead. If I don’t use meat in the bean pot, I give the beans some oomph with a few dashes of Worcestershire or soy sauce. Speaking of oomph, most classic Maine recipes for baked beans call for fairly anemic quantities of mustard — like ½ to 1 teaspoons, for heaven’s sake, to a walloping 2 to 4 cups of dried beans. In my book, that is just plain silly. I dump in 2 tablespoons in the recipe below, but since this is about flavoring to taste, you can adjust it any way you want.
I always make more than I intend to eat right away and put the rest into one-meal-size containers for the freezer. It is so handy to have home-baked beans ready to warm up in a hurry.
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Makes 8 to 10 servings.
3 cups dried beans
¼ to ½ pound streaky salt pork
1 small onion, optional
¼ cup molasses
2 tablespoons mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak beans overnight or use the speed-soak method above. Cook beans until the skins burst. Put them into the bean pot with the salt pork, onion, molasses and mustard, and fill pot with hot water, or use the cooking liquid, until you can see liquid through the beans. Bake at 250 for four to six hours. Taste after three or four hours and adjust seasonings at that point.