Exploring Boston Baked Beans
Across the Years and Around the Globe
In countless homes around the world, as the sun rises, one of the first tasks of the day is the soaking of beans for the evening meal. From French cassoulet to the red beans and rice of the Gulf coast states, from Spanish fabada to Tuscan ribollita, beans are recognized around the globe as not just an inexpensive peasant food but as an integral part of cultural tradition and history.
In the Northeast corner of the United States, slow-cooked baked beans simmered in molasses is a signature dish which dates back to Native American tribes. In her 1975 publication The East Hampton Cookbook of Menus and Recipes, for the 80th Anniversary of the Ladies Village Improvement Society of East Hampton, Ruth A. Spear wrote:
"Although Boston is credited with having originated baked beans, it actually was the Indians who soaked their beans (just as we do), then combined them with deer fat and onion in a stout clay pot and baked them overnight."
The Puritans who settled in Massachusetts Bay in the 17th century strictly observed the Sabbath; no work could be done from sundown on Saturday until Sunday evening. They would prepare a pot of beans on Saturday, keep it warm in the wood-fired oven, and consume it upon returning home from church worship services the next day. That low-and-slow overnight cooking reduced the beans to a creamy consistency and saturated every morsel with the sweet-salty flavors of molasses and pork.
New England colonies and the city of Boston, in particular, were actively involved in "triangular trade," a three-part transaction which originally involved exchanges of commodities between Africa, South American plantations, and European countries.
In a typical exchange, beads, metals, cloth, and guns were shipped to Africa and traded for slaves. In the next leg of the exchange, ships took the slaves to plantations, where the slaves were forced to toil in sugar cane fields in the Caribbean or tobacco fields in America. Conditions for the slaves were deplorable, and mortality rates of 12 percent or more were chalked up as "the cost of doing business." The final leg of the three-part transaction was the shipment of sugar, molasses, and tobacco to Europe.
One circle of trade could take as long as a year to complete.
The Triangular Trade came to Boston in the 17th century. Local merchants discovered that New England colonies could replace England in the exchange of goods. Ships from Boston carried rum made in New England to Africa to trade for slaves that were then brought to Caribbean plantations, where molasses (liquid sugar) was purchased and brought back to New England to make rum. The New England route was shorter and therefore faster to complete than the traditional European one.
And therein lies the key; the common thread which made baked beans and Boston almost synonymous is molasses. Molasses is an integral part of the flavor of baked beans, and molasses was the commodity shipped from the Caribbean to Boston Harbor where it was distilled to make rum.
The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919
The story of Boston, baked beans, and molasses would be incomplete without mention of the great flood.
Langone Park in North Boston overlooks the Boston Harbor. Today the park is the site of baseball diamonds, a basketball court, and three bocce courts, a green oasis in the midst of a city of almost 700,000. One hundred years ago the landscape was much different. The area was densely populated with Irish and Italian immigrants, mostly day laborers, and dock workers, with some skilled workers in blacksmith shops, a slaughterhouse, and the railway.
Near the railway tracks was a massive tank, 50 feet in height, built of steel plates and thousands of steel rivets. The tank was capable of storing up to 2.5 million gallons of molasses and was owned by United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA). At one time USIA used that Cuban import to make rum, but with Prohibition, they switched to the manufacture of industrial alcohol.
On January 15, 1919, that molasses holding tank was filled to capacity. Shortly after 12 noon, the tank ruptured, releasing a 15-foot high flood that traveled 35 miles per hour. To some, the rumble sounded like one of the elevated trains on the nearby tracks. Others felt the ground shake, rocking buildings off of their foundations. According to the Boston Globe:
Robert Burnett was eating dinner with his family at 536 Commercial St., which was opposite from the tank and had a view of the elevated rail. “There was a rumble–no roar or explosion. I thought it was an elevated train until I heard a swish as if a wind was rushing. Then it became dark. I looked out the windows and saw this great black wave coming. It didn’t rush. It just rolled slowly; it seemed, like the side of a mountain falling into space.
Buildings were crushed, 21 people lost their lives and another 150 were injured. The damages totaled more than $100 million in today’s money.
Now that we understand a bit of the history, let's look at each of the basic components of Boston baked beans and then a few recipes.
The Basic Components
There are almost countless dried beans from which to choose, but for Boston baked beans, the navy (white) bean should be your first (and only) choice. They are small, have tender skins (not thick and tough like kidney beans), and cook down to a soft, creamy texture. That creamy center is also somewhat like a sponge—it grasps and holds on tight to the color and flavors of the molasses, seasonings, and pork fat. That, my friends, is why in this dish the navy bean is your best friend.
Now, many (dare I say most?) recipes call for canned navy beans. That's all well and good and I certainly understand that time can be a factor. However, there is a way to use dry beans (which are sodium-free and much, much less expensive) and yet not spend an entire day (or like the Puritans, an overnight bake in the brick oven) to make that toothsome pot of baked beans. I'll share that recipe and a few others with you below.
Salt pork is salt-cured fat from the belly of the pig. Think of bacon but without the meaty part. It provides flavor and tasty, tasty drippings to season your onions and beans.
Molasses is a byproduct of the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets. There are four types of molasses:
- Light molasses: This version is lighter in color, mild, sweet. It is favored as a topping on pancakes or oatmeal because of its subtle flavor.
- Dark molasses: After the second boiling (processing) of the sugar dark molasses is made. As one might expect it is darker in color and stronger in flavor than its light counterpart. The flavor is slightly bitter. Dark molasses is commonly used in gingerbread.
- Blackstrap: After the third extraction of sugar from sugar care you have blackstrap molasses. It is extremely dark, strong, and bittersweet.
- Sorghum: Although considered a type of molasses, sorghum is technically not molasses at all. It is an extract from the sorghum plant. It is also known as unsulphured, West Indies, or Barbados molasses.
For the best flavor, you should choose dark molasses for your Boston baked beans.
"Quicker" Baked Beans
Here's the recipe that uses dried beans, but streamlines the process by using baking soda. The chefs of America’s Test Kitchen meticulously and exhaustively test recipes to ascertain the science behind ingredients, how those ingredients interact, and the optimum amounts of those ingredients to achieve perfection. This recipe is an adaptation of the Boston baked beans formulated by ATK but the narrative (instructions) are my own.
- 3 quarts of water
- 1 pound (2 ½ cups) dried navy beans
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- 6 ounces salt pork, rind removed, cut into ¼-inch pieces
- 1 cup yellow onion, chopped fine
- 5 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 5 tablespoons molasses, divided
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard, divided
- 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- Liquid measuring cup
- Dry measurement cups and spoons
- Large Dutch oven with a lid (cast iron is best)
- Sharp knife for chopping
- Cutting board
- Large stirring spoon
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Place 3 quarts (12 cups) of water, beans, and baking soda in the Dutch oven. Bring to a boil on the stove over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-high and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Drain in a colander, discarding all of the cooking water.
- Dry the Dutch oven and return to the stove. Add the salt pork to the pan and cook over medium heat until the pork pieces are crisp and browned and the fat has rendered out, stirring frequently.
- Add the onions to the Dutch oven and continue to cook and stir for 5 minutes, until the onion begins to soften.
- Stir in 4 cups water, 4 tablespoons of the molasses, the Worchestershire sauce, 3 teaspoons of the Dijon, the vinegar, and the beans. Bring to a boil. Cover and place pot in the preheated oven. Bake until beans are almost tender, about 1 ½ hours.
- Remove the lid and continue to bake until beans are completely tender, about 30 minutes more. When the beans are done stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of molasses and 1 teaspoon of mustard. Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper as needed.
Aunt Polly's Killer Baked BeansClick thumbnail to view full-size
I got this recipe from my friend Shauna Bowling (you might know her as Brave Warrior). Her Aunt Polly was one of 10 children, born and raised in Kennett, Missouri.
- 3 15-ounce cans Great Northern white beans, rinsed and drained
- 1/2 chopped large sweet onion (Vidalia when in season is best)
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon dry (ground) mustard
- 7-8 shakes of Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1/3 jar (4 ounces) Grandma's molasses
- fresh ground pepper to taste
- 3 pieces thick-cut applewood smoked bacon, cut into thirds
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Combine all ingredients in a large Dutch oven. Stir gently after each ingredient addition. You don't want to break up the beans.
- Put raw bacon strips on top of the bean mixture.
- Bake for two hours.
- Remove from oven, let cool for a few minutes and cover until ready to serve.
- To make this dish for vegetarians or vegans, omit the bacon and Worcestershire sauce.
I am so happy to be writing with such a close-knit group of friends. Thank you to Sha for sharing this recipe. I always say that the one thing we have in common is that we all eat; food is the common element that unites us and makes us a community and now, a recipe from years ago from someone who was loved and cherished by many, can live on.
Vegetarian Baked Beans
The cooks at The Spruce have developed a vegetarian version of baked beans. The umami-rich flavor of soy sauce (admirably) stands in for salt pork in this dish of beans that can be ready in less than 90 minutes.
Boston Brown Bread
A perfect savory pot of Boston baked beans simply must be accompanied by a can (yes, I said can) of Boston brown bread. Authentic brown bread is steamed (not baked). It comes out dense and moist (almost like a steamed pudding) and is rich, sweet, and smoky with the flavors of whole grain, dried fruits, and dark blackstrap molasses.
Andrew Janjigian of America's Test Kitchen has refined the decades-old traditional recipe to utilize 28-ounce BPA-lining-free cans (who has 1-pound coffee cans anymore?) and presents not only the recipe but the history of the bread and an entertaining/informative video of the process.
- 10-quart stockpot with lid
- 2 16-inch by 12-inch sheets of aluminum foil
- non-stick cooking spray
- 2 28-ounce BPA-free aluminum cans (washed and dried)
- Dry measurement cups and spoons
- Liquid measurement cup
- 2 large mixing bowls
- Wire whisk
- Rubber scraper
- Jar lifters (used for canning)
- Wire cooling rack
- 3 quarts water
- 3/4 cup rye flour
- 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
- 3/4 cup white cornmeal (fine grain, not grits or coarse-grain)
- 1 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 2/3 cups buttermilk
- 1/2 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- 3/4 cup raisins
- Fold each sheet of foil in half to make an 8-inch by 12-inch rectangle. Spray the center of each rectangle with the non-stick cooking spray.
- Spray the inside of each can (bottom and sides) with the non-stick cooking spray.
- In a large mixing bowl whisk together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
- In the other mixing bowl combine the buttermilk, molasses, butter, and raisins. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix with the rubber scraper, stirring until all of the flour is moistened and no lumps remain (well, except for the raisins of course).
- Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cans. Cover with the foil (sprayed side down). Make sure that the foil snuggly seals the cans.
- Place the cans in the stockpot. The water should come about half-way up the sides of the cans. Bring the heat down to a simmer. Cover the stockpot and cook the bread until a wooden skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 2 hours. Don't allow the water in the stockpot to boil away; if you need to add additional water, add hot water.
- Use the jar lifter to remove the cans from the stockpot. Allow the bread to cool for 20 minutes, then remove from the pans and set on the cooling rack. Allow to cool 1 hour before slicing.
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© 2019 Linda Lum