Ever wonder why Boston baked beans are called “Boston” baked beans? It’s the molasses. Boston has been tied to molasses since colonial days, when the city was a trade center for rum from the Caribbean. Molasses is used for rum production and is a by-product of sugar refining and was easily available to the colonists.
And then there’s the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, when a huge tank of molasses exploded and sent a sea of the gooey stuff flooding the streets of the North End. I lived in the North End of Boston in the early 80s and at the time you could still pick up a faint scent of molasses on a hot summer day.
Now to the baked beans. Boston baked beans are by definition, slowly cooked. According to Shirley Corriher in CookWise (great book, btw), either sugar or calcium will make beans hard, even after long hours of cooking.
Molasses contains both sugar and calcium, which is why adding molasses to a pot of beans will enable you to cook the beans for what seems like forever, without the beans getting mushy. But it also means that if you cook the beans in molasses to get that wonderful flavor, you have to cook them a good long time.
Although traditionally cooked in an oven, Boston baked beans lend themselves perfectly to slow cookers, which is the method we prefer here.
- 1 pound (2 to 2 1/4 cups) dry white beans such as Navy beans or Great Northern beans (can also use kidney beans)
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 3-4 Tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 3 cups hot water
- 1/2 pound salt pork (can sub bacon), cut into 1/2-inch to 1-inch pieces
- 1 medium onion, (1 1/2 cups) chopped
1 Soak beans in water: Place beans in a large pot and cover with 2 inches of water. Soak overnight and drain. Alternatively, bring a pot with the beans covered with 2 inches of water to a boil, remove from heat and let soak for a hour, then drain.
2 Mix molasses, brown sugar, mustard, ground cloves with water: Mix the molasses, brown sugar, mustard, and ground cloves with 3 cups of hot water.
3 Add ingredients to slow-cooker, layering them, starting with the salt pork: Line the bottom of a slow-cooker (or a Dutch oven if you are cooking in the oven) with half of the salt pork (pick the fattiest pieces). Layer over with half of the drained beans. Add all of the chopped onion in a layer.
Top with another layer of beans and the remaining salt pork. Pour the molasses water mixture over the beans to just cover the beans.
4 Slow cook until beans are tender: Cover and cook in a slow-cooker on the low setting for 8 hours (or in a 250°F oven), until the beans are tender. Check the water level a few hours in, and if the beans need more water, add some. Add additional salt to taste if needed.
Note that fresher beans will cook faster than older beans. Your beans may be ready in less than 8 hours, or they may take longer. Best the next day.
Serve with Boston brown bread.