The last time you opened up a can of baked beans was the last time you will ever open a can of baked beans. Never again will that be an option after you taste these baked beans from scratch.
A little history…of the baked bean
While almost every culture has a traditional bean dish, American baked beans came from the Native Americans, who taught early New England settlers how to cook native (a.k.a. “navy” beans) with maple syrup and bear fat. Molasses — a common and cheap by-product of rum production — became the preferred sweetener, and pork fat replaced the wilder kind.
Soon this cozy, hearty comfort food grew so popular in the northeast that Boston was tagged “Beantown.” As the recipe spread throughout the U.S., locals made their own adjustments, and easy-to-make baked beans became a popular accompaniment to outdoor meals.
This recipe diverges a bit from the Boston-style and is more like Southern BBQ baked beans. Homemade baked beans should be easy to make, and lucky for us, they totally are. Sure, not quite as easy as opening up the old can of Bush’s or B&M, but they are so much better when you know the ingredients that are going in — and that includes your love.
Baked beans with bacon, being quite rich and savory, really benefit from another lighter and brighter side like coleslaw or tangy pasta salad. Also adding a hint of cider vinegar will totally brighten them up as well.
Making the baked beans the day before will not only take something off your plate, but these get even better the next day as the flavors enhance and meld together, becoming more complex. This is also a traditional way to prepare them, as old-timers would often cook them on Saturday for Sunday meals. Native Americans cooked them in earthenware pots underground in hot rock-lined “bean holes” for long periods.
What Type of Beans to Use?
I usually keep it simple and use pinto beans, but will also go with a combination of red kidney, pinto and butter beans for a mix of colors, tastes and textures. But you can sub in any variety of your favorite beans to switch it up. Navy beans are traditional and have a light color, as do great northern beans. Black-eyed peas add a Southern twang.
Canned vs. Dried Beans
The go-to easiest is to use canned beans for making baked beans. After all, they are pretty much ready to go right out of the can. Dried beans require a little more time because of the soaking and cooking. Once you try dried beans though, you will see the difference. Dried beans give a better texture and a cleaner taste, as they have less salt and fewer additives.
Canned beans are also expensive compared to dried beans, which are super cheap, can be purchased in bulk, and take up less room in your pantry. Both types last a long time on the shelf. But when you cook dried beans, you also know everything that is going into them.
My choice is to use dried beans when possible. Cooking dried beans is so easy and quick in a pressure cooker, and no soaking is needed. For pinto beans, they cook under pressure for just 25 to 30 minutes with water, salt, a little olive oil and any other optional flavorings you want to add. For baked beans, I will usually leave them fairly plain.
For dried beans, I use a slotted spoon to transfer the beans to the pot for making the baked beans so it doesn’t bring over too much of the cooking liquid.
Simply add some chunks of smoked pork (or, really chunks of any of your favorite cooked or cured meat, including hot dogs) to the pot before baking. When adding meat to the beans, I find it best to make sure the meat is nice and tender or it can be too much of a contrast to the tender beans.
Or you can totally go the other way, and omit the bacon to make these baked beans vegetarian.
- If the beans dry after baking, just mix in a little water until they reach the consistency you want and warm up on the stove.
- Make your own BBQ sauce or use your favorite. Different BBQ sauces will influence the end flavor of the beans, so be sure you love it.
- Mix up a variety of beans. You can use the same type, but it’s fun to mix it up and gives a variety of textures, colors and flavors.
- Taste for seasoning before baking. It’s easier to modify the flavors before the baking step.
Storing Baked Beans
Baked beans will keep in the fridge for a week, if in an airtight container. Freeze if you need to keep for longer.
Can You Freeze Baked Beans?
Yep, you can! Be sure to fully cool the beans down before putting them in the freezer. In a tightly sealed container, they keep for months.
Simply reheat beans from the fridge or freezer in a 350° F oven until hot and bubbling in a covered container. It can take about 20 or 40 minutes if they are frozen, depending on the amount you are reheating.
Tools & Equipment
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Side Dishes to Go with Baked Beans
Are baked beans just a side or are they the main attraction? That’s the question. And really, they can go either way. If you go the “Pork and Beans” route and add smoked meat to the baked beans, they are kind of like chili. Here are other ideas:
- 1/2 pound smoked thick-cut bacon , sliced crosswise
- 1 Small yellow onion , diced
- 2 garlic cloves , peeled and minced
- 45 oz. cooked or canned beans (4 1/2 cups or 3 cans, rinsed and drained) , pinto, butter beans or red kidney
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1/4 cup barbecue sauce
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 tsp. liquid smoke
- 1 tsp. kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat your oven to 350° F.
- Heat a 3 to 4 quart Dutch oven over medium heat and sautée the bacon until the fat is rendered and it just starts to brown but doesn't get crispy, about 10 minutes.
- Remove all but about 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat (you can save it for another use).
- Add the diced onion with a pinch of salt and continue to cook over medium-low until the onion is soft and translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chopped garlic during the last minute.
- Add the beans and remaining ingredients to the pot. Gently stir to fully combine and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning.
- Cover the pot and then transfer to the middle rack of the oven.
- Bake covered for 1 hour, then remove the lid and bake for an additional 10 minutes.
- Remove from oven and let cool for at least 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
- If you don’t have a Dutch oven, you can bake the beans in a 13 x 9-inch baking dish and cover with foil.
- Use a single type or a combination of beans.
- I prefer to cook my own from dried, as the texture ends up better and they are a lot cheaper. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the beans, so you don’t bring all the bean liquid into the pot.
- Add water as needed to adjust how saucy your beans are.
- Different BBQ sauces will change the flavor of the beans. I love to use my Sweet & Tangy version that goes great with the baked beans.