Traditional Boston Baked Beans? May I introduce you to their great-granddaughter?

A New England favorite with lots of twists!

In years past, every New England cook had their own recipe for Boston Baked Beans. Inexpensive, filling, and nutritious, peasant food at its best. Baked beans were a Saturday night staple dating back to Colonial times when cooking on the Sabbath was forbidden and the beans could remain simmering on the hearth coals all night. They were usually baked with the widely available molasses from the sugar trade, and, if lucky, salvage bits of meat. Of course, the colonists got their baked beans from the native population, along with so many other foods.

Saturday, so that means beans for supper

The tradition continued, through the centuries, the World Wars and Depression, and beyond when money and food were tight, and even when they weren’t. Boston was known as Bean Town, a name that sticks to it like molasses to this day. Even when I was a child, many homes still served the humble baked beans with franks on Saturday night, some still do. At our home, we didn’t adhere to a specific night for baked beans, but had them often, sometimes as a main dish, often as a side, and always present at potlucks and family gatherings. Boston baked beans usually used the smaller pea beans, while the northern New England dish often used yellow-eyed beans or other larger beans, but it all became mingled over the years, and folks pretty much use what they like best now.

The bean expert

It seems someone in the family was always the bean expert. It was Uncle Tom before Mom, and she took on his legacy. Sometimes mom used navy beans, sometimes yellow eyes, and it really doesn’t matter, use what you prefer. Here, I used Jacob Cattle Beans because I had them un the cupboard, and I prefer a larger bean. Mom also varied the sweet, sometimes using molasses, sometimes maple syrup, sometimes brown sugar, and she didn’t always add the vinegar. But, she always used salt pork, which she sautéed for a bit in a little oil before adding the beans. My father loved the salt pork. The best part of the beans, he said. I disagreed and picked the slimy bits out of my dish!

The tradition

Sylvia, my mom, made her beans simple, often just salt pork, onion, beans, molasses, and mustard. Pretty much traditional New England style (although some in the family use bacon rather than the salt pork) and sometimes an herb or spice. She soaked the dried beans overnight, then cooked them on the stove for a bit until just tender, the she added the rest of the ingredients and baked in a bean crock for three or four hours. Times changed and she got her crock pot, and that’s how she made them after that. It is much easier!

She always served her baked beans with a homemade bread. Sometimes it was Baking Powder Biscuits, but more often than not, it was Boston Brown Bread, a unique bread made of thirded flour that was savory, had a few raisins, and was cooked in a recycled can! Judy at New England Garden and Thread reminded me of this and I was amazed I had originally forgotten to mention the bread.

And now for a change

I made these for years using her navy beans, but later experimented with other beans, much to my delight. Every bean has a different flavor and characteristic, so it is always fun to experiment. I love yellow-eyes and cranberry beans the best, but really have yet to meet a bean I didn’t like!

Jacob’s Cattle Beans

Jacob’s cattle beans are one of hundreds of shelling beans native to North America, originating in Maine with the Passamaquoddy indigenous population. They have been popular in New England since Colonial times, but not much noticed anywhere else. They are widely available now from mail-order sources if you can’t find them in your area.

A favorite bean

They get their modern name from the mottled markings on the mature dried beans which resemble a cattle’s markings! Deep burgundy in color, but they fade after soaking and cooking. But they hold their shape well even in a long cook, which makes them great for many purposes, including baking.

High in protein and fiber, these meaty beans are also a good source of calcium, iron, and potassium, and weigh in at only 100 calories for a filling half cup. 

A little of this and that

I’ve also added and subtracted various herbs along the way (thyme, rosemary, French herbs, sage, savory, fennel), and here I must confess that I seldom make these the same twice in a row! Some of it is about what I have on hand, or what I feel like tossing in at the time. But I always add an onion or one of her cousins, always a bit of sweet syrup or molasses, always a mustard, but it could be prepared or dried. I find the cider necessary to cut the sweet. Anyone who knows me has figured out I love fennel, and use the crushed seeds often in baked beans. If I have a bulb of fresh fennel on hand, I’ll chop it up and add it with the onion.

Enter, a slightly different ingredient

My most recent addition to baked beans is chopped anchovies. I spotted a recipe of Yotam Ottoenghi’s in his book “Flavor” a while back, a mashed white bean dish, which included anchovies in a bean aioli, and the anchovies seemed a good idea to add to a baked beans. Pop over to Chef Mimi’s blog for her take on this dish. If you wish to make this dish vegan, simply eliminate the anchovies. They add a subtle flavor to the baked beans, and a little more salt, something that needs to be present since I do not use the salt pork. In my book, beans need a fair amount of salt or they are bland.

Mom put the traditional ketchup in hers, but instead, I add a small can of tomatoes and their juices just to offer textural and visual appeal. I like it better because I found the large amount of ketchup in hers just a bit too sweet. I also reduced her syrup to a quarter cup, plenty to add flavor without making the teeth hurt.

Changing with the times, always!

Once mom got her crockpot, she switched her “baking” method, and I’m sure if the dual cookers, or instant pots, were around before she passed away, she would have embraced that appliance as well! I usually use the instant pot now in summer. In winter, I’ll bake in the oven in a bean pot when I don’t mind the oven on for a long time. If I don’t bake in the pot, I do still serve in it because looking at it brings back memories. I’ve also made these camping, like the colonists, on the coals of the fire. They were my favorite, so I guess we don’t have it better in this small regard than our ancestors!

As for the greens. Not traditional at all, but I love greens added to beans at the end so I usually toss them in. They are completely optional. Optional is also the big dab of butter at the end, which mom loved! The butter smooths out all the edges.

Dorothy’s (Sometimes) Baked Beans

  • 1 lb. dried Jacob’s Cattle or Yellow-Eyed Beans, or any favorite
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large leek, or onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 anchovy filets, minced
  • 1 14.5-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes and their juice
  • 1 tsp. crushed fennel seeds and 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ cup French mustard, or 1 tbsp. Coleman’s dried
  • ¼ cup dark amber maple syrup
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper, plenty of each
  • Large handful of spinach or chard, stems removed, and torn, optional

Dual cooker method:

Soak the beans overnight in water with a teaspoon of salt. In the morning drain and rinse.

Heat the dual cooker on sauté and add the olive oil and leek. Cook just until softened, no browning. Add the garlic and anchovies, let them bloom, then add the tomatoes (chopped up a bit) and their juices. Mix well, then toss in the fennel, mustard, maple syrup, vinegar, and some salt and pepper. Add the beans and cover with a bit more than “a nuckle” of water or a bit more than an inch over the beans.

Switch the pot to slow cook, and set for 5 or 6 hours, checking now and then to make sure there is enough water; you don’t want the beans popping their little heads up. If it starts to look dry, add more liquid. Times will vary greatly.

When delightfully soft, but not mushy, add the greens just until they wilt.

If you like, serve in a bean crock, just for old time’s sake, and a dollop of butter or vegan butter goes a long way in this dish.

Note: Once cooked, the beans should still have plenty of liquid. The first serving, they will be looser, but will thicken up in the refrigerator overnight.

Traditionally baked method:

Soak the beans overnight as the previous instructions, then drain and rinse. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Second Act – The next day, the leftovers can be topped with sauteed mushrooms just to change them up a bit! Or, add to a warm wrap along with a little cheese. The beans will thicken as they rest overnight.

Once rinsed, place the beans in a pot with water to cover and precook on medium-high for 20 minutes. Place them in a bean crock or heavy stockpot, and add the rest of the ingrediets. Mix it all up.

Place in the oven, and cook for four hours or so, or until the beans are tender. This will always vary according to the bean, it’s age, and probably whether Mercury is in retrograde. Check now and then to make sure there is enough liquid and add a bit of water if they look dry, but they probably won’t. Remove the lid and cook another half hour to help the juices thicken.

Add the greens if using, just until they wilt, then serve. You can use baby spinach, arugula, other tender greens for immediate wilting. I you use something sturdier, like chard, cook a little longe.

If you like, add a dab of butter, or vegan butter, atop each bowl. You won’t regret it.

Sylvia’s Baked Beans

  • 1 lb navy or pea beans
  • 1 chunk salt pork
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup mustard or 1 tbsp dry
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar or maple sugar
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • Bay leaf
  • Water

            Soak beans overnight. Drain, and boil with enough water to cover for an hour. Drain again. Cut the pork into cubes and cook in an iron pan until letting its fat. Put it in a pot with beans. Add all other ingredients together and place in a slow cooker with more water to cover by a knuckle. Cook on high until bubbling, then turn down to low and cook all day, or until thickened and beans are tender. 

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64 Comments Add yours

  1. Love baked beans and your recipe looks delicious.

    1. Thank you Jovina! They have definitely been a crowd-pleaser.

  2. I do like it without the pork too! What a soul warming dish! And that bean pot is gorgeous!

    1. Thank you my friend! It really is comfort food delicious! The pot is pretty traditional, style hasn’t changed in centuries!

  3. Bernadette says:

    The beans are beautiful and the recipe is a delight especially since you gave us two meals for it. Going to look for the beans.

    1. Thank you, and happy hunting Bernie!

  4. Chef Mimi says:

    I’m glad you posted this recipe! I love the addition of anchovies. I’ve never heard of these beans – going to add them to my always long list of new ingredients I need to try!

    1. Thanks Mimi! Now that you’ve heard of them, you will probably see them everywhere!

  5. Jenna says:

    I am not a fan of baked beans, or really any beans, but I loved reading about the history of them and your family’s stories and versions!

    1. Thanks for your comment Jenna! I know beans are not for everyone. Some folks simply had too many when they were kids!

  6. Staci Troilo says:

    I’m a bean fan, too. (And a fennel fan!)

    Your recipe looks delicious. I’ve never seen cattle beans before, but I love cranberry beans. (I always use them in ham bone soup if I can find them.) And while I really enjoy the traditional baked beans, I think I’d like your recipe just as much if not more. I’m all for cutting the sweetness, anchovies are delicious, and I’ve been adding kale to things for years. (Chard is hard to find around here except at farmers’ markets in the summer, though that’s my favorite green.) Thanks so much for sharing this recipe.

    1. Thanks Staci! I love any kind of green added to beans, and while most of the beans I make are pretty much straight up and love the addition of greens, I was delighted when they worked in the sweeter Boston beans as well.

  7. Suzassippi says:

    I enjoyed the read very much, but I confess to never having eaten any version of Boston Baked Beans that I liked. I would probably like yours, because I would not be gagging on the sweet! We ate Anasazi beans after Dad discovered them in Colorado, and they are my favorite. Jacob’s cattle beans remind me of them.

    1. I love the Anasazi beans as well. They are much like the cattle beans, but a little smaller, and with such lovely flavor. You could easily substitute those.
      I’ve always thought it was funny that the Boston baked beans were always sweetened, none of the other long-cooking bean recipes really call for the sweet. And New Englanders in general do not have as much of a sweet tooth as other parts of the country.

      1. Willow Croft says:

        Good thing I read through the comments…I was just about to ask what the difference was! <–loves Anasazi beans 🙂

      2. They are both tasty and versatile!

      3. Willow Croft says:

        I’m addicted to them! I make the beans for burritos, and saute up veggies to go with them!

      4. You can tuck them in just about anything!

  8. Maggie says:

    What a great post, Dorothy. I love a hearty baked bean and I am curious to try anchovies in a recipe. Growing up in Virginia, beans were a staple, but rarely sweetened and baked – until much past my childhood. We did have ‘shelley beans’ which look similar to your cattle beans. We shelled them by using the wringer on a wringer washing machine! We had so many! Some were dried and others frozen right out of the shell for winter meals.

    1. How ingenious to use the wringer washing machine to shell the beans!
      The Jacob’s Cattle Beans are indeed a shelling bean, along with the other beans traditionally used in baked beans. I love them all, but growing and drying them does take a lot of work!

      1. Maggie says:

        It was work, but it was also survival. There were no alternatives.

  9. Ronit says:

    This hearty dish is so perfect for a cold snowy day. I’m not familiar with Jacob’s cattle beans, so thanks for introducing.
    I’m hooked by your addition of anchovies. Such a great idea! 🙂

    1. I give the bow to Yotam for the inspiration of course!

  10. So interesting putting anchovies in the beans!

    1. I’ve put those little flavor bombs in so many things!

  11. Just the perfect dinner for a cold day! That was really interesting, I had no knowledge about baked bean recipes before now and usually eat them out of a can! The addition of anchovies sounds wonderful by the way, sign me up to a bowl!

    1. It’s waiting for you on the back burner!

      1. I’m on my way!

  12. C.A. Post says:

    ANYthing tastes better with anchovies mixed in.
    ‘Cept maybe strawberry ice cream; never tried it, yet, but I’ll let you know. 😂

    1. Please let me know C.A. when you try it; could open a whole new lot of possibilities. But perhaps not!

  13. Nancy says:

    I love beans but have never made them from scratch. I am good at doctoring up beans from a can.
    So now… this will be given a try! Sweet Man will be in heaven when I make this for him.
    Thank you!

    1. I think once you make from scratch, you won’t look back!

  14. Christy B says:

    I admit my usual baked beans recipe is opening up a can and pouring it into a saucepan to warm back up LOL. I like yours a lot better ~ Yummy!

    1. You know, canned beans certainly have their place. I keep them in my pantry for certain uses. But side-by-side, the long cooked dried beans really do taste better, especially the baked beans.

  15. Eha says:

    Althiugh one does primarily think of the States when baked beans are mentioned they are hugely popular Down Under also . . . usually coming from a Heinz tin !!! Find both the story and the recipes heaps of fun and shall certainly try the ‘long way’ . . . love the inclusion of anchovies . . . well, I love anchovies in almost anything AND piled on my breakfast toast also !

    1. Thank you, and good luck with the low and slow method! There are way too many anchovy haters in the world! But they were created by being served food prepared by those who simply don’t know how to use them!

  16. CarolCooks2 says:

    I wish my menfolk liked beans as much as I do but they don’t -sigh-the recipe does sound good ,Dorothy and I like the addition of anchovies 🙂 x

    1. They are not my husband’s favorite, although he likes these. However, my grandkids all adore beans! The 10-year-old has her own recipe for spicy black beans and makes them for herself for lunch frequently!

      1. CarolCooks2 says:

        Bless her she obviously has inherited her grandmothers passion for cooking 🙂 x

      2. She loves to cook, and begs me constantly to set up a “Chopped challenge” for her. She’s come up with some pretty good things. Mostly.

  17. Gail says:

    I remember making homemade beans while Idaho potatoes were baking in the oven. I’d serve the meal with the potatoes sliced open and spoon the thickened beans over the top. Deliciousness. 🍃🥔🫘

    1. Oh that sounds like carb heaven to me Gail! Only thing better would be a sprinkle of cheese on top!

      1. Gail says:

        (Sometimes I put cheese in the beans! Don’t tell.) 🤣

      2. Your secret is safe with me…

  18. I love beans. Just about any kind of bean will do. My mother would add beans to pasta and soups but she never made anything like this. I had to wait until I married a typical American boy to get a really good baked bean recipe from his mother. Now I have two! Yay!! 😋 🫘

    1. Thanks Nancy!
      I love beans too! I could eat them every day, and not get bored because you can tuck them in just about anything!

  19. Carolyn Page says:

    We love beans, Dorothy. A bean recipe or two or three every week is usual. However, I’ve not, until reading your fabulous suggestions, thought of cooking baked beans in the crock pot. What a great idea!
    I generally add a small amount of red wine, and definitely the best can of tomatoes to be found. Like you, the ingredients change each time – it’s a bit of this and a bit of that. The end result is always yum…

    1. That’s the best way to cook,isn’t it, Carolyn? By the feel of it, using what’s here and what the spirit moves us to do!

  20. My Grandmother made them just like your Mom. They were delicious. She also made a dark brown bread baked inside a round can of some sort. It would come out of the can, and she would slice it to go with the beans. I can’t remember if it was really a metal can or some type of cooking utensil. Oh, you do trigger good New England food memories. 🙂

    1. Judy, Judy, Judy! How could I have forgotten to mention the Brown Bread!!! Here’s my recipe, and I’ll put a link in my post.
      Now, THIS will trigger memories!

  21. terrie gura says:

    Baked beans in any way, shape or form are alright by me. Love that you sing the praises of those heirloom varieties AND that you managed to sneak a little fennel in there! 😂

    1. I’m going to sneak that fennel in where I can, and I loved it even more than thyme or sage in the beans, although those are both good too.

  22. I love the way the Jacobs Cattle Beans look Dorothy. I have never had baked beans with anchovies I bet it’s delicious. We eat baked beans close to Sylvia’s recipe. I worked at a bakery in my teenage years and they made Boston Brown Bread and they sold so many loaves!

    1. I always forget about the brown bread, but I do enjoy it. It’s always fun to bake something in a can!

  23. Ally Bean says:

    My dad loved salt pork in baked beans, too. I don’t know if I could stomach that now or not. Your recipe with anchovies and spinach added in sounds good. What a modern way to add flavor. Plus it looks pretty.

    1. Thanks Ally, the green definitely brightens up the brown landscape!

  24. nancyc says:

    I love, love, love baked beans and I like your idea of changing them up! 🙂 Adding greens is a great idea!

    1. The last few years, I’ve always added some greens at the end to bump up the nutrition even more and make it a stand-alone meal. So good.

  25. I am delighted to find these two recipes, Dorothy. I have been looking for a nice recipe for Boston Baked Beans. I’ve book marked this post.

    1. Thanks Robbie! I hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

  26. brwbmm says:

    My favorite way to eat baked beans is in a 3-layered sandwich: two pieces of bread with beans, coleslaw and potato salad in the middle.

    1. Well, that sounds unique! Coleslaw AND potato salad! Will have to try!

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