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Boston baked beans are a delicious old-fashioned New England tradition, but most store-bought baked beans today are full of all sorts of questionable ingredients. Instead of store bought beans, I wanted to find a truly authentic recipe that used only real, natural ingredients that I could make myself at home.
The recipe I found came from the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer (published in 1896). This is the description of the recipe (or receipt if you want to use the period term) as printed in her book:
“Pick over one quart pea beans, cover with cold water, and soak over night. In morning, drain, cover with fresh water, heat slowly (keeping water below boiling point), and cook until skins will burst . . .
Drain beans, throwing bean-water out of doors, not in sink. Scald rind of one-half pound fat salt pork, scrape, remove one-fourth inch slice and put in bottom of bean-pot. Cut through rind of remaining pork every one-half inch, making cuts one inch deep. Put beans in pot and bury pork in beans, leaving rind exposed. Mix one tablespoon salt, one tablespoon molasses, and three tablespoons sugar; add one cup boiling water, and pour over beans; then add enough more boiling water to cover beans.
Cover bean-pot, put in oven, and bake slowly six or eight hours, uncovering the last hour of cooking, that rind may become brown and crisp. Add water as needed. Many feel sure that by adding with seasonings one-half tablespoon mustard, the beans are more easily digested. If pork mixed with lean is preferred, use less salt.”
This recipe is quite long, but it actually gives a pretty good description of the ingredients and how to prepare and cook the beans, which is a lot more than most old-fashioned recipes will tell you! This recipe would make a lot of beans, though, so unless you’re making beans to feed a crowd, you might want to cut it in half like I did. Cutting the recipe in half will give you about four cups of cooked beans.
Even though the recipe instructions might seem a bit involved at first, these beans were actually really easy to make. I was surprised by the fact that the color of the cooked beans was lighter than most canned baked beans I’ve had (maybe because there are no artificial colors in these homemade ones?), but I thought that they tasted as good or even better than store-bought beans. And the fun of trying an authentic Boston Baked Beans recipe is definitely something you can’t get from store-bought beans in a can!
Here is my modern adaptation of the recipe:
- 2 cups Navy beans - or any other dry bean you have on hand. (Navy and pea beans are the same and are also sometimes called Boston or Yankee beans. I've used several different types of heirloom bean varieties with good success.)
- 1/2 cup of salt pork or bacon, chopped into small pieces (*See notes section below)
- 1/2 Tbs. sea salt
- 1 heaping Tbs. molasses. (Or if you like a stronger molasses flavor, you can use more. I often use 2 heaping Tbs. because I like the molasses flavor.)
- 1 1/2 Tbs. whole cane sugar (or you can use brown sugar)
- 1/4 tsp. ground mustard
- 1/2 cup boiling water, plus enough water to cover the beans (about 2 cups)
- The night before you plan to cook your beans, take your two cups of beans and put them in a saucepan or pot (after picking through them first quickly just to make sure there aren't any broken or shriveled ones). Pour enough water into the pan to cover the beans and let them sit over night.
- In the morning, strain the beans and discard the water. (Since it was freezing cold outside, I ignored Fannie's instruction about throwing the water outside instead of in the sink. I'm not quite sure why she said that anyways...)
- Give the beans a quick rinse in the strainer and then put them back in the saucepan with some fresh water. Let the beans simmer in the water for about 40 minutes. (Note: It's important not to let them go above a simmer or they could end up getting mushy.)
- Strain the beans again and put them in whatever pot you plan to bake them in. If you want them to look truly authentic and old-fashioned, you can use a baked bean pot, or if you don't have one of those then you can use a casserole dish that will fit at least a quart or larger.
- Put the pork, salt, molasses, sugar, and mustard in with the beans and mix them all together. Pour the 1/2 cup of boiling water over the beans and then add enough cool water to make sure the beans are covered (about 2 more cups). Then cover the pot and put it in the oven to bake.
- Since old-fashioned ovens didn't allow cooks to have the same control over temperature that our modern ovens do, this recipe didn't specify a cooking temperature, but since the recipe said to bake them slowly, that translates to a lower oven temperature. I baked mine at 325 degrees for the first few hours and then turned the oven down to 280 degrees for the remainder of the cooking time.
- Check the beans every once in a while to make sure they aren't drying out, and add a bit more water if necessary. Take the cover off the pot for the last hour of cooking. (Note: the original recipe said to cook the beans for 6-8 hours, but my beans were actually done after about 5 hours, so it's a good idea to check them every hour or so to make sure they aren't over-cooking. (If you want them to cook more slowly, you could try keeping the oven temperature lower at 280 for the whole time.)
I cut up my salt pork in small pieces so it could be eaten with the beans instead of leaving it as one large piece to take out, and I simmered the salt pork first in a saucepan until it was cooked through. If you can't find salt pork, or if you prefer bacon, you can use that as a substitute instead. I've used bacon several times when making this recipe, and it's delicious!
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Other Baked Bean Recipes to Try:
Slow Cooker Baked Beans by 100 Days of Real Food
Luau Baked Beans with Pineapple by Oh Lardy
Baked Beans – Tossing the Can by Jen and Joey Go Green
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.