Thursday, February 10, 2011

World's Best Baked Beans? We'll see when my family gets home...

Today I made my first batch of homemade baked beans and they were pretty delicious if I do say so myself.  (It's early here, and nobody else in my family has tried them yet, but I couldn't resist writing this post before dinnertime.)
Baked beans in my grandmother's Guardian Ware pot, Feb. 10, 2011.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm in the middle of a year long project to cook from my great-grandmother's Inglenook Cookbook and I got some of the ideas for this recipe from that book.  Unfortunately, this cookbook was first printed in 1906 and it's contributors assumed that anyone reading the cookbook already knows how to cook.  I've been cooking for all my adult life, and I often cook without using a recipe, but I didn't grow up eating baked beans so this recipe took a bit of guesswork.

My mother is famous for her Senate Bean Soup, which is really more like a pot of beans with chunks of ham-- not really a soup at all-- so after I consulted the seven baked bean recipes described in the Inglenook Cookbook, I immediately called my mother for some advice.  After much consultation, here's the recipe we came up with.

Baked Beans for the Harried Housewife

This version of baked beans comes from a Virginia housewife in a California kitchen.  I mention this bit of personal information to explain why I used chunks of pre-cooked home-cured country ham in this recipe.

Don't worry if you don't have chunks of pre-cooked home-cured country ham in your freezer.  You can easily substitute a thick slice of pancetta cut into small cubes or even slices of thick-cut bacon.  I bet this recipe would even be good made without meat, although I love ham so much that I probably won't get around to trying that any time soon.

I've called this recipe Baked Beans for the Harried Housewife because I never seem to have time to soak the beans overnight and I was happy to discover that you don't have to.  It's much faster to bring the beans to a boil on the stove top and let them sit for an hour.  I also discovered that my beans cooked much faster than all seven of the original recipes suggested they would.  This is either because early 20th century cooks liked their beans really mushy or because boiling the beans first really speeds up the process.

This recipe calls for chili sauce, which may seem a little weird, but it was suggested by Sister Viola Mohler in her recipe for baked beans in the Inglenook cookbook.  I was suprised that chili sauce even existed in 1906, but there it was, so I decided to try it.  I love chili sauce and will find any excuse to include it.

My recipe also includes a small amount of baking soda because several recipes from the Inglenook Cookbook suggested it and an entire generation of Brethren cooks can't be wrong.  A little online research suggests that the baking soda is supposed to cut down on the potential for unwanted gas (in the eater, not the dish).  I'll let you know if it works after everybody tries them, but so far so good.

  • 1 pound Navy beans
  • 4 ounces pre-cooked country ham or salt pork (or bacon or pancetta)
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 4 tablespoons chili sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 5 cups of water (or enough water to cover beans in pot-- approximately 2 1/2 cups for each of two additions of water, but this will vary based on the size of your pot).   
Notes:  If country ham or salt pork is unavailable, you can substitute 8 slices of thick-cut bacon or 4 ounces of pancetta, approximately 1/4 inch thick.  Chop bacon or pancetta into small pieces and fry in a medium hot skillet until fat is rendered out of the meat.  Reserve rendered fat for possible addition later in the cooking process.

Beans halfway through cooking time.
  • Rinse and drain Navy beans and put in a 1-quart oven-safe sauce pot with lid or a small dutch oven.
  • Cover beans with approximately 2 1/2 cups of water and place on stovetop.  Heat beans until water is boiling.  
  • Turn off heat and let beans soak in hot water for one hour or until beans have softened slightly.  You will be able to bite through a bean, but it will still be crunchy and taste like grass.
  • Rinse beans and return to pot.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot, including enough water to cover the beans (approximately 2 1/2 cups.)
  • Stir all ingredients and place back on stovetop.  Bring to a boil and put into preheated 300 degree oven for a total of one and a half to two hours.  
  • One hour into the baking process, stir ingredients in pot.  Make sure the beans still have some liquid in the pan.  If beans have dried out (which is unlikely), add additional water.  Return pot to the oven and continue baking.
  • One hour into the cooking time, take the lid off the pan and check for seasoning.  If you've added country ham, you will probably not need any salt.  If you're using pancetta or bacon, you may want to add up to one teaspoon of salt at this point.  And if you're feeling really decadent, you might want to add a teaspoon or two of the rendered bacon fat.  
  • Stir beans and continue to bake for 30 minutes.  
  • After beans have cooked for a total of one and half hours, check again for doneness.  If beans still need additional cooking time, remove lid and continue cooking.  Add a bit more water if pan has dried out before beans reach desired texture.  Beans are done when soft, but not mushy.  
Close view of finished baked beans in pot, February, 2010.