Boston baked beans and steamed brown bread spread with Philadelphia cream cheese. Isn't this a dinner we all grew up with?
The memory leaped to mind when I went searching for bean recipes yesterday. It's high time The Slow Cook gives more attention to legumes, meaning dried beans of one sort or another. Beans are packed with nutrition, and one of the best sources of calories. No fat, lots of fiber. What more could you ask for? Plus, you can easily grow them in your home garden, even right here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House.
I cracked open my copy of The Bean Bible, by Aliza Green. It's overflowing with excellent background information about beans. Unfortunately, the first three recipes I tried were failures in one way or another. Not by a little. By a lot. Green's recipe for Boston-style baked beans, for instance, took me at least 10 hours to cook. There was simply too much liquid in it. Mea cupla for assuming that a "bean bible" is actually the last word. I have since returned to my library and done some additional research.
Fact or fiction: Beans need to be soaked before cooking.
Some cooks insist on soaking beans to make them more digestible,or simply to reduce the cooking time. I usually soak mine overnight. Green advocates a hot soaking and a pre-cooking process, wherein 1 pound of Great Northern beans are brought to a boil in 8 cups of water and cooked for 2 minutes, then taken off the heat and allowed to soak for 1 hour. The beans are then drained, covered with another 8 cups of water, brought to a boil and simmered for 1 hour. All this before any other ingredients are added. Meanwhile, The New Best Recipe, the kitchen tome put out by Cook's Illustrated, says their numerous trials showed that soaking or pre-cooking is completely unnecessary.
Fact or fiction: Salt added too early to beans will toughen the skin, preventing them from absorbing liquid.
Aliza Green contends that both salt and sugar have the toughening effect. Hence her convoluted process of pre-soaking and pre-cooking her beans. Harold McGee, meanwhile, writing in his seminal On Food and Cooking, says salt does slow the absorption rate somewhat, but that beans pre-soaked in salted water actually cook faster. Furthermore, acids and sugars strengthen the cell walls of beans. Hence molasses--with its classic mix of acid and sugar--is particularly good at helping beans keep their shape during a long cooking process.
Boston baked beans traditionally start with a small white bean (smaller than Great Northern, but that's what I had in my pantry), along with molasses, dark brown sugar, dry mustard and salt pork. These are all classic ingredients that permeate the cuisine of New England. How to finish the beans becomes a matter of taste, and deciding how much of each ingredient to use.
The baked beans I made following Aliza Green's instructions eventually turned out fine--a dense mass of dark beans with a strong molasses flavor. They were much closer to the baked beans I remember from childhood than the beans from a can of Bush's Boston Recipe Baked Beans, which to me tasted like ordinary beans. (But then Bush's Beans hail from Tennessee. What do they know about Boston baked beans?) You can see the difference in this photo--my beans on the right, Bush's beans on the left.
I like the Best Recipe approach, which offers some simple refinements to the classic recipe. For instance, they added diced onion for flavor (Aliza Green calls for placing a whole onion studded with cloves in the bean pot). Also, they suggest cubing the salt pork and browning it before mixing it with the beans. Again, more flavor, compared to the traditional method of simply laying a scored slab of salt pork on top of the beans. They prefer using prepared mustard rather than dry mustard on grounds that most home cooks are more likely to have a jar of prepared mustard on hand. And they like a bit of cider vinegar added to the mix to cut the sweetness of the molasses.
So where does that leave us? I'm not exactly sure, since I liked the end result of Aliza Green's method, but I would gladly incorporate some of the suggestions from Best Recipe. If you pre-cook the beans as described above, proceed by lightly browning 6 ounces salt pork, trimmed of any rind and cut into small cubes, at the bottom of a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add 1 onion, finely diced, to the pot and cook until the onion is soft, another 8 minutes or so. Remove from heat, skim off excess fat and reserve.
In a large bowl, mix 3/4 cup molasses with 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons prepared brown mustard, such as Gulden's, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper and 4 cups water.
Pour the prepared beans into the pot with the salt pork and onion. Mix well. Add the molasses mixture,which should easily cover the beans. If not, add more water. Cover the pot and place it in a pre-heated 300 degree oven and cook for about five hours, or until the beans are almost cooked through, adding water to the pot from time to time as needed. Remove the lid, stir the beans, and continue baking until the beans are completely tender and all of the liquid has been absorbed or cooked off. What you should have is a thick muddle of beans, not a sloppy bean soup. If necessary, continue baking with the lid off until any excess liquid is eliminated. Finally, stir in a tablespoon of cider vinegar.
If you do not pre-cook the beans, Best Recipe calls for adding 9 cups of water to the molasses mix and cooking for 4 hours, then removing the lid and baking another 1 hour.
Note: Cooking times for these baked beans are all over the map. I consulted all of my New England cook books, as well as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Farmer, a real person, ran the Boston Cooking School for a time around the turn of the 20th Century). Most call for a cooking time of six or seven yours. Be your own judge.
But enough of how I bake my beans. Let's return to the original question: How do you bake yours?
Tomorrow we'll be looking at steamed brown bread. It's hard to beat the stuff out of a can for childhood memories. But if you can't find it at the store, you can make your own.