At least once a month in my house we have this economical, adaptable, flavorful bean dish. The full-size recipe makes over a gallon of finished product, so I usually have some extra containers ready to fill to give away or freeze. The first night I make it, we eat about a quart with dinner (or, lunch and dinner that day depending on what time I started it) and store a quart in the fridge to serve during the week. The other two quarts go home with someone or in the freezer. Often it’s more than two other quarts, usually three, sometimes the yield is higher depending on liquid content or if you add extra vegetables and meat to make it bigger. Your house will smell amazing for two days or more when you make this recipe. You will feel like a genius because this is better than any beans you’ve ever had a restaurant … and don’t even get me started on what’s in a can. And, when you see how inexpensive per-serving this dish is, you’ll prefer it to the canned kind anyway. Here is the basic recipe, then I will list the variations afterwards:
1/2 lb bacon, diced finely
1 whole sweet onion (Vidalia preferred)
4 cloves of garlic, minced finely (please use fresh only – not canned or the stuff that comes in a tube)
1 whole jalapeno pepper (fresh only – not sliced or pickled)
1 lb dry beans – prefer navy beans, pinto beans, Great Northern beans, or cranberry beans
Gallon of fresh room-temperature water
15 oz can of chicken stock or broth
1 tbsp soy sauce
10 drops Liquid Smoke
15 oz can of diced tomatoes
1/2 cup loose brown sugar
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
salt to taste
PHASE 1: 24 Hours Before You Plan to Serve The Final Dish:
1. Rinse the dry beans in a colander under running water to remove any dirt. Swish them around really good! Move all the beans around so you can dislodge any possible rocks, bad beans, loose skins, dirt, or anything else that isn’t edible. Do this more than once until you are sure the beans are clean.
2. Put the beans in a large mixing bowl and cover with fresh, room-temperature water, about a gallon. It should look like WAY more water than the beans will soak up, but that’s okay, because you are going to cook with that SAME water. That’s why it has to be clean. Once or twice in the next 8-12 hours, swish the beans around again in the clean water. There will be some cloudiness, discoloration, or particles in the water. THAT’S OKAY. If you had cleaned the beans before soaking them, the extra particles in the water are parts of the beans that will make that water better and more nutritious then draining it and using plain tap water, so save the water and keep it clean.
3. The beans should soak a minimum of 8 hours at room temperature, up to 12 hours, stirring at least once. Once they have soaked that amount of time, you’re ready for the next phase.
PHASE 2: 8-12 Hours Before You Serve The Final Dish
If I am planning on serving the beans for lunch the next day, I do this part right before I go to bed at night. If I am planning on serving the dish at dinner time, I do this part around 6:00 am the day of.
4. In a large pan, saute the finely diced bacon to render the fat and make the little bits crispy. Don’t have the pan so hot that the fat smokes, it should just render away from the meat. To this, add the diced vegetables in this order – ONIONS first, chopped in small pieces, stir to coat with fat, keep stirring until they start to become translucent. HOT PEPPER next, very finely diced, the pieces will be so small they will disappear and no one will even know they are in the final dish. Again, stir and keep stirring, nothing should dry out or burn. GARLIC last, garlic cooks quickly and loses flavor and becomes bitter easily, so add it last, keep stirring, keep the heat medium-low, until you can clearly smell all the flavors cooking together.
5. In a crockpot, slow cooker, or oven-safe stock pot or even an oven-safe bean cooker, dump in the bacon, onion, pepper and garlic mixure including any remaining fat. Do not drain the fat. Add it. Scrape the pan if you have to, or deglaze the pan with a splash of bean water to get all the little crispy bits that might have stuck to the pan so that you don’t lose any of the bacon flavor. You might have a different cooking vessel, and have to adjust accordingly, but I’m going to use “crockpot” in my description for simplicity.
6. Using a slotted spoon, strain the beans out of the bean water and add them to the crockpot with the bacon and vegetables. Start the crockpot on “low” and stir to mix.
8. Add the entire can of chicken stock, stir to combine, make sure that the crockpot is starting to heat up. Add the remaining ingredients except for the salt and bean water. Stir again.
9. Slowly add the bean water, about two cups at a time, stirring after each addition and letting the crockpot heat up as you add. This might take a few minutes. If you are going to be using an in-oven vessel, then just go ahead and add the entire list of ingredients except for the salt. You’re going to want to have a way to taste and adjust for the salt, so that’s why I prefer a crockpot rather than a set-and-forget in-oven cooking pot for this recipe.
10. Now … walk away. You’ll have nothing to do for at least 4 hours.
PHASE 3: When The Aroma Is Driving You Crazy
Sometime in the 4-6 hour window of time after it has been cooking on low, the rich bacony sweet smell is going to permeate your kitchen and everyone who walks into your house will suddenly be hungry. At this point, it’s okay to remove the lid and stir some.
11. Taste and adjust – this will take a few tries and it is rarely exactly what you want on the first try, some people like a smokier flavor, and there are variations depending on how salty and smoky the bacon is, how hot the pepper is, what kind of diced tomatoes you use, etc. Your salt level will vary depending on those ingredients, so you might have to adjust a few things at this point. You might need to add some salt (if it’s blander than the smell suggests), or some sugar (some people really like sticky, thick and sweet beans), or some more Liquid Smoke (if the bacon wasn’t meaty and smoky enough), or some hot sauce (if one hot pepper wasn’t enough for you or the fresh pepper you had wasn’t strong enough). At this point, I usually keep a small tasting bowl next to the crockpot and spoon out a sample to test. I taste it from the bowl, not the crockpot, then make my adjustment and wait a few minutes. Then I rinse out the bowl and try again. According to your taste, this might take anywhere from one to five adjustments. While that sounds like a pain, it’s so worth it, and you’re not exactly suffering as you “sample” the dish.
12. Leave it alone for at least another two hours.Take one last taste, adjust if needed, and it’s ready anytime. Switch the crockpot to “warm” if you have to hold it warm for longer, because there seems to be a magic point in which beyond that the beans will start to dry out too quickly and crumble, becoming more of a “refried beans” texture than a baked beans texture. Stop cooking it when the liquid to bean ratio is slightly soupier than you think you want in the final product, reduce the heat to the lowest possible to hold it at a warm temperature until you are ready to serve, and serve anytime.
Yield – 4+ quarts, closer to 5 quarts if you stop the cooking while it is still soupy. Depending on whether you are serving this as a main dish or side dish, anywhere from 8-16 servings per batch. My cost (after coupons) to make the entire batch is about $5. Full price on all the items if they were purchased without any sort of discount is probably much more than that.