Karl’s Boston Baked Beans

The kids are not coming over this week end, so Jan requested baked beans and hot dogs. Most Americans would grab a can of Van Camps  or Bush’s (Heintz, if you’re British) and be good to go. I decided that I wanted to make my own.

Karl’s Boston Baked Beans

Karl’s Boston Baked Beans

I looked at a lot of recipes on-line and immediately ran into problems. First, I could feel my blood sugar rise just reading some of the recipes—diabetes. A cup of molasses and a cup and half of brown sugar for four cups of beans is more than excessive—that’s candy.

The second problem was that most of the recipes used massive amounts of bacon and salt pork. Jan can’t stand bacon—a childhood trauma— and cannot digest a lot of fat—she no longer has a gallbladder. I was going to have to change the recipe significantly, if we were going to be able to eat this dish.

Cutting the amount sugar was an easy fix. Reducing the fat required using a different selection of meats and some pre-processing. Smoked ham hocks and shanks provide a similar taste to bacon and salt pork, without adding as much fat. The ham hock has very little meat, but provides a lot of collagen—the thing that give food an unctuous mouth feel. The ham shank is a meatier, but also a lower fat cut than salt pork. Boiling these meats into a broth—that can be cooled and skimmed of excess fat—makes the dish even healthier.

Note: You do not want to remove all of the fat, because that is where much of the flavor lies.

I thought that if I was going to change things, why stop at just the sugar and pork? The common beans in most recipes for this dish are Navy (and for some reason Pinto). A while ago, I saw some heirloom beans and I bought them on spec. Bolita beans are a small tan beans originally brought to New Mexico by the Spanish. They are about the size of a Navy bean, but with the taste of a Pinto.

Many recipes call for soaking the beans overnight in heavily salted water and then discarding the soak—and some of the nutrients. When I make bean dishes, I prefer to make a pork broth the day before. I de-fat the broth and I only add the salt necessary for the recipe to the quick soak of the beans. I then use the soaking broth to cook the final dish—keeping all of the beans color, flavor and nutrients in the pot.

Karl’s Boston Baked Beans


1 smoked ham hock (about ½ lb.)
½ lb. smoked ham shank

1 lb. dry Bolita beans (about 2 cups; Navy, Pinto, or Great Northern beans may be substituted)

1 medium onion, diced
¼ cup molasses (unsulfured)
¼ cup brown sugar
1 Tbs. Colman’s  Dry Mustard
2 whole cloves, ground
1 dried red chili pod, whole
2 Tbs. tomato paste
2 Tbs. dark rum


1. Put the ham hock and ham shank into a medium pot and add 5-6 cups of water.

2. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for one hour.

3. Remove the meat from the bones, and reserve.

4. (Optional) Return the bones to the pot and continue simmering for 3-4 hours.

Tip: I prefer to scrape any lumps of fat and skin from the bones at this point, these are hard to remove once you start adding other ingredients. I then leave the bones and their connective tissue—the cartilage that produces the collagen—in the pot all through the cooking process. This is to extract the maximum flavor and collagen from them.

5. Put the stock in the refrigerator and cool completely. Skim any excess fat that has congealed on surface.

6. Sort and wash the beans.

7. Put the beans in a pot and add the pork stock to cover, add one teaspoon of salt.

Tip: Return the bones to the pot.

8. Bring the pot just to a boil. Remove it from the heat, cover, and let it rest for one hour.

Tip: This is the quick soak method of rehydrating beans.

9. Preheat oven to 300º F.

10. Put the onions in the bottom of a oven safe pot (I use a medium sized Dutch oven).

11. Pour the molasses and scatter the brown sugar, mustard and clove evenly over the onions.

12. Add the chili pod and the reserved meat to the pot.

Tip: If you want your beans spicier, tear up the  chili and keep the seeds or not to achieve your desired level of heat. Shred the meat into small bite sized pieces.

13. Drain the beans, by pouring the stock into a bowl, and add them to the pot.

14. Mix the tomato paste and rum into the stock and add 4 cups of stock to the pot.

Tip: If there is extra stock, reserve it until later. If there is not enough, add water to the pot.

Note: The tomato paste provides umami, but you do not want to add so much that the final dish tastes tomato-y.

15. Bring the pot to a boil on the stove.

16. Transfer the pot to the oven, covered, and bake for 5-6 hours, until the beans are tender.

Tip: Do not stir the pot, convection—the movement of the ingredients do to heating— will cause the ingredients that started on the bottom to work their way up through the pot. Stirring the pot would cause the beans to break—releasing starch that could sink to the bottom and scorch. Check the liquid level about once an hour, if the beans are drying out add more stock or water.

17. When the beans are tender, crush a few beans against the side of the pot and stir them in. Bake the beans for five more minutes and serve.

Tip: Remove the chili pod and any bones and remaining lumps of cartilage.

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Filed under Beans, California Fusion, Main Dishes, Pork

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