Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Baking a pot of beans.

Baked beans. © Ryan Schierling
Family recipes were the hook that reeled us in to blogging about food. We are nostalgic ones at heart, and were just looking for a way to give all those tenuously-preserved, barely-written-down mealtime staples a place to live on with some degree of veracity.

The funny thing I've learned along the way is that the recipes from my family share several things in common: they are typically minimal in ingredients, the recipes are virtually never deviated from, and even in light of these first two facts, they are universally the most nebulously documented recipes I've ever encountered. The sauces are “to taste." The quantities are sometimes not even estimated because the cook is presumed to “just know." These are the kind of recipes where, if you haven't had the privilege of standing at the cook's side carefully observing the nuances, and tasting along the way when a dish has been prepared, you have to call upon a family member who has been in that place a time or two and taken very good notes.

My family's recipe for baked beans is exactly this kind of recipe. It is a five-ingredient wonder that came by way of my great-great-grandmother (my father's mother's father's mother) who immigrated from England via Canada. I have no way of knowing how much it has, in fact, evolved over the years. Judging by my family's dogged recipe loyalty – not a single iota. But, judging by the inclusion of molasses – there was, almost certainly, a touch of New England (Boston-style) influence somewhere along the way.

Best I can tell, it's been a recipe more akin to an oral tradition than a secret formula. I have been given this recipe three ways, all with the same ingredients. One simply described verbally in the tradition of a “to taste” formula, and two which vary mostly on the amounts of sugar (noting that one didn't even offer the quantities for the beans or tomato juice). So, I've stitched the pieces together and offer this detailed recipe which I present only as a benevolent guideline for successfully making my great-great-grandma Scott's baked beans.

Baked beans from scratch are easy to prepare, but as with any recipe starting with dried beans, there's a commitment of time required to get them soaked and re-hydrated. Then, of course, you have the additional 5-6 hours of slow and low bake time to achieve that sweet saucy goodness.

For me, the prospect of a long day waiting for beans to cook is made particularly exciting because I get to use my ceramic 1950's vintage West Bend Bean Pot – it was designed to be used on an electric warmer (which didn't come with my pretty little $3.99 thrift shop find), but it is perfect for use in the oven with a piece of foil over the top instead of the lid (which has a plastic handle) during the first half of baking time. It's the perfect size for a pound of beans.

While my family may not be inclined to diverge from the tried-and-true – and, really, who can blame them (don't mess with a good thing, right?) – I'm not so much that way. It's not that I presume to improve upon this beloved family favorite, but because it is such a simple recipe it opens itself to some gentle nudges in flavor profile which I simply can't resist exploring. While there may be no hard and fast rules about cooking beans, there are tips and techniques that can certainly help assure success. Below the recipe I've made some important personal notes, so be sure to read all the way to the end before trying this one.
Baked Beans 

1 pound dry white Navy beans
7 cups distilled water
2 teaspoons kosher salt (plus additional to taste)
3 cups (24 ounces) tomato juice (up to 32 ounces, but adjust for seasoning & sweetness)
1/2-3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons molasses (any kind, even blackstrap)
2 tablespoons butter

Begin by bringing the 7 cups of distilled water to a boil in a 3-quart pot or deep saucepan. Sort the Navy beans carefully, removing any yellow beans or foreign items, rinse well in cold tap water, then add to the boiling water. Bring back to a full boil for about one minute, stir, and turn off heat. Let stand covered for about an hour to 1-1/2 hours. Bring back to a boil and let simmer until tender, not mushy (45 minutes, depending on beans and heat level). At about the 30 minute mark, add 2 teaspoons of salt. Drain beans into colander set over a large mixing bowl, reserving pot liquor. Return beans to pot.

Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees F. (The idea is to bake slow and low. You may go as low as 250 or as high as 325. Baking time will vary.)

To the beans add the tomato juice, brown sugar, sugar and molasses. Also add 1/2 cup of the liquid from cooking the beans. Combine well and taste test for sweetness and salt to taste. Ladle bean mixture into bean pot or a deep casserole dish, add butter (in pieces), and cover with oven-safe lid or aluminum foil. Bake covered for about two hours – stirring from time to time – then remove cover to allow liquid to continue to thicken and reduce for another two to three hours (continue to stir occasionally). Evaporation will depend upon how much surface area you have exposed. (This is why I like the proportions using the bean pot.) If your baking dish has more surface area, you may need to leave it covered a little longer or maintain the heat on the lower side for the final hours of baking.

Julie's Notes:
1) Distilled Water – While you may not have issues with hard water where you live, we've found that the safest way to assure tender beans from any type of dried beans is to use distilled water for the initial soaking/cooking process. 

2) Granulated Sugar – I honestly have no idea what the purpose is of such a small quantity of white sugar in this recipe. In fact, I'm pretty sure you could make this only using 3/4-1 cup of just dark brown sugar (omitting both the granulated and molasses) and get a nearly identical result. In homage to this recipe's brief transit through Canada, I like to substitute the granulated sugar with 2 tablespoons of real maple syrup. The overall sugar content can be adjusted to your taste (Aunt Norma says to "taste the juice only for sweetness" before it goes in the oven), but these are the preferred parameters they fall within for my family.

3) The Bean Liquid – Aunt Norma says to include the liquid from the beans and to make sure the pot is "good and juicy" before going in the oven. Because I've never seen how she cooks her beans, or how much liquid there is usually involved, I've been a bit more precise in the above recipe. The tomato broth, however, is definitely improved by the added flavor of the bean liquid, so I highly recommend including some of it.

4) Vegetarian – Substitute another fat for the knob of butter – or simply omit – and you're rocking vegan baked beans. (Unless that "other fat" is bacon grease, of course.)

5) Add Half an Onion! – I feel like doing this takes this old family recipe completely off the rails, but the subtle depth of flavor this adds makes it worth. Cut a large white onion in half from stem to stern, peel off the outside layers and trim up the base – then just stick it in the bottom of the pot before your beans go into the oven. It requires a little extra care when stirring periodically, then you just pull the whole thing out when your beans are done.

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