Once a customary ingredient in Boston baked beans recipes, baking soda alleviates the effects of gas-producing sugars present in beans by raising the pH of the water. The higher pH helps to soften the cellulose in the bean's cells walls, so the beans are easier to digest. It also ensures the beans are thoroughly tender by the time you serve them.
Pre-Cooking the Beans: First Method
Before cooking any type of bean, sort through them and remove any shriveled beans and debris. In a colander, rinse the beans under cold water. Soak 1 pound of dried beans in enough cold water to cover by 1 inch for a minimum of four hours or overnight. Drain the beans in a colander. Bring 10 cups of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the beans and a 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to the pot. Return to a boil, cover the pot, and boil over medium heat for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse the beans in a colander.
Pre-Cooking the Beans: Second Method
Add 1 pound of dried beans to a large pot along with 1 tablespoon of baking soda and enough water to cover the beans by 1 inch. Bring the beans and water to a boil, cover and cook for 45 minutes. Drain and rinse the beans in a colander. Discard the water. Transfer the beans to a 2 1/2- to 3-quart bean pot, Dutch oven or casserole dish.
Flavoring the Beans
Traditional core ingredients of a Boston baked beans recipe include light or dark brown sugar, molasses, dry mustard, salt, pepper, onion and salt pork. You can use bacon or ham instead of salt pork. For a Vermont twist, replace half of the molasses with maple syrup. Contribute bright flavor notes with splashes of vinegar and rum added to the beans toward the end of the cooking time. Aromatics, such as garlic and bay leaf, lend still more depth of flavor. To make vegetarian Boston baked beans, omit the salt pork and add a stick of butter and 1 teaspoon of of dried summer or winter savory herb. For vegan beans, add 1 teaspoon of vegan Worcestershire sauce and 1/4 pound of faux ham.
Basic Boston Baked Beans
In a bowl, mix all the ingredients except the salt pork and the onion. Combine with the beans and transfer the mixture to a bean pot, Dutch oven or casserole dish. Place the onion in the center of the beans. Pour in enough boiling water to cover the beans by 1/2 inch, stirring gently. Push the salt pork down into the beans, allowing part of it to protrude above the surface. Bake the beans at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for six to eight hours, or until they're tender and the liquid has reduced to a thick glaze. If you're using a bean pot or Dutch oven, bake the beans uncovered, or lightly covered with foil if using a casserole dish. Check the beans hourly. Add any acids, such as vinegar or rum, at the three-hour mark. Remove the whole onion before serving.
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