In 1993 the Massachusetts State Legislature declared the humble baked navy bean the official bean of the Commonwealth. As Lizzo might say, it was about damn time.
It is, after all, the sine qua non of Boston baked beans, a dish that warms body and soul on cold winter nights and without which summer barbeque plates just look… sad. And consider that Boston had become “Beantown” as early as 1907 in publicity for the Boston’s Old Home Week, when New England towns traditionally called residents back for homecoming-style celebrations.
But Boston baked beans’ origins date even centuries earlier, from a Middle Ages English bean-and-bacon stew. It was later adapted by 17th-century Puritans who settled what became Massachusetts (and replaced bacon with salt pork); it was a meal they could cook on Saturday and eat on Sunday to avoid labor on the Sabbath. Archaeologists who later excavated the Massachusetts Bay Colony unearthed a large cache of a specific type of ceramic baking dish likely used to prepare baked beans.
The dish saved the day again during the Revolutionary War and the siege of Boston, when fresh food provisions in the city dwindled to almost nothing. Dried beans and salt pork lasted forever in pantries, rescuing colonists lucky enough to have them from a fate that befell many of their fellows: cooking and eating rats.
While we may never know what took the Legislature so long to give the baked bean its rightful status, we can answer another crucial question: What makes Boston baked beans Boston baked beans? In a word, molasses. Most baked bean recipes use brown sugar and a tomato-based sauce, but true Boston baked beans use molasses, which gives them their singular deep, rich, just-sweet-enough taste and provides the most perfectly satisfying contrast to the salty pork.
And to go deeper, why molasses? In another word, rum. As a port town, Boston was central to 18th-century trade, which brought molasses produced in the Caribbean to the colony to make rum, which soon became (along with ground mustard and salt pork) a defining ingredient in authentic Boston baked beans. Another defining ingredient is time. Real Boston baked beans are cooked slowly, and the beans should be soaked overnight and cooked separately before the molasses is added, and then baked for a good long time.
Here at Newbury Guest House, we’re fans – it’s the perfect side to lobster rolls, burgers, ribs, hot dogs, and even to its fellow side, mac and cheese. And when you stay in our Back Bay boutique hotel in the heart of Beantown, you’re surrounded by some of the best. See our recommendations below, and just in case you’re salivating now, we’ve also shared the recipe for one of the oldest and most authentic Boston baked bean recipes in town. Bean appetit.
Marliave: 10 Bosworth St. – properly slow-cooked and delicious
The Beantown Pub: 100 Tremont St. – portions sized for devoted bean lovers
Union Oyster House: 41 Union St. – authentic beans and atmosphere since 1826
Boston Burger Co.: 1100 Boylston St. – because burgers + beans done right = perfection
Faneuil Hall Marketplace’s centuries-old Durgin-Park restaurant recently closed its doors, but for decades served the hands-down most authentic and mouth-watering beans around. Luckily, they left behind their signature recipe. If you can’t come to Beantown, you can’t do better than making this dish at home.
Durgin-Park Boston Baked Beans
Notes: Use navy beans and a 2 1/2-quart bean pot or covered casserole. Yield: 7 cups
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 lb. dried navy beans
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ lb. salt pork
½ medium onion, peeled and uncut (studded with garlic, if desired)
4 tablespoons sugar
1⁄3 cup molasses
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1. Soak beans overnight.
2. In the morning, preheat oven to 325°F.
3. Place baking soda in a Dutch oven and fill halfway with water. Bring to a boil, add the beans and boil for 10 minutes.
4. Drain beans in a colander and run cold water through them. Set aside.
5. Dice the salt pork (available in the bacon section of the grocery store) into 1-inch squares.
6. Put half of the salt pork on the bottom of the bean pot, along with the onion.
7. Put beans in the pot then put the remaining salt pork on top of the beans.
8. Mix sugar, molasses, mustard, salt and pepper with 3 cups of hot water and pour over the beans.
9. Cover pot with lid and place in the preheated oven.
10. Bake for 6 hours, checking pot periodically to make sure the amount of liquid is okay. Add water to the beans slowly as needed to keep them moist; but do NOT flood them; just top them off a bit. Remove the pot from the oven and serve.