Seeking Simplicity: Stripped Down Baked Beans

By , February 24, 2011

Simplifying works on many different levels, large and small. We find the small ones add up in significant ways. A prime example of this is simplifying recipes.

For instance, I like to make old fashioned baked beans. Recipes for this dish abound, in many varieties. I’ve tried as many as I can lay my hands on, if they meet one restriction: each new recipe must use less ingredients than the previous ones.

My current recipe comes from the The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, 7th Edition, 1942 (ask your grandmother!). We learned about this particular edition of this book from the book Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet (check your local independent bookstore). Published in the first years of WWII, the old cookbook is a reliable source for our homestead, as it excels in getting by on fewer ingredients.

This recipe beat out my previous favorite, which relied on a good amount of ketchup and other ingredients in the recipe. That gave the dish a flavor similar to the American standard, pork and beans, which I dearly love, but the newer recipe’s frugality appealed.

homemade baked beans

Baked beans. I added a bit too much liquid to this latest batch, but it’s all good. (Photo: Mark Zeiger.)

The key to simplifying recipes is repetition. When you find the simpler recipe, even if its flavor isn’t the same as what’s come before, it will become The Flavor if served often enough. Much of the pleasure of food, beyond intrinsic flavor, is association. The humbler, less sweet recipe has come to be what we think of when we think baked beans. We might enjoy one of the older recipes if we made it again, but it wouldn’t be “quite right.”

The advantage of seeking out and cultivating a taste for the simplest recipes lies in the simple expedient of getting by on less. Fewer ingredients means fewer nights when we can’t make that recipe because we don’t have everything we need for it.

Here’s our baked bean recipe, with variations and adjusted to our current usage:

1 3/4 C beans (pea, red, pinto, kidney, white, whatever’s on hand)

5 C cold water

¼ lb salt pork, ham hock, meaty ham bone, or bacon

1 small onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 1/2 tsp salt (this could be halved?)

¼ tsp dry mustard

1/8 tsp pepper

¼ C molasses

Wash beans, sort, and soak in cold water overnight. Cover and bring to a boil in the same water in which they were soaked. (Or, change the soak water a few times to reduce gas!) Skim; then simmer, covered until easily pierced with a fork—about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving liquid.

Place in 2 qt. pot with meat and onion. Put salt, mustard, pepper and molasses in pan and fill with about 2 C of bean liquid. Sir until dissolved, then pour over beans. Cover beans with liquid, cover, and bake in slow oven at 300°F until tender (about 3 1/2 hours) adding bean liquid if necessary. Then bake uncovered 1/2 hour longer. Serves 6.

Quick Soak Method: Bring rinsed, sorted beans to boil for 2 minutes (cover with water to 1″ over). Remove from heat, soak 1 hour. Drain liquid, proceed with recipe.

Pressure Cooking Beans: Soak and drain. Add 3 cups water for each cup of beans. Do not salt. Add 1T oil per cup of water. Pressure cooker should be 1/2 full or less. Add epazote to reduce gas. Pinto beans cook at full steam 4-6 minutes, white beans 8-12 minutes. Let pressure drop naturally.

I take a more haphazard approach to the process. I use a cast iron dutch oven, and cook on the woodstove. Timing is out the window in favor of the actual state of the beans. Once they are cooked properly, usually with the onion, I add the other ingredients. Holding back the salt and salted meat prevents legumes from hardening. I then let the dish cook for as long as it will, or until dinner time. I almost always find that it’s done long before then. If I use a ham bone, I pull that out late in the game, cool it, remove the meat, and return that to the pot. The result is a hearty, rustic dish that can be eaten by itself or, more commonly, as a side dish to just about anything.

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