Most recipes for baked beans use pork for flavor and long slow cooking to thicken the sauce. After talking about the physics of baking with my Taster, who is an engineer as well as a patient man, I tried to capture the creamy richness of baked beans faster and with less work. The quick and easy recipe below makes beans every bit as tasty as the ones I grew up with, using equal parts peanut butter and tahini instead of pork and a slow cooker instead of an oven.
Bean Physics. Water boils when it reaches 212° F and doesn’t get any hotter except under special conditions, such as in a pressure cooker. So my original thought of baking beans and bread at the same time was a bust: a big pot of beans will drag down the oven temperature. Even alone in the oven, the beans took forever to cook. Why? My Taster says tranferring heat through the air, like in an oven, is much less efficient than transferring heat through physical contact, like on a stove or in a slow cooker. The acidity of the tomatoes and molasses makes a slow situation slower even slower by toughening the beans.
My solution? I think beans can’t tell much difference between bubbling along in a slow cooker or an oven, but the slow cooker will be, yes, faster. Instead of cooking the beans uncovered in the oven to boil away some of the water, I just added less water in the first place. Don’t let tomatoes and molasses put the brakes on the cooking time either; add them when the beans are already tender, then let the flavors blend overnight.
Active time: 15 minutes. Total time: at least 4 hours, preferrably at least 12 hours. Makes 10 servings.
1 pound dried pinto beans 5 cups water 1 onion 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 cup unsulphured molasses (I used Grandma’s Original) 1/4 cup tomato paste 2 tablespoons mustard (I used spicy brown mustard) 1 tablespoon peanut butter 1 tablespoon tahini
- Pick over and rinse pinto beans (see Cooking Dried Beans). Put beans in a slow cooker with water and cover. Optionally, allow beans to soak for up to 12 hours to reduce cooking time and improve texture.
- Stir in salt and turn slow cooker to high. Cook beans covered until tender, about 3 hours if soaked and about 4 hours if not. Stir beans if they peek up above the water line, adding hot water if needed to keep them barely covered.
- When beans are nearly tender, chop onion and stir into beans with remaining ingredients. Continue cooking covered on high until beans and onions are tender.
- Serve immediately or, better yet, pour into another container to speed cooling, let cool for up to two hours, and then refrigerate overnight so the sauce flavors works their way through the pintos. Reheat and serve over rice, baked potatoes, toast, or as a side dish.
Tips and Notes
- I haven’t tried this, but I bet you could just add everything to the slow cooker at night and let it cook on low heat overnight. Refrigerate it in the morning, let the flavors mingle all day, and enjoy for dinner. If you try this, please let me know in the comments.
- Try these mild beans for breakfast, especially if you can’t enjoy a hot lunch. I first enjoyed beans for breakfast, along with pan-fried tomato slices, in many English B&Bs.