Beans on toast.

From M., 1 December 2011, baked beans and how to build a recipe

Q: I am tempted to try and make some baked beans, but I have never done it. Can you offer any tips?

I tried to make it out of broad beans, but it didn’t work, although I did find that I liked pigs feat.

A: Thanks for your question. Initially I considered dressing you down for your choice of broad beans – which in the States we call fava beans – because I can’t imagine a more unfortunate choice for baked beans as I think you envisioned them. But then it occurred to me that this might be what people call a “teachable moment.” How does one learn to construct a dish so that it turns out as intended?

The great myths about cooking elevate the roles of instinct, serendipity, and accident, and downplay the significance of technique and experience. Who wants to follow a recipe when maybe, just maybe, you might hit the delicious dish lottery on the first try by throwing in a pinch of this and a spoon of that, raiding the spice cupboard as you go? Well, you can try, but as with most things random, your chances of obtaining an edible result are a matter of accident. You can increase your chances of success significantly by paying attention to what you’ve eaten and liked, and imitating it.

When I first learned to cook, I refused to use recipes, thinking that they were a crutch and a sign of poor imagination. Most of what I put out in those days was complete garbage, with just enough random success to keep me going. And it seems a point of pride among some cooks not to use recipes. Here’s a typical expression of disdain by a food blogger. “[A]s much as I despise recipes I am finding that they are important tools of communication between those of us that can cook and those of us that cant [sic].” The writer goes on. “Let me clarify this – some people (me) think outside of the box instinctively so recipes are simply suggestions or guidelines and other people (not me) like to follow the guidelines to a T(ee) because thinking outside of the box makes them nervous.” Another blogger states that “if [g]od had intended for us to follow recipes, he wouldn’t have given us grandmothers.”

The myths of the omniscient grandmother and the instinctively talented chef are powerful, but cooking is not instinctive in the first place, even for very good cooks. It’s based on technique and skill, and eventually memory, and in the kitchen, no one ever should discount the value of either. After over twenty years in the kitchen, I don’t generally use recipes anymore (except for pastry), but I’ll never discount the role they played in my development. You can’t develop either cooking skill or memory without a lot of practice and a lot of emphasis on technique. To get there, it helps to follow recipes and to try a lot of new things, paying attention as you eat.

OK, so down from the soapbox and back to the baked beans. Recall the baked beans you’ve enjoyed. You were thinking of the sort of beans one usually finds alongside bangers and mushrooms for breakfast, right? Or on toast? Think about the size and shape of those beans. They’re usually small, white beans, tender but not mushy. In the States, that means navy beans; in Britain or Australia, haricot beans. Why were broad beans not a suitable choice? They’re huge, starchy beans, meaning that the starchy bean-to-sauce ratio is overwhelming. Also, dried broad beans can be difficult to cook properly (unless you intend to puree them), and can become mushy or mealy.

Next, the sauce. Obviously, you picked up on the use of pork. Meat contributes savoriness – umami – and pork in particular a type of richness. Different cuts of the pig bring different qualities to the finished dish. Bacon – streaky bacon to you, belly bacon to us – is my choice, but it’s fatty and can make your finished beans greasy if you don’t render it a little first. Pork hocks – the part of the foot just above the hoof – are less fatty, and the gelatin that comes from long cooking will contribute to an unctuous sauce, but you won’t get much meat off the hocks. In the States, a smoked pork hock can be easier to find than fresh, but the flavor from a smoked hock is different as well, and more like smoked bacon.

Baked beans usually are a bit sweet as well as savory. Onions will make your sauce somewhat sweet, but you may want more. You can consider sugar, but it’s a one-dimensional kind of sweetness, and not typical to British beans. Use molasses, or black treacle. Pure sweetness would be cloying, though. Salt and acidity are necessary to balance out the sugar. Tomato purée, and for a more intense tomato flavor, tomato paste, provide the acidity. Sometimes a little vinegar helps as well.

There you go – a baked bean dish, based on technique. In future, if you want to incorporate broad beans into a baked bean-inspired dish, you might be able to adapt them to something suitable. I’ve provided a recipe below, based on something that sounded good to me.

Classic British baked beans

This is the one you want on toast, or in your fry-up.

For a vegan bean dish, use water rather than stock and omit the pork product (of course). Have extra tomato purée, molasses, and spices to hand so you can adjust the taste as you go. Good cooking technique is about tasting and knowing how to change the taste of a dish. Is it too sour? Add a little more molasses. Too sweet? Try a touch more tomato purée or a little cider vinegar. Add salt if it seems bland.

American baked beans are different – depending on the region, they might feature maple syrup (and lots of it) instead of molasses; lots of spice, like dry yellow mustard in the south, or chipotle peppers in Texas. Smoked bacon is usually the pork of choice. Govern yourself accordingly.

You may substitute canned white beans (such as cannellini) for the dried beans, thyme, bay, and stock in this recipe. Rinse the beans before using and dispense with the bean-soaking and -cooking steps.

1 lb/450g navy, haricot, or other small white beans, picked over for rocks
1 tbsp salt
4 sprigs thyme
bay leaf
1 qt/1.1 liter chicken stock or water
1 12 oz bottle beer (nothing too bitter)
1 lb/450g pork belly or bacon, meaty parts only, diced 1″, or 2 pork hocks
1 small onion, minced
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 c/550 ml tomato purée
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce (substitute soy sauce, Maggi or Marmite)
3 tbsp molasses or black treacle
scant 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
large pinch ground clove
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil (optional)

Soak the beans in salted water overnight if possible. Drain.

Soaking navy beans.

Transfer the beans to a pot containing water to cover plus about an inch more, or the chicken stock, enough additional water to cover plus an inch more. Bring to a simmer and add the bay leaf and thyme branches. Cover and cook until the beans are cooked through, just tender to the point of a knife but not bursting through the skins. Drain and discard the bay and thyme.

Place a deep covered cast iron vessel over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon if using. Render about half of the fat from the bacon, taking care not to burn the bacon. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and all but 2 tbsp of the fat. Reserve the excess fat for a future use. If not using the bacon, add the vegetable oil. Add the onions and saute until light golden and translucent. Add about 1 tbsp of cider vinegar. Add the bottle of beer and reduce by two-thirds. Add the tomato purée, Worcestershire sauce, molasses, and spices. Bring to a simmer.

Before the oven.

Return the cooked bacon to the pan (or the pork hocks if using), and add the beans. Stir well and cover the pot. Bring to a bare simmer transfer to the oven. Bake at 325F/161C for about 90 minutes until the sauce is thickened and the beans are very tender.

Out of the oven.

Fava beans, tomato sauce, dill

Dried fava beans (or broad beans to you) are usually the province of purées, such as in the classic Egyptian ful medamas. I must admit that I’m not a huge fan. I love fresh fava beans, though. Here’s a dish that features the fresh bean in a light tomato sauce – you’ll want to make this in late spring and summer, when fresh beans and tomatoes are plentiful.

1 lb shelled fava (broad) beans
14 oz canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes, peeled
1/2 small onion, peeled and minced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
olive oil
3 tbsp fresh dill, minced
salt and pepper

Place a small saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the onion and garlic. Saute until just translucent and aromatic. Add the tomatoes and about 1/2 tsp salt. Cook until the tomatoes are tender and falling apart. Transfer to a blender and purée. Chill thoroughly; season with salt to taste.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and, when boiling rapidly, add the fava beans. Boil until bright green and just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain thoroughly and, when cool, remove their skins. Toss with the chilled tomato sauce and about half the minced dill; taste for salt and season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the remaining dill.

2 thoughts on “Beans on toast.

  1. Pingback: Full of beans. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. You are so right about the myth of the omniscient grandmother. My maternal grandmother was a good cook and a great baker; my paternal grandmother was not. My Dad and Uncle joked that that WWII Army food was better than home cooking, and they were both significantly silent when other people waxed eloquent about “Mom’s food.” She had two great dishes, though. She could make fabulous blintzes and wonderful hamentaschen. The rest of it can best be described by the chicken that ran through the soup pot, and the ease of boiling everything else.

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