A bright and sunny Saturday this fall I found myself at the Portsmouth Farmer’s Market in New Hampshire. I wasn’t planning to make Boston baked beans, I was just browsing. I had to photograph a wedding in the area later in the day and my boyfriend, Josh, went golfing with some friends so I had some time to explore on my own. The market was small, but bustling. At 9am, a couple was dancing to live music, kids were running with cookies in hand, parents inhaling croissant egg sandwiches with chorizo. The mood was right and it was fall. Fall! In New England! Aside from a butternut squash, I had nothing on my list. My plan was to buy whatever struck me.
Boston Baked Beans are traditionally cooked in a oven with molasses and without tomatoes (or ketchup or tomato paste). People here are serious about the no tomato thing – google it. The molasses is what makes them “Boston” beans; the city was a big exporter of rum (a personal favorite) in the 1700s and molasses was used in the distillation process. Boston Baked Beans also contain salt pork or bacon, to which Jim says, “I’m not afraid of fat.” I’m not afraid of fat either, when it’s, you know, in the name of tradition.
It didn’t take me long to find my vegetable. At the Riverside Farm stand, Jim Tuttle, an 11th generation Maine farmer, was restocking bright pink speckled shell beans. They were it. Jim and I talked for a bit; I had never shelled or cooked with fresh beans before, so I was curious. These beans, it turns out, happen to be one of Jim’s favorite vegetables and he didn’t shy away from suggesting some recipes to try. Enthusiastically he added, “And I’ve heard these are the original beans used in Boston Baked Beans.” I just moved to Boston last month (after two years of being on the move, which you can read about here), and am finding myself more and more obsessed with New England traditions and history. So these beans were being baked.
- 1pound (about 2 cups) fresh white beans (such as Cranberry, Navy or Great Northern)*
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ pound salt pork or bacon, cut into 1 in. pieces
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- ⅓ cup blackstrap molasses
- ⅓ cup real maple syrup
- 4 tablespoon mustard
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ¼ teaspoon all spice
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 tsp concentrated low-sodium vegetable stock (or 3 cups low sodium vegetable broth)**
- salt to taste
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
- Bring a pot of water to boil with the bay leaf. Simmer fresh beans until just tender, about 30 minutes (note: do not salt! This toughens the beans). Once the beans are tender, drain and reserve cooking liquid for later.
- Place a cast-iron pot (or other pot that can be placed in the oven) over medium heat and add the bacon and onions until the onions soften, about 10 minutes. Stir in the molasses, maple syrup, mustard, spices and pepper until well combined and let simmer for a minute.
- Mix 3 cups of the reserved bean liquid with concentrated low sodium vegetable stock according to stock ratio instructions.
- Add beans to bacon and onions and then add vegetable and bean broth until the beans are just covered (you may not need all three cups). Stir and cover. Place the cast-iron pot in the oven for 6-8 hours, or until the beans are tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. Check and stir every couple of hours. If the beans are drying out, add some liquid, but I don't usually find myself needing to do this. For the last hour of cooking, I removed the top to further brown and caramelize the sauce.
**I like a lot of flavor, so I mixed 3 cups of the bean liquid (with bay leaf flavor) with 3 tsp of low-sodium vegetable broth concentrate - I use Vege-Base. You can also discard the bean liquid and just use 3 cups of low-sodium vegetable broth or 3 cups of plain water.