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What to Eat in Boston: Baked Beans

What to Eat in Boston: Baked Beans


Eat Your World spotlights regional foods and drinks around the globe, from New York to New Delhi. Visit their Massachusetts section for more of the best local dishes in Boston.

What: Why do you think it’s called Beantown? Slow-cooked beans have long been a tradition in Boston; the dish is said to have originated with the Native Americans, who baked navy beans with maple syrup, venison, and bear fat in pits dug into the ground. At some point, early English settlers started stewing the beans and substituting salt pork and molasses, the latter of which was plentiful at the time (due to the area’s role as a rum producer in a triangular trade with Caribbean sugar cane and West African slaves). Of course, nowadays baked beans are mostly associated with the canned-goods aisle of your local supermarket. But while it’s not easy to find a good homemade rendition in a Boston restaurant, it’s not impossible — and it is worthwhile.

Good to know: Vegetarians, be warned: Boston baked beans are always cooked with pork unless specified otherwise.

Where: Since opening in late 2010, the Island Creek Oyster Bar quickly made a name for itself for its excellent, fresh, largely locally sourced seafood. Surprise: It also serves a terrific side of baked beans.

When: Monday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to midnight

Order: Go for the raw and cooked oysters, the local fish or fried clams, the Maine lobster roll, whatever—just get some “old-school baked beans” ($5) on the side. They’re made in-house the traditional way, with salt pork, molasses, some chicken stock, and Dijon mustard, and they come to the table piping-hot, subtly sweet, and — our favorite part — dotted with delicious hunks of fatty pork. It’s the perfect stick-to-your-ribs comfort food to pair with that delicate seafood and good local beer.

Alternatively: Historic Durgin-Park always has real Boston baked beans on its menu, cooked with similar ingredients according to its published recipe. Here, the beans are sweeter and smaller in size than those at Island Creek, and the pork plays a less prominent role in the bowl. Still worth seeking out, along with some of DP’s other classics, like Boston scrod and Indian pudding.

Laura Siciliano-Rosen is the co-founder of Eat Your World, a website that spotlights regional foods and drinks around the globe. Follow Eat Your World on Twitter @eat_your_world.


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!


Boston Baked Beans & Brown Bread

Despite the unfortunate Phaseolus vulgaris moniker—the American Common Bean category includes bunches of beloved, native-to-the-Americas beans: navy, red kidney, pinto, great northern, marrow, & yellow eye, plus garden variety edible-pod beans (string, stringless and snap.) It’s not clear which of these the New England colonists first stewed in a pot, but we do know baked navy beans started with Native Americans. The Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroiquois wrapped navy beans in deerskins—or put them in earthenware pots, along with venison, bear fat and maple syrup and then baked the lot in hot-stone-lined pits. Puritans eschewed the deerskins, but took to bean-pot cookery because the long, slow cook times meant housewives could prepare the beans a day ahead, and in so doing, stick to Puritanical no-cooking-on-Sabbath rules.

Eventually molasses–the sticky-sweet sugar-refining byproduct used to make rum in colonial Boston, found its way into the beanpot, sealing the beans-and-Boston partnership that lasted long after no-cooking-on-Sabbath waned.

Molasses was also used to make brown bread, itself an adaptive-use product Colonists created due to the shortage of wheat flour. Wheat didn’t grow well in the Colonies, but rye and corn did. So to stretch what wheat they had, the Colonists created “thirded” breads–made with equal parts corn, rye and wheat flour. Earliest examples of the resulting loaves were yeast-raised and less sweet, but sometime later in the 19th century, the pudding-like practice of sweetening the bread with raisins and more molasses and steaming it in a mold, became common.

This recipe for Boston Brown Bread is very similar to the Boston Brown Bread published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book: It has all of the same ingredients, save two. What makes it different/better is the addition of egg, and, substitution of cooking oil for 1 cup of the sour milk (buttermilk here.) It’s astonishing that such a hearty grain trio–rye, coarsely-ground corn, and whole wheat–yields such a moist, tender and flavorful loaf! But putting those dry ingredients with molasses, baking soda and buttermilk works food-chemistry magic: The finished bread most closely resembles the best bran muffin you ever had.

Our recipe for Boston Baked Beans is a standard we’ve used for years–source indeterminable, although it matches most of the recipes we have here in multiple vintage cookbooks. We do include some ginger in it, which enhances the dry-mustard spice in the mix.

The biggest challenge you’ll have with either of these recipes is that they take time. For best results with the beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and then slow-bake them in the oven for 7 or 8 hours (cut that to 5 to 6 if you have a convection oven.) And it will take you a good hour-and-one-half or more to steam the bread. The results are worth it!