The recipe for Boston baked beans is an endearing classic and has been a staple of the New England diet for more than two centuries. Interestingly, you don’t see baked beans in restaurants around Boston except for a handful of places, most notably at Durgin-Park where they’ve been using a virtually unchanged recipe since 1827. These days, the baked beans most folks know is the mass-produced kind from a can or glass jar bought at the supermarket. They don’t know what they’re missing!
I make baked beans the old-fashioned way: nestled into a bed of ash and hot coals at the edge of our fireplace, happily bubbling away for the better part of a day and filling our house with an intoxicating smell of burning wood and caramelized sugar. There is a distinct smokiness to the beans that can only be achieved from cooking in a fireplace, and it’s part of what makes them taste so good. I use a reproduction 1830s-style redware clay beanpot made at Old Sturbridge Village. This pot is used solely for Boston baked beans, and even after it’s been washed the scent of molasses remains – not a bad thing!
There’s something immensely satisfying about making a recipe the same way it was done 200 years ago. I enjoy the attention that needs to be paid to the condition of the fire, which in turn affects how the beans will cook.
When I make baked beans, I follow the recipe below, as found on the Durgin-Park website. It will taste excellent if you follow it exactly, although I have altered the measurements to my own liking and have added a few secret ingredients that I think enhance the flavor without deviating from how baked beans are supposed to taste. Some additions that I haven’t yet tried but I think would work real well include any of the following: a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves, or a bit of grated nutmeg. Tinker around and see what works for you, although you can follow Durgin-Park’s recipe for the rest of your life and never need to alter a thing.
An interesting side note – ether soaking or parboiling the beans in water with some baking soda added to the liquid apparently decreases the beans’ gassy side effects. There is debate as to whether this really works, but I err on the side of caution and use the baking soda method anyway!
- It helps to have a large quantity of reserved fireplace ash on hand to create a mound with a well in the center for the beanpot.
- Plan ahead of time. The beans cook for 6+ hours, and you need to have a fire that’s been burning for at least 2 hours to have enough embers to keep the beanpot at a low simmer. If you plan to have your beans with dinner at 7 PM, that means you need to start your fire by 11 AM at the latest. If you don’t already have reserved fireplace ash, plan on starting the fire at least 4 hours before putting the beans in.
- When it’s time to set the beans in the fireplace, create a mound of ashes and embers about 5 inches deep and make a well in the center to hold the beanpot. Make sure the mound is 6-12 inches away from the fire, otherwise the beans will boil instead of slowly simmering.
- Put the beanpot in place and use your fireplace shovel to build up more ash around the sides.
- Keep the fire going, but make sure it’s not a raging fire. You should only add 1 log at a time, and keep the fire going only enough to keep the beanpot at a low, slow simmer. There should only be bubbles along the edges of the pot closest to the fire or next to some hot embers.
- Periodically use your fireplace tongs to place fresh, hot embers around the beanpot to keep it at a simmer.
- Check the beanpot every 20-30 minutes and add water whenever the water line goes below the top of the beans. You always want the cooking liquid to be at the same height or slightly above the top of the beans & bacon.
- During the last 30 minutes, remove the lid and let the liquid cook off so a syrupy texture develops. Stir the beans to prevent the top layer from drying out and to keep the bacon/salt pork from burning.
- When the beans are at the desired consistency, remove pot from the fire and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Notes: If you do not have a 2 quart beanpot, use a Dutch oven or large covered casserole dish. Use Navy beans if pea beans aren’t available (and they probably won’t be). Use regular bacon cut into 1-inch pieces if salt pork isn’t available. You can cut this recipe in half if you’re cooking for 6 or fewer people.
- 2-quart bean pot
- 2/3 cup molasses
- 2 pounds dry beans (Navy beans work best)
- 4 teaspoons salt
- 1 pound salt pork
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 8 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 medium-sized onion
- Soak beans overnight. In the morning parboil them for ten minutes with a teaspoon of baking soda. Then run cold water through the beans in a colander or strainer. Dice rind of salt pork in inch squares, cut in half. Put half on bottom of bean pot with whole onion. Put beans in pot. Put the rest of the pork on top. Mix other ingredients with hot water. Pour over beans. Put in 300-degree oven for six hours. This will make ten full portions.
- “You can’t let the pot just set in the oven” explains Edward. “You’ve got to add water as necessary to keep the beans moist. And you can’t be impatient and add too much water at a time and flood the beans.”
- Edward produces his Boston baked beans under the watchful eye of Albert Savage who has been the head chef at Durgin-Park for the past 35 years. Albert is probably the world’s leading specialist in Yankee cookery. He himself is an old Yankee who was born in Lithuania. He has one assistant who is a Bulgarian Yankee and another who is a Polish Yankee.
- “The chief difference between Yankee cooking and most other kinds of cooking is that we make our food taste like what it’s supposed to be,” says Albert. In other kinds of cooking chefs seem determined to make the food taste like something else.”
from the Durgin-Park website