White beans are so versatile. We usually have several cans ready to go and at least a pound or two of dried beans in the pantry. This is a simple baked bean dish, with the beans first cooked in simmering water and then baked in a tomato sauce, flavored with bacon and sage, sweetened with honey, and spiced up with some chile flakes. You could also use pancetta in place of the bacon, or rosemary instead of sage. If you swap out molasses for the honey you’ll have something a lot closer to Boston baked beans.
I learned a useful bit of cooking information recently from reading Shirley Corriher’s CookWise, and that is that both sugar and calcium will keep beans from softening. Which is why if you are cooking with hard water, you may find your beans taking a lot longer than you might expect to cook to tenderness. Molasses and brown sugar contain calcium which is why you can cook a pot of baked beans with molasses all day and the beans still retain their shape.There is sugar naturally in tomatoes and in onions, so once the beans go in the sauce in the following recipe, they will take a long time to soften if they aren’t already cooked.
If you want to save time, you can used canned beans instead of dry. Use 3 or 4 15-ounce cans, drained and rinsed and proceed to step 3. If you want a vegetarian version, skip the bacon, increase the olive oil, and use vegetable stock.
- 1 pound dry cannellini, borlotti or Great Northern beans
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 pound bacon or pancetta, roughly chopped
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 Tbsp fresh sage, minced (can sub fresh rosemary)
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon chile flakes (depending on how spicy you want it)
- 2 Tbsp honey
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
- 2 cups beef or chicken stock (use gluten-free stock for gluten-free version)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Pre-soak the beans, either by covering with two inches of water and soaking overnight, or by pouring boiling water over them and soaking them for an hour.
2 Drain the beans and put them in a medium-sized pot and cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a simmer, cover, reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook until the beans are just soft enough to eat, about 1 hour, give or take 15 minutes or so, depending on how old the beans are (older beans will take longer to cook).
3 Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a 3 or 4 quart heavy-bottomed, oven-proof, lidded pot such as a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the bacon or pancetta and cook slowly until lightly browned and crispy.
4 Add the chopped onions and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring often, until the onions begin to brown. Use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pot.
5 Add the garlic, chile flakes and sage and cook for 1-2 minutes, then add the honey and tomato paste. Stir well to combine. Add the tomatoes or tomato sauce and the stock. Bring to a simmer. Taste for salt and add some if needed.
6 Drain the beans and add them to the pot. Stir well. Cover the pot and cook in the oven for an hour and fifteen minutes. If still a bit wet, remove the cover and cook for 15 minutes more. Note that the cooking time will depend on several things, the most important being how thoroughly the beans were cooked to begin with when they were simmered. If they are still a bit hard when they go in the oven, it may take several hours to soften them, once the tomato and honey have been added.
7 Right before serving, gently stir in the chopped parsley and balsamic vinegar. Taste for salt, add more if needed to taste.
Serve either hot or at room temperature.