I have a great love for side dishes, especially those of the traditional BBQ or southern-style variety. Greens, macaroni & cheese, okra, hoe cakes, potato salad, hush puppies, butterbeans, sweet potatoes, cole slaw of all kinds, baked beans, cornbread … you name it, I love it. In fact, meat is often an afterthought when I’m presented with all these options. When only given a choice of two, I fret and often order extra sides just to make sure I can get them all in or more likely, order an entire meal of side dishes. It’s not uncommon for my dining companions to have to scootch their dishes and glasses over to make room for my multiple mini plates.
I read an article recently that described how a particular BBQ pitmaster baked his beans in the smoker underneath a brisket, where the pan caught all the juices and drippings and into which he later threw the smoked trimmings. Just the thought of this made my mouth water and I’d like to think I’m the kind of person that can pull this off at home without the benefit of a whole hog smoker. If I wanted to. So how could I make some good baked beans without having to fire up the smoker for 12-18 hours and working a brisket?
Oh, baked beans. I have been attempting to get you right for years. I’ve tried dozens of recipes with disappointing results again and again. I discovered that many recipes start with canned beans and copious amounts of ketchup and bottled BBQ sauce. I don’t like this Sandra Lee approach. The texture is all wrong; too mushy, too soft. The flavor is also wrong; too sweet and one note. I wanted to start from scratch, of course, with a bag of dried beans and those classic BBQ flavors like bacon, molasses, vinegar. And a long slow bake to give those beans time to absorb all those wonderful flavors. Great, right? Turns out, it wasn’t as easy as I thought.
First off, I had to address the beans. I became especially frustrated as several batches never softened despite how long they baked and simmered. At first I thought the acid from the vinegar or perhaps the salt was keeping those suckers tough. But could it be the beans? I did some research and learned that most typical grocery store beans are YEARS old and never get tender no matter how long they’re cooked. I also learned about a thing called “hard bean syndrome”, a generic abnormality that prevents beans for ever getting soft. There’s really no way to tell by looking at the bag if you have a dud. It’s a crapshoot with the cheap bagged beans.
So I stepped it up, switched beans and everything changed. Rancho Gordo, a fabulous company out of Napa Valley, came to the rescue again. This time it was their Yellow-Eye, a gorgeous bean that reminds me of wild horses. Pintos? Mustangs? Not sure, but they do. They’re a stunning bean and bake up beautifully, soft but a little starchy and with some textural integrity. There’s a reason for this: they’re fresh, or as fresh as a dried bean can be. If you don’t want to mail order, that’s understandable. In that case, I recommend buying from the bulk section of Whole Foods or somewhere you know there’s a steady turnover so you don’t get stuck with duds. In testing this recipe for the umpteenth time and having blown through my yellow eye supply, I ran to my local Whole Foods for bulk great northern beans, another option, and lo and behold … there was a big bin of yellow eyes along with some other favorites like appaloosas, Christmas limas and good mother stallards. Good to know. After I work through the 10lbs of assorted Rancho Gordo beans in my pantry, I’ll keep this in mind. Seriously though, change up your bean source.
How to cook them is another matter. They have to be cooked first, plain with a little salt, until they’re nice and tender. This is important or they’ll never soften up completely. I usually do it on the stove but have to watch the pot carefully – the water level must be maintained and held at a slow simmer as too much rocking and rolling in the pot has a tendency to break up the beans. But there are other options. Cooks Illustrated recommends the gentle heat of a 250°F oven. A slow cooker works well too, though maybe a bit too well. I let it go overnight on low, about 7 hours, and they were a smidge overdone. So choose your weapon – stove, oven or slow cooker – because once that part is over, the good stuff starts. First, bacon and all that fatty goodness (vegetarian baked beans are just wrong), sweet onion and a bit of jalapeno then the flavor is rounded out with molasses, brown sugar, cider vinegar, a little tomato paste, a good shot of mustard and baked until perfect. They’re a little sweet, a little spicy, a lot porky and tender throughout. Ideal for your upcoming summer and holiday BBQs, so get on it.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: BRAVO. I cannot express how damn glad I am to nail this one. That is all.
on this blog four years ago: Cajun Ginger Cookies
on this blog three years ago: Strawberry Buttermilk Ice Cream
on this blog two years ago: Strawberry Shortcake
on this blog one year ago: Ricotta Cheesecake
BBQ BAKED BEANS
½ pound thick cut bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely diced
1 pound dried beans – Yellow Eye or great northern
¼ cup tomato paste
¼ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup unsulfured molasses
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
- First, you need to cook the beans until they are tender but not falling apart or mushy. Be sure to rinse and pick through the beans to remove any debris or pebbles (it happens occasionally – see photo above.) Place the beans in your chosen vessel and cover with several inches of cold water and 1 Tablespoon kosher salt. Stove: bring to a boil, reduce to low and simmer, slightly covered, until tender – 1 ½ – 2 hours, adding more water if needed. Slow cooker: cook on low for several hours. Check around 4 hours to gage how they’re doing. Total time also depends on your slow cooker model. Oven: place the beans, water and salt in an ovenproof baking dish and cover. Bake in a 250°F oven until tender – 1 ½ – 2 hours.
- Drain and reserve 4 cups of the liquid. If you don’t have 4 cups, add water to that mark.
- Add beans and the 4 cups reserved bean cooking liquid to a large ovenproof baking dish and preheat the oven to 350°F.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté the bacon until the fat has rendered but the bacon is still soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add onions and jalapeno to the pan and sauté until tender, about another 8-10 minutes. At this point, take a look at how much fat your bacon has rendered, as this can vary greatly. You want a nice coating but don’t necessarily want to see your mixture floating in fat. If desired, drain out as much bacon fat as you see fit.
- To the onion/bacon mixture, mix in the tomato paste, brown sugar, molasses, vinegar, Dijon mustard, crushed red pepper, black pepper and salt.
- Pour the mixture over the beans in the baking dish and place on a parchment lined sheet pan to catch any spills.
- Bake uncovered for 1 ½ hours until very tender. Taste for salt and adjust if necessary.