Baked Beans

Homemade Southwestern baked beans on the left, Bush's original canned baked beans on the right

Although many people now grill all year round, I still tend to think of Memorial Day as the beginning of the grilling season. In honor of this annual culinary event, I decided to try out homemade versions of two classic grilling accompaniments: Baked beans and hamburger buns.   Some of my family graciously agreed to join me for an early Memorial Day cookout and I cooked up a big pot of beans, hamburgers, and a batch of homemade buns before handing out score cards for a blind taste test.  I am going to concentrate on the baked beans in this post, but check out my next post for information on homemade buns. Baked beans are one of those things that I’ve never really considered making from scratch.  I’ve never loved the taste of baked beans from a can, but instead of making them from scratch I usually just doctor up the canned variety with some extra brown sugar and mustard while they warm in a pan.  Oddly enough, I was inspired to try my hand at homemade baked beans by a recipe in a Christmas cookbook. I have been trying since Christmas to get a hold of a copy of Nigella Christmas by Nigella Lawson (one of my favorite cookbook authors) and last week I finally got a copy from the library. Not only is the book full of wonderful recipes and witty writing (as with all of her books) but there, right alongside all the seasonal favorites, was a recipe for baked beans. The recipe below was inspired by her recipe for Boston Baked Beans but I have modified the ingredients to give the beans a Southwestern flavor that seems more appropriate for a summer grilling menu.  I kept the basic framework of the recipe but added bell pepper, chili powder, and substituted molasses for some of the brown sugar to give the beans a tangier flavor.

Southwestern Baked Beans

Serves 8


2 1/2 cups dried navy beans
2 Tablespoons olive oil
4 slices thick, smoky bacon, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 bell pepper, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup spicy whole grain mustard  (I found Tabasco brand mustard that was delicious)
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tablespoons molasses
1 quart water, plus 1/4 cup
1 Tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon cider vinegar
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1. Place the beans in a large pot or dutch oven and fill the pot with water until the beans are just covered. Soak for 24 hours, adding water if needed.

2. After the beans have soaked, rinse them under cold water. Heat the oil in a dutch oven or oven proof pot over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and bell pepper to the pan and saute for 10 more minutes, adding the garlic during the last couple minutes of cooking.

3. Add the mustard, tomato paste, sugar and molasses to the pan. Pour in two cups of water and stir the mixture until everything is well combined.

4. Add the beans, chili powder, cumin and 2 more cups of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Simmer the beans for 1 hour, covered. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and transfer the pot of beans to the oven. Cook in the oven for 3 hours or until the beans are tender and the sauce has thickened.  Check the beans occasionally as they cook and add a little water if the they look dry.

5. Remove the pan from the oven and stir in the vinegar, another 1/4 cup of water, and salt, to taste.

First of all, I know that it isn’t quite fair to compare a spicy, southwestern style baked bean recipe to the plain Bush’s baked beans, but that’s one of the privileges of home cooking:  you get to add any ingredients you like to create a unique flavor combination.  So how did Bush’s original baked beans stack up to my homemade, spicy variety?  Surprisingly well!  Although all of the testers ultimately chose the homemade beans as their overall favorite, many of the tasters preferred the ultra smooth, soft texture of canned beans to the chewier texture of homemade.  I know that this partly due to my cooking process and personal preference for harder beans.  You could make the beans softer by cooking them a pressure cooker or giving them longer in the oven, but I still don’t think the overall texture would be quite as smooth as canned beans.  I found the canned beans a bit too soft for my liking and thought that the sauce had a slimy quality because it was smooth so I guess this really comes down to personal preference.  Homemade beans did win out unanimously in two areas:  flavor and appearance.  Taster’s commented that the canned beans were “too sweet”, “watery tasting”, and “grey in color” while the homemade beans were described as “flavorful” and “attractive”.  The two kinds of beans were very close in price with the homemade beans coming out slightly cheaper, but the canned beans certainly win out on time and effort.  Beans must cook for a long time in order to become soft, especially if you don’t own a pressure cooker.  Most of the time the beans are just cooking unattended, on the stove top or in the oven, and they fill the house with a wonderful, spicy aroma.  However, I know that cookouts are often a spur of the moment event with little time to pre-soak and bake beans so the extra time must be taken into account.

Bottom Line: Homemade baked beans are not only economical but also wonderfully flavorful and easy to customize with different seasonings and spices.  They also look more colorful and attractive and smell delicious as they cook.  Canned beans, however, have the undeniable advantage of convenience as you can simply dump the can into a bowl and heat them in the microwave.  Homemade baked beans would be a great choice for a big event such as a Memorial Day or Fourth of July cookout when you have planned ahead and want an extra-special dish.  However, for everyday spur-of-the-moment grilling, the ease of canned beans probably wins out (but consider sprucing them up with some extra seasonings).

Homemade Southwestern Baked Beans Bush’s Original canned Baked Beans
Cost: $1.60 (for 2 cups) Cost: $1.99 (16 ounce can)
Time: 4 hours Time: 2 minutes