In Search of Baked Beans

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You’re sitting in a wet field, surrounded by cars, trying to keep your hands warm against a plastic cup of hot tea. Listening to the patter of weak drizzle echoing against your tent’s flysheet, you and your friends are discussing the day ahead. You had planned a nice long hike, or a bike ride. You had considered surfing. As the sky turns from slate grey to pale grey, all you can think about is getting warm—but you don’t want to be the first to say it. You feel the damp seeping into your jeans through the camp chair you accidentally left out all night, but it wouldn’t do any good to change clothes since the rest of your bag sat under a leak in the tent while you slept. Finally (bless him) a friend jokes that you could just spend the day in the pub instead of doing something outdoors. I mean, after all…it’s not the best day for a hike.

A little too quickly, everyone in the group agrees. Yeah, why not? Let’s just spend the day in the pub. Filled with renewed motivation at the hope of finding a dark cozy place with a blazing fire, you all spring into action to make and consume breakfast. This is Summer in England.

navy-beans

Sliced bread toasting over an open flame? Check. Hot tea with milk? Check. Thick rashers of bacon burning slightly on the camp stove? Check. Can of baked beans open at the ready? Absolutely. But not just any baked beans: Heinz baked beans.

An institution at breakfast, lunch, or can’t-be-bothered-with dinner, in England Heinz baked beans will grace your plate in one of three ways. First thing in the morning, they are part of the ‘full English’ breakfast. Later in the day you may have them over toast (with a little grated cheddar if you’re feeling luxurious) or over a baked potato. Ask any Brit how they feel about their beans and they will cite one of those three meals, with plenty of mmm-ing and eye closing.

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Each US region claims ownership over baked beans too. Southerners wax lyrical about their MeeMaw’s special recipe, while Westerners call it cowboy food, and Northerners are thinking ‘duh, ever heard of Beantown?’

Of course, baked beans are actually American. I hate to break it to you, English family-and-friends, but it is true. If it makes you feel any better, they’re so American they’re actually native American. Indigenous folks mixed beans and seasonings in pots which they buried in rock-lined earth ovens, and I’m guessing they never ate them on toast.

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Native Americans grew navy beans (aka phaseolus vulgaris: pea bean, great northern, haricot) as part of the ‘three sisters’ foundation of their cuisine, which also included squash and maize. Once European explorers and colonists came on the scene, they began exporting all kinds of things back to Europe, including navy beans.

Heinz came in much later. Canning technology was developed during the US Civil War, and baked beans were some of the first foods to be given the tin treatment and sent off to the trenches. In the 1890’s, Fortnum and Mason first stocked American Heinz beans in their posh London department store as an exotic import. They caught on in a big way, and became a staple part of the rationed diet during WWII.

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Like our common language, once baked beans took root in each country they evolved along slightly different paths. The main difference to me seems to be in the type and content of sugar. In England, recipes call for dark treacle. In New England, they use molasses. In Northern New England and Quebec, maple syrup is the sweetener of choice. But straight across the board, every recipe I found online showed the UK versions using half the amount of sugar compared to the US and Canadian ones.

An exception: My great-grandmother Nettie includes a recipe in her personal cookbook which uses a more UK-esque ratio. Her recipe would have been written in the early 20th century—right around the time that the English population was falling in love with Heinz. Perhaps back then we were all on the same low-sugar formula, and American tastes have grown sweeter in the subsequent century. Or, maybe sugar content was high on both sides of the pond until rationing forced restraint in the UK. I don’t know, I’m just theorizing.

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Here is what I do know: my poor Sweetie misses his beans. We’ve gone through a few cans of local B&M, Heinz, and Bush, and found they’re all like eating pudding. Definitely not the sort of thing you want fortifying you through a whole day of avoiding outdoor activity.

So I’ve set out on an experiment to recreate UK-Heinz-style baked beans. The first step: a taste test. We have our control, which is Bush’s original (US style). We have Heinz vegetarian, which is said to be the closest on the US market to the UK formula. And we have a couple of homemade versions using dried or canned beans, molasses or brown sugar, vinegar or mustard, and chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce.

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My tester says the Heinz vegetarian is closest to the cans of his homeland, but the homemade versions are significantly more tasty (whew). Though they are time consuming in the sense that they stay in the oven for a long time, all you have to do is throw everything into a casserole dish and leave it alone to cook all day. And did I mention that I’m broke? Because these are extremely cheap to make.

I’ll share my ultimate recipe below, but you may want to tweak it to your personal taste. If so, here are a few general ideas:

  • In my house, the jury is out on dried vs. canned beans. I prefer the dried: they hold their shape and texture through the long slow cooking, while starting with canned beans produced a mushier, less defined result. Some of us, ahem, preferred them mushy.
  • Molasses, treacle, and maple syrup add distinct flavor as well as sweetness, while brown sugar is a nice neutral option.
  • The basic ratio I like (UK style) is 2 T sweetener for every 1/2 lb. (or 2 cans) of dried beans. US style will use anywhere from 4-6 T for the same amount.
  • Leave them to cook low and slow. I tried mine after 3 hours and they were fine, but not wonderful. After a 4th hour they were better, and the next day they were the best.

 

Transatlantic Baked Beans

  • 1/2 lb. dried navy beans
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1/2 red onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 can tomato sauce
  • 2 T tomato paste (puree)
  • 60 g piece of salt pork
  • 1 1/2 T molasses
  • 1/2 T brown sugar
  • 1 T cider vinegar
  • 1 T mustard
  • salt and pepper to taste

 

First, put the beans in a pot and cover with at least 2 inches of water. Leave to soak overnight.

In the morning, heat a casserole dish on the stove, add the olive oil and onion, and cook for 3 minutes or so until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, then take off the heat. Drain the beans and add them to the dish along with all of the other ingredients. Add enough fresh water to just cover all of the beans, and mix.

Cover the dish and put in a 300 F/150 C oven for 3 1/2 hours. Remove the lid and bake for an additional half hour, until the sauce is thick and the beans are dark and caramelized on top.

You can eat them now if you want, but they’ll be better if you store them overnight, then reheat the next day.

5 comments:

Sue said...

Did you know Nettie's bean pot is in my cupboard? Maybe THAT makes a difference!
Your grandma served hot dogs, baked beans, and brown bread (from a can) on many a Saturday night... a new England tradition she said.
Family friend, Edith, from Savannah, GA, used to add chopped onions, chopped green peppers, ketchup (?), mustard, and a piece of bacon, then top the whole thing with slices of bacon. I think she used canned beans, but don't know which brand. They were delicious!
Who knew beans could be so historically interesting?

Stephfret said...

I haven't ventured into the bread-in-a-can thing yet. I'm wary.
Edith's recipe sounds good but very American-style. The UK version is pretty different, more 'restrained'.

Rob Hill said...

In the UK sometimes to add a little variety to the canned beans, we to add a teaspoon or so of curry powder when warming them from the can,- makes an interesting change.

Stephfret said...

Curry + beans on toast...can't get much more british than that! Sounds like a good late night snack :)

thingsforboys said...

thanks for this post, I found it a very interesting read. The sweetner ratio guide is handy too. I'm making some beans now, can't wait until they're ready.

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