Variations and Pricing Notes on the Best Baked Beans recipe

We make that recipe about once a month throughout the year, so I’ve had a chance over the years to try many different variations and I have notes and suggestions about all of them. I have used some variations either because I was ready to make the beans and had something different on hand than I usually use, or just because I wanted to try to see what would happen. Also, as always, prices of ingredients are very important, so I have notes on those as well.

Prices:

Bacon – easily the most expensive thing on this list. Right now, bacon is around $7-$10 a pound for name brand. Bacon freezes well, so I always wait for a Buy One Get One sale plus a coupon to get the bacon around $2.00-$3.50 a pound. Store brand bacon will also go on sale for Buy One Get One, but keep in mind many packages are 12 ounces and not a pound, so be careful of that. If I’m ever caught flat-footed and don’t have any bacon on hand or in the freezer and there isn’t a current good enough sale/coupon, I buy a 3 lb package of ends and pieces for $7.50. The ends and pieces work fine for me if you aren’t needed uniform, neat and even slices, because you are going to dice it up anyway. So, my typical cost for this ingredient is about $1.75.
Sweet Onion – I only buy fresh and I usually get them from a local farm stand, so I probably pay more than is typical at the grocery store. Not often are there coupons on fresh produce. Sometimes I do get a great deal, and I’ll dice up and freeze portions, but that’s not often. I would say typically the price is $1 per pound or more, and a good sized onion is about a half pound, so about 50 cents.
Fresh Garlic – peeling garlic is something I really hate to do, so I buy the already peeled fresh garlic. A container of about 35 of them is around $2.50, and I use four cloves for the recipe, so about 30 cents.
Fresh Hot Pepper – pricing on these vary, anywhere from $2 to $3 a pound, and each pepper is about 1/8 of a pound. So, typically a hot pepper will cost about 30 cents.
Dry Beans – again this varies because there are so many sources. Grocery stores will have their own store brand bagged, for about $1.50 to $2.50 a pound. You can find it cheaper at places that have bulk bins where you can scoop your own, but it would be rare for it to be less than $1 per pound. You can also get it cheaper per pound if you buy a larger size and split it up yourself. If it helps, a quart-sized storage bag nearly filled is about a pound. Only once, earlier this year, did I find this particular item as a Buy One Get One in the store brand one-pound bags, so I stocked up. I would say my typical price per pound works out to about $1.
Can chicken stock – especially around the holidays, this will go on sale often for Buy One Get One, and there are very often coupons, plus usually store promotions and coupons to combine. I bought a year’s supply at the last opportunity in which the price per can turned about to be about 4 cents, and I still have plenty left. I would say you would usually pay no more than 50 cents per can if you are paying attention to sales.
Soy Sauce – since it only use it for occasional seasoning, a bottle of soy sauce lasts at least a year in my house. I buy them only on sale with a coupon, and I paid about 40 cents for the bottle. Probably the cost per serving is about 3 cents.
Liquid Smoke – same. Strong flavor and you only need a few drops so it lasts forever. I paid less than $1 for the bottle and it lasts at least a year, maybe closer to 2. Cost per serving might be about 4 cents.
Can Diced Tomatoes – again, something that stores easily, goes on sale at certain times of the year, and frequently has combination deals where you can pay less than 5 cents per can.
Brown Sugar – stores easily when sealed, goes on sale with coupons, so stock up around holiday baking time. I paid less than $1 for a one pound box and it has about 4 servings in it, so about 25 cents.
Molasses – this tends to be expensive and only goes on sale once a year, so watch it carefully. Coupons are rare but are usually at a promotional time like the holidays. Buy when it’s on sale because it will store well and last a very long time. I only get the blackstrap and only a good brand that I like, so I probably pay about $4 per bottle. Each bottle makes about 8 bean recipes, so about 50 cents per usage.
Salt – I usually get sea salt, although there’s lots of choices in this area. I get them on sale with a coupon and probably each time I use it costs me less than a penny.

Following the recipe exactly with some planning and watching your freezer and pantry items, the cost ideally should be about $5 per batch.

Substitution #1 : Bacon
Meat can very easily be the most expensive part of this dish. Not everyone stocks everything all the time, not all of us have giant freezers in which we can buy 10 of everything while they are on sale and store them indefinitely. So, due to room or budget or convenience, you might have to switch the bacon for something else. That will still work, it just presents its own challenges. For many reasons over the last several years, I’ve made substitutions in this area.

If for whatever reason you can’t or don’t want to use bacon, you can do one of these others. You may want to omit the bacon if you are a vegetarian or have religious objections, it’s too fatty, it’s too expensive, it’s not bulky and meaty enough, or you don’t have any on hand and you’d rather use what you have. Note that I did not use the reason “because you don’t like bacon”, because that person doesn’t exist. Anyway, I present to you:

The Definitive List of Alternate Meats, Ranked Worst To Best
I’ve tried all of these. Notes, lessons learned, mistakes made, with each.

10. Meatless Substitute – Soy crumbles, tofu, imitation meat, or similar.

Pros:
You’re sticking to your vegetarian diet. I was a vegetarian in my 20’s until my early 30’s, so I understand.
Once, when local peaches were at their peak and I had way too many, I made this recipe with a pound of peaches instead of meat and it was AMAZING. The peaches were firm and held up well and didn’t get mushy and stringy, they added a very sweet top note fragrance, and I made only minor changes to the other ingredients. Problem was, this was hard to duplicate when I tried it again. Had to be very firm peaches at their peak and local ones, as any that had been stored, transported, or picked at a not-peak time were a miserable substitute. So, a very narrow window to make this great.
You might prefer the thicker texture that meatless substitutes provides.
… well, good luck, I’m sure you have learned to be creative and have different expectations at this point.

Cons:
Unless you are truly committed to vegetarian products only, this recipe is a challenge without meat. You’ll have to radically change some of the steps to get anywhere near a satisfactory result.
For the vegetable saute in step #4, you’ll have to use melted butter, or if you are vegan, some kind of oil. Keep the heat low. Sesame oil would probably be a good choice as it is richly flavored. I would also suggest adding to the vegetable saute several highly-flavored vegetables that hold their texture in a slow-cook, such as carrots, celery, fennel, leeks, jicama, and possibly apples to round out and sweeten the flavor without having to add a whole lot more sugar. Use at least double, probably triple, the bulk of vegetables to really have the flavor impact.
You’ll also have to change the spice profile. Up to you how you prefer it, but you might have to add stronger barbeque-type flavors like different kinds of pepper, chipotle, paprika, white pepper, etc. or add some barbeque sauce. I have tried this recipe using a package of hickory smoked sea salt and steak rub, I have also tried it using a package of taco seasoning. Either works depending on which way you want to bend the spice profile.

9. Shrimp or other firm seafood – crab or imitation crab, scallops, lobster.

Pros:
Makes it interesting, more like gumbo.
Could use leftovers.
Definitely a more sophisticated twist that an experienced cook could try to pull off as a main dish.

Cons:
At least as expensive, if not more expensive, than bacon.
No fat to offer the dish, and overcooked seafood is tough and tasteless. If you want to add these at all, you could saute them separately, season them in the saute pan, then add right before serving.
I have tried this with broiled shrimp on top of already cooked beans and it was really good. Flavor and texture was a bit different than you expect, but it’s interesting.

8. Chunks of Chicken or Turkey

Pros:
Usually cheaper than bacon, or you can use leftovers.
Lower calories than bacon.

Cons:
Really adds nothing to the dish flavor-wise. You’ll have to adjust the flavor without having the meat help at all.
Don’t add it until much later in the dish, maybe 30 minutes before serving, or the pieces will just break apart and get stringy.
Can not be used at all for step #4 as it doesn’t have any fat to render, and you’ll just destroy the pieces of meat by overcooking them. Leaving them in the dish too long will really make them chewy and tasteless.

7. Ground Beef  – or ground turkey or ground chicken.

Pros:
Interesting texture and does add a rich flavor.
Often cheaper than bacon (but more expensive than ham hocks).
If you prefer beef to pork, this is the right substitute to make.
Usually has enough fat to render so you can use it for step #4.

Cons:
Doesn’t have any sodium or spice to it, so you’ll have to make adjustments to your seasoning.
Ground chicken and turkey offer zero to the flavor of the dish once added with the other ingredients, so they are simply a protein boost. You will really have to commit to the taste-and-adjust phase of the recipe.
Ground chicken and turkey would be significantly lower in calories than pork or beef.

6. Breakfast Sausage

Pros:
Usually cheaper than bacon.
Often offers close flavors to bacon, smoky, maple, honey, etc.
Unless pre-cooked, usually has some fat to render for step #4, although you’ll have to watch carefully and add butter or oil if you see you are not getting enough fat to cook the vegetables.

Cons:
The cheap, pre-cooked kind will get really tough and chewy easily. You’ll have to add it towards the end of the cooking process, probably about 30 minutes before you will serve the dish. Because of this, you won’t be able to rely on the pork flavor permeating the dish or offering any seasoning.
The uncooked kind tends to be very heavy on sodium and preservatives, if you can cook it for step #4, you’ll need to crumble and break up the pieces in the pan or else they will be inedible after they have had the chance to wither in the dish.
They taste cheap after being cooked. Really doesn’t offer much other than some texture and protein.

5. Bulk Sausage – no casing, consistency similar to ground beef, could be spicy or not.

Pros:
Similar pork flavor, different texture.
Usually has enough fat to render for step #4.
Usually cheaper than bacon.

Cons:
Spice profiles of bulk sausage are rarely the same as barbeque. Not that this is bad, but it is clearly different. Usually the spices will be heavy on thyme, sage, and fennel, although if you choose a sausage that is heavily “hot” or “garlic” you might be fairly close to the barbeque flavor in the end.

4. Hot Dogs – any non-premium kind.

Pros:
Bulkier and meatier than bacon, which just about vanishes once cooked.
Texture-wise, it is pleasing, and a good complement to beans.
You’re used to this taste combination and it’s very kid-friendly.
Super, super, super cheap. You can get a pound of non-branded unfussy hot dogs for less than $2, and you can add as many or as few as you would like. Adding even a half pound of hot dogs is a lot of meat.

Cons:
Well, it’s hot dogs, so the flavor is less grown-up than bacon or ham hocks.
You can’t cook them to render fat or they will get burned and bitter. So, you have to use butter instead on step #4.
You really can’t have them in the recipe long at all. Overcooked hot dogs are really unpleasant, or at best, tasteless. They don’t impart much flavor to the batch. When I’ve added them, I’ve cut them into bite-size pieces, quickly sauteed them in a skillet with butter, then added the cooked pieces to the beans no more than 30 minutes before serving. Or, don’t mix them in at all, fix them in a pan and serve the beans with the pieces spooned on top of the beans for the guest to mix in.
You also might have to do some adjusting to the flavor profile of the batch since you won’t be able to rely on meat to season it while it cooks. You might have to add more salt and pepper also.

3. Smoked Sausages

Pros:
Flavor-wise, one of your best substitutes.
Usually pound for pound much cheaper than bacon. Even without coupons and sales, a pound of smoked sausage would be around $3-$4. On sale with coupons, less than $1.
Keeps a decent texture and imparts flavor to the dish.

Cons:
Often low in fat, so not to be used for step #4. Cook the vegetables in butter or oil. Slice the smoked sausage into chunks and add them directly to the dish with the rest of the ingredients.
Often very high in sodium, so you’ll have to watch not to add too much salt. Flavor can really vary, but most are smoky, with some sweetness to them, and a pork flavor. Overall a decent substitute.

2. Ham – cooked, any type of roast – honey, maple, smoked, or boiled.

Pros:
Often cooked ham goes on sale several times a year, and can be much cheaper than bacon if bought at the right time. Could be around $2 a pound, less around Easter and Thanksgiving.
Flavor very similar to bacon.
Lower calories, less fat than bacon.
Holds up well for the whole dish, does not dissolve or get chewy like some kinds of meat.
Easy to season and often has maple, smoke or honey notes.

Cons:
You really have to watch the saltiness – some ham really is very salty and will affect your entire dish.
You won’t be able to render the fat for step #4, you’ll have to use butter or oil, then just cube the ham and add it with the rest of the ingredients.

1. Smoked Ham Hocks

Pros:
Highly flavored, imparts a stronger smoky pork flavor than bacon
Less to no fat
Meat holds up well and stays chunky and meaty
Extremely cost- effective – about $1.50 worth of smoked ham hocks will be enough for an entire batch
Might be preferable to bacon given all the options

Cons:
Little or no fat, so you can’t use it for Step #4. You will cook the vegetables in butter instead.
Ham hocks are often roughly cut and may contain tough or inedible pieces. The preparation is more involved and you have to be very meticulous about the pieces you use in the final product.
The meaty pieces are often tough and cooking them slowly overnight is recommended.
You might get the most out of the ham hocks flavor-wise if you cook them on “low” in the slow cooker overnight while you are soaking the beans in water at room temperature. You only need to use enough water to cover the ham hocks completely. After they cook overnight, you’ll have to pick through the ham hocks for bone pieces, inedible gristle or gelatenous pieces.

Substitution #2: Using fresh vegetables

Like I mentioned, I was a committed vegetarian for several years, so I understand. If you have been a vegetarian for a while, you have learned the taste-and-adjust method many times over. Picking firm, flavorful chunks of vegetables as a substitute for meat will depend on your taste. I don’t like mushrooms, but many people do for the earthiness and texture, so I can see making this dish with chunks of onions, mushrooms, and bell peppers to combine with the beans. My recommendation is to go heavier on the hot peppers, soy sauce and Liquid Smoke, but any combination you find acceptable can happen in your taste-and-adjust phase.

Substitution #3: Sauces and pre-made additives
I use three in this recipe – a can of chicken stock, soy sauce, and Liquid Smoke. There are many reasons to object to these additives and finding a substitute will take a little extra work and creativity, but it can be done and the results may be more in line with how you prefer to feed your family. For example, if you are trying to stay closer to a whole food/no preservative concept, you’re going to want to omit these items and substitute ones from fresher sources. Or, if you just don’t keep stuff like this on hand, you want possible choices. Or, you just ran out, or are trying to use other stuff up without seriously altering the dish, and want to know what would be close flavor-wise to these items. One objection at a time:

“I don’t have any Soy Sauce or Liquid Smoke. What else will do the same thing?”
While I don’t really know of an exact substitute for Liquid Smoke, maybe understanding the purpose in the dish will help you with your substitution. If you know what each of these items contributes, you can decide how important it’s individual contribution is and how strongly you feel about replacing it. Liquid Smoke, for example, is a “top note” fragrance for the dish and a “base note” flavor. It is part of that aroma that hits you when you lean near the dish, that distinctive smoky scent. And, it’s a deeper, richer flavor that sinks into the beans, creating a darker base that balances out the sweetness of the other ingredients. Leaving it out entirely definitely leaves you open to the possibility of syrupy-sweet, overpowering flavors in the beans without the barbeque-y balance of a dark, smoky flavor. Depending on how important that is to you, you could simply substitute other sources of a dark, base flavor to balance – such steak marinade, paprika and other peppers, or generic “steak seasoning”. Caution that those are typically heavily salted, so you likely will not want to add any additional salt to your dish. Soy Sauce serves a similar purpose – you do not notice it fragrance-wise, however. It offers a deeper, richer balance to the sweet ingredients in the dish. You can change this out for other dark, strong sauces such as Worcestershire, Asian fish sauce, Hoisen, or steak marinades. You’ll have to experiment carefully with proportions because these flavors quickly tip the balance and are hard to correct. For example, many marinades can be vinegar-y or citrus-y. Plan on taking more time for your “taste and adjust” phase to be sure.

“I don’t have any canned chicken stock. What else can I use?”
Lots of close choices – dissolving a cube of soup starter is the closest, cheapest substitute. You should have those on hand anyway – a package of 25 cubes is usually about $2.50 without even being on sale and it keeps well for a long time. There are all sorts of soup starters – powder, pouches, liquid, condensed, just watch the saltiness of them and do not add any extra salt to the dish until after it has cooked a few hours and you can taste all the ingredients. The purpose of the chicken stock is a middle note flavor and fragrance wise, it is richer than just water or vegetable stock, but not overpowering like beef stock. With that in mind, you can also substitute condensed chicken soup (not the kind with noodles, of course) or condensed vegetable soup, although those tend to be cheap, inferior, and full of salt. Really watch your flavors and keep testing. Or, just use water, and prepare to adjust your seasoning accordingly.

“I don’t like all those preservatives/soy ingredients/cheap fake food things. I want to use real food only!”
I understand and applaud your choices. I prefer that too, and will use the real thing when I can instead. I use the canned things because they are cheap and convenient, but I know it would be healthier if I used real ingredients instead. If you make your own chicken stock, vegetable stock, or save rendered fat, you have an easy way to substitute. Use about a quart of homemade chicken or vegetable stock, and about two tablespoons of rendered bacon fat. That takes care of the smoky flavor, middle and base balance, and gets rid of the soy ingredients.

Substitution #4: Sugars and sweeteners

Wow, I get into the most trouble with this phase of the dish. There are many reasons for not wanting molasses and brown sugar. If you are into evaporated coconut juice, agave, or the like, then you probably already have your own formulas for substituting. I would say the absolute closest one that I’ve used in recipes has been the coconut sugar, because it has that depth of flavor. Watch your taste-and-adjust phase, because sweeteners can get overwhelming in a hurry.

Substitution #5: The actual beans
Yikes. Things can really go off the rails here. If you want to substitute something for the actual beans, things will really change. Lentils, barley, or quinoa have their benefits although the size and difference in texture would have to be something you really prefer to the actual bean texture. You can use diced, firm vegetables, you will just need to seriously shorten the cooking time so that they don’t dissolve and turn to mush. If that’s what you want to do, you’ll be making more of a soupy texture than a sticky one. Cubed potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables are your most likely substitute as they tend to stay firm longer. You’re going to have to pay attention to the flavors and spices, and I wouldn’t recommend cooking longer than 4 hours. A plus – they will actually freeze and re-heat well with a consistent flavor.

Substitution #6: Tomato products
There’s actually lots of variation possible here and I’ve tried many, many substitutes depending on what was on hand. This is one of those areas in which the actual product is not that essential, it is the service that the product provides to the dish that you need to impart. There’s a long scientific explanation about legumes and acid and sugar, which I’m not qualified to teach, and which is available in detail online if you really care. The short answer is, for the beans to be flavorful and pleasantly textured, they need to be cooked for some time with a combination of acid and sugar, both of which the tomato product provides. If you have a reason why you can not tolerate the nightshade family, you probably have your own ideas for substitution. In general, I’d say if you don’t have an objection to tomatoes, keep them.

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