From Scratch: Low and slow baked beans


I confess that I love beans. Pinto, kidney, lentil, chickpeas, cannellini — you name it, I've cooked them all using packages of dried beans.

They are an excellent source of low-cost protein. Unlike canned beans, they don't have that tinny taste and can be salted and flavored the way you like them.

The only exception to my self-imposed rule was baked beans. For some reason, I was wedded to a company named Bush. I especially loved the flavor of their vegetarian beans. I was always scouring the supermarket ads looking for sales.

Then one day it dawned on me. Why didn't I make them myself?

Thus began the six-month baked bean experiment.

The attempts: First I tried making them in a crock pot. I had one I had bought at a yard sale but had never used. The beans seemed to take forever to cook.

My neighbor told me that you are not supposed to lift the lid during the cooking process. As a cook, I am constantly tasting and tinkering with dishes while on the stove. I couldn't stop myself from opening the lid every half hour or so. My beans finally cooked, but the taste was blah.

Next I tried the stovetop. The cooking process proceeded better and the flavor began to approach Bush's.

I had a setback on my penultimate attempt. I soaked the beans in the morning and planned to cook them in the evening, but the electricity went out and I had to wait till the next day. This long soaking time had a deleterious effect on the beans, turning them into mush.

After having to eat all these failed attempts, my husband politely suggested just buying the canned ones.

I tried one more time and eureka — two quarts of baked beans with perfect texture and flavor, vegetarian and gluten-free.

The winner: The ingredients, listed below, include molasses and maple syrup, which recall the colonial origins of the dish before there was refined sugar. The smoked paprika gives them that "bacony" taste without the added fat.

I pack the baked beans in pint containers and freeze them. A whole batch would be good to bring to a potluck.

1 pound navy beans

1 medium onion, diced

1/3 cup maple syrup

1/3 cup molasses

1/4 cup ketchup or tomato sauce

1 tablespoon prepared mustard

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)

Sort and rinse the dried beans and then place in a large pot. Cover the beans with 2 inches of water. Add one tablespoon salt. The brining process breaks down the skins of the beans and helps them cook faster and more evenly.

Let the beans soak overnight or about 8 hours.

Drain and rinse the beans and return them to the pot. Add the remaining ingredients and just enough water to cover the beans by about half an inch.

Cover the pot and cook on a gentle simmer for about four hours or until the beans have turned brown and the liquid has thickened. Keep an eye on the beans while cooking. If they look dry, add more water.

Alternatively, you could cook them in the oven at 300 degrees or in a crock pot. The cooking time depends on the freshness of the beans, but the key to great baked beans is low and slow.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section.