As with many classic dishes, there is no one right way to make baked beans. Family recipes focus on regional flavors and individual preferences, while remaining true to the basic technique.
Soak the Beans
This dish begins with dried beans. Measure them into a large bowl, and add water to cover them by at least 3 inches. Let the beans soak overnight to soften and rehydrate.
As you pour the beans into the bowl, sift them through your fingers to look for pebbles. It's easier to remove them now than it will be later in the process.
Rinse and Drain
Pour the water and beans into a colander. Run cold water over them to rinse off any debris that has loosened during the soaking process.
Let the beans drain until all of the excess water is gone, about 10 minutes.
Sauté onions, garlic, and bacon or pork belly in a Dutch oven. If you plan to use a slow cooker, use a large skillet for this step.
Top the aromatics with the soaked beans. For a slow cooker, add the beans and onions, garlic and bacon to the ceramic bowl. Add additional ingredients and regional flavors at this time.
New England-style baked beans are typically sweet, showcasing molasses or even maple syrup in the sauce.
Southern-style beans often rely on a barbecue flavor profile -- and are also known as barbecued baked beans.
Mix the sauce ingredients and pour it over the beans. Stir the bean mixture gently, to combine without breaking up the beans.
While acidic ingredients such as tomatoes will toughen the beans' skin, this also helps them hold together during the long cooking process.
The secret ingredient in baked beans is time. Cook them in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 3 to 5 hours, or until the beans are cooked through, the sauce is thick and unctuous, and the flavors have combined.
If you use a slow cooker, set it to low and let it cook for 8 to 10 hours.
Regardless of your cooking method, stir the beans occasionally -- about once every hour or two -- to prevent burning and to check the liquid level. If the sauce is too thick, add water or stock to thin it.
If you have time, let the beans rest in the refrigerator until the next day. The flavors will mellow even further, and the beans will absorb more of the sauce.
If you don't have days to prepare, you can still enjoy baked beans made from scratch.
You can speed up the soaking process by adding heat. Put the beans in a large pot and cover them with water. Bring to a boil and cook for two minutes. Soak for 1 to 4 hours.
Cook Sauce Separately
Simmer the beans for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. While they cook, sauté the aromatics and bacon or pork, and prepare the sauce. Simmer it on low heat until it thickens.
When the beans are fully cooked, add them to the sauce and stir to combine.
If the sauce isn't as thick as you'd like, remove 1/2 to 1 cup of beans. Mash them, and then stir them back in to thicken the dish.
Baked beans are a traditional accompaniment to grilled hot dogs, but they can also complement a variety of other meals:
- Glazed ham stands up to the richness of baked beans.
- Green salad with vinaigrette acts as a counterpoint, making the beans the star of the meal.
- Serve them alongside fried eggs for a hearty brunch.
- Top baked beans with grilled or fried sausages and serve with crusty bread.