Maine baked beans Credit: Sandy Oliver

Good old baked beans. Where would we be in winter without them? Where would we be in summer, for that matter, if you serve them at family reunions, barbecues or to celebrate Maine’s heritage by baking them in a bean hole?

In addition to declaring their independence in statehood in 1820, Mainers have declared a kind of ongoing bean independence by sticking to old style beans called heirlooms. Southern New England’s prominent bean is the navy pea bean, which is a little white bean. But Mainers often prefer big beans like Yellow Eyes, Jacobs Cattle or Soldier.

Until a few years ago, you could buy Marfax beans at chain supermarkets in Maine. They’ve since disappeared from supermarkets’ shelves but can be found in smaller stores in various corners of the state.

I grow Marfax and other baking beans like Kenearly, King of the Early and Tiger’s Eye, which are elegant golden beans with a swirl of mahogany that, sadly, disappears when you cook them. It’s fun to grow baking beans if you have enough room in the garden to dedicate to the project and the patience to shell them out, unless you have an old style bean thresher. Yellow Eyes, though, are the standard bean for baking beans from scratch.

The old fashioned brown and white pot is the ideal cooking vessel. Slow cookers, instant pots and other arrangements no doubt have their advantages when baking beans, like not having to have an oven turned on for hours. I’ve also enjoyed awfully good beans baked in a wide, deep baking pan with no lid. But the cook probably had to keep adding water so they wouldn’t dry out.

Most Mainers these days make a pretty sweet bean. A common recipe calls for a two pound package of dry beans with a quarter cup of sugar plus one-half to two-thirds of a cup of molasses. Personally, I like a less sweet bean and use only a third of a cup of molasses or so, and no sugar. My former husband used to get out the jug of Crosby’s molasses and add more sweetening at the table — you may prefer the sweeter route as well. Certainly canned beans are sweeter than my homemade ones are.

In baked bean history, pork used to be more prominent in beans. As much as a pound of streaky pork was added to a quart of dried beans. I certainly use less, closer to a quarter of a pound, or I’ll add some smokey bacon instead. I’ve even stuck a smoked ham hock into the bean pot.

As much as pork adds flavor and unctuousness to baked beans, a perfectly lovely vegetarian version can be made with vegetable oil, olive oil or, my favorite, toasted sesame, along with a bit of tamari or soy sauce. I also use dried mustard and always add an onion.

Traditionally, baked beans are served with ham or hot dogs, and if you are a dyed in the wool New Englander, brown bread, steamed and rich with molasses. Pickles or coleslaw are terrific alongside the beans and meat.

And you are bound to be around someone who thinks they have to have ketchup all over everything. Oh, well, each to their own taste.

Leftover beans are almost always a sufficient reason to bake them in the first place. I love an open-faced, baked bean sandwich on toast, run under the boiler with thinly sliced onion and cheddar cheese on top. Even cold baked beans mashed to a paste and spread on bread with mayonnaise is a yummy lunch. (Really!)

Add beef broth, sautéed onion and a little garlic to the last few cups of beans to make a good baked bean soup, garnished with crumbled bacon.

Here is a pretty standard baked bean recipe. Halve it for a smaller household, though you can always freeze baked beans to reheat for a fast supper. You can make it sweeter by adding more sugar or molasses. Instead of dry mustard, you can add a dollop of the prepared stuff right out of the jar.

Maine Baked Beans

15-20 servings

2 pounds of Yellow Eye or other larger, dry beans

½ pound streaky salt pork

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1/3 cup molasses

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 medium onion, quartered

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Rinse the beans and soak overnight in water, covering them generously.

2. Next day, bring the beans to a boil, and cook them until the skins peel back when you blow on them. Drain them and save the cooking water.

3. Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Spoon about half the beans into the bean pot, and add the quartered onion.

5. Begin spooning the remaining beans into the pot until it is nearly full and add the salt pork, then add the remainder of the beans, but leave the pork exposed on top.

6. Measure out 2 cups of the bean cooking water, and mix in the sugar, molasses, and mustard. Pour it over the beans in the pot, and then add cooking water until you can see it through the top of the beans.

7. Bake covered for 5 to 6 hours, checking occasionally to see if there is enough liquid, adding water as necessary.

8. Remove the lid for the last hour and make sure the pork is exposed to brown up.

9. Serve.

Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...