Certain holiday celebrations call for baked beans. And this weekend is one of them.
Traditional Boston baked beans have salt pork. I’ve never used it, but I love versions with bacon and pancetta as substitutes. Now, I’ve hit upon the way to make fabulous vegetarian baked beans. Like many of my cooking adventures, this recipe was an unintentional twist to a well worn path.
I have learned that homemade baked beans are infinitely better than store-bought. No surprise there. But my past batches have all contained either bacon, or more recently pancetta.
My only previous post about baked beans was Jamaican Baked Beans, made with bacon and redolent with Jamaican spices. And since I’m not a vegetarian, my only experience playing around with traditional American baked beans was based on a Sam Sifton version. In that version, I substituted pancetta for American-style bacon, which I thought was quite successful.
So I planned to include either bacon or pancetta when I volunteered to make baked beans for a holiday party this weekend. However, the friend who requested the baked beans had other plans. She asked if I could make them vegetarian. Being the people-pleaser that I am, I immediately replied that I could.
After my willingness to change course, I realized I had no idea how to do that. Taking out the meat and keeping the meaty flavor seemed like a tall order when the tradition and even my variations were so dependent on that (je ne sais quoi) flavor that meat imparts to the long-cooking dish.
After researching various vegetarian versions of baked beans, I found my answer. I just needed to ensure depth of flavor and umami without meat. Two ingredients I had never put into baked beans before would do that. First, I would use vegetable broth in place of the traditional water. That would add depth of flavor. Then, soy sauce would add the umami. I included a bit of tomato paste and even sesame oil for the umami-crazed in the crowd, but you can opt for just one or neither and the result will still be tasty.
Before we get to the recipe for these fabulous vegetarian baked beans, let’s talk about umami for a minute.
What is Umami?
- Umami is a taste, not a flavor. Sweet, sour, salty, and bitter are the four traditional tastes. Recently, scientists and foodies have discovered that there is a fifth taste – umami. The word is Japanese, and translated, it means “pleasant, savory taste.” There is a rather complicated scientific explanation for what makes umami a taste and how it works. For my purposes, I’m comfortable thinking of it as related to glutamate, an amino acid that is found in, and associated with, meat and certain vegetables, such as mushrooms.
- What does umami taste like? Umami is the meaty, broth-like taste that is difficult to describe, but intensely pleasurable to experience. When she was at The New Yorker, food critic and writer Hannah Goldfield described it as “that deep, dark, meaty intensity that distinguishes seared beef, soy sauce, ripe tomato, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, and mushrooms, among other things. It hits the back of your throat and leaves you craving more.”
- Lots of different foods/ingredients provide umami. While meat products are the most obvious source of umami, there are many others. For example, miso, fish, soy and Worcestershire sauces all provide umami, as do some vegetables (asparagus, peas, and sweet corn to name a few), seaweed, fish (sardines and anchovies for example) and seafood (oysters), spices (cumin and paprika), cheese, and nutritional yeast.
Tips for Making Fabulous Vegetarian Baked Beans
- Don’t obsess over exact ingredients or process. Navy beans are the traditional choice for Boston-style baked beans. If you don’t have them, use Great Northern or pinto beans. I used boxed broth and tomato paste. If your broth is quite tomato-ey, maybe you leave out the tomato paste. If you want more tomato flavor but don’t have paste, how about double the amount of tomato sauce (without Italian spices, of course) or even ketchup? Every time I make this recipe, it uses a different amount of liquid. Why? I have no idea, as I use the same oven and the same temperature. But instead of getting upset, I just go with the flow. And you should too.
- You can get to the desired end result another way. I baked my beans in the oven. If you prefer a slow cooker or an Instant Pot, be my guest. Beans in a thick, tasty sauce is the goal. If you get there with detours I haven’t suggested (and maybe haven’t even imagined), that’s fine. By the way, if you prefer your beans spicy, add some hot sauce at the end.
- This recipe is great for making ahead of time. These beans get better when the flavors have a chance to meld. While you can eat them right out of the oven, they are even tastier the next day. Or two days later. Make them now and have them all weekend if you like. I reheat mine in the microwave, but you could reheat them on the stove or in the oven. You may need to add some more liquid, either broth, or water or a combination. If you do add additional liquid, it’s best to heat the liquid before adding it and to go slowly as you add it, so you don’t end up with too much.
Three Steps Make Fabulous Vegetarian Baked Beans
- Cooking the Onions. I like to cook the onions first. It takes about 10 minutes for them to get soft and start to brown.
- Adding the Flavorings. Once the onions are done, add all the other flavorings. Then, once the beans are ready for the oven, pour the mixture into the beans, stir, and add liquid to cover. You may want to heat the mixture in the pan before pouring into the drained beans. (I find that helps the brown sugar and tomato paste to meld with the other ingredients.) The ratio of vegetable broth to water, or whether you use just water, is all a matter of personal taste. If your vegetable broth is strong, you might want the diluting effect of water. On the other hand, if it is only lightly flavored, you may opt for using only broth and no water. Yes, I know the rules about not using acidic ingredients in a cast iron pan. However, since these flavorings are in the pan for a short time, I make an exception. If you’re more of a rule-follower than I am, use a different type of pan.
- Letting the Baked Beans Cook Slowly. These beans take time. They cook on a low heat in the oven and then a bit more on the stove. The slow cooking lets the flavor seep into the beans and concentrates the liquid. I don’t count a quick cook and soak for the beans as part of the three steps. Still, I’m a proponent of using dried beans that require that cook-and-soak, rather than canned beans for this recipe. Although some recipes allow for canned beans, I think they’re too soft for a truly magnificent pot of baked beans. After all, beans are the stars of this recipe.
Fabulous Vegetarian Baked Beans
- 1 pound navy beans 454 g/16 oz. - see note
- 1 tablespoon unflavored oil (avocado, sunflower, canola, etc)
- 1 medium onion, diced or cut into small pieces (1/2-1") 225 g/8 oz.
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup brown sugar (dark or light) see note
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 2 teaspoons dried mustard
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, ground
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional) see note
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil (optional) see note
- 6-8 cups vegetable broth and/or water, heated see note
Rinse beans and take out any stones or other matter. Put them in large pot covered by 8-10 cups of hot water. It doesn't have to be boiling, but should be quite hot. (Use a microwave or heat water in a kettle or on stove rather than use hot tap water.) Boil beans for 2 minutes, then turn off heat and let them soak for 1 hour.
While beans are soaking, heat the oil in a medium pan. Add the onion and gently sauté for about 10-12 minutes, until onion is soft and beginning to brown.
Once the onions are soft and beginning to brown, add the other ingredients except for the broth and water - the molasses, brown sugar, maple syrup, mustard, black pepper, vinegar, Worcestershire and soy sauces, and tomato paste and sesame oil if using. Mix the ingredients well. You might heat this mixture slightly in the pan before pouring it into the drained beans.
Preheat oven to 300° F/150° C Drain the beans and return them to the pot. Add the onions and other ingredients from the pan and mix. Add the hot vegetable broth and water if using, to cover. (Generally, the beans will take about 4 cups of liquid at this point) Bake, covered with the lid, for 4-5 hours. Check periodically, at least after 2 hours, and then every 45 minutes to 1 hour after that, adding more broth and/or water when necessary to keep beans in a loose sauce. If the mixture is very soupy at the end (last 30-45 minutes), you can turn the heat up to 350° F/180° C.
Once the beans are tender, but not mushy, take the pot out of the oven, uncover it. Then stir and taste for seasoning. You may want to add salt at this point. However, the soy sauce and vegetable broth may have provided enough salt. so let your taste buds be your guide. Continue cooking, uncovered, on the stove, under medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and a crust forms on top, about 30-45 minutes.
Let the beans cool a bit, then refrigerate overnight or for a day before serving. Reheat in a microwave or on the stove. Once reheated, if necessary, add a bit more warm broth and/or water to loosen up the sauce.
Beans - Navy beans are traditional for this style of baked beans. But if you can't find them, or prefer another, use Great Northern or pinto beans.
Brown sugar - The difference between light and dark brown sugar is simply the amount of molasses. I like the molasses taste in my beans so I use dark. It's personal preference, so go with what you like.
Tomato paste or substitute - I like a complex taste that includes a bit of a tomato-ey undertone. The amount of tomato paste specified gives that result. Use a bit more, leave it out, or substitute another tomato-based ingredient if you prefer. If you use tomato sauce or ketchup, you'll want to use more than 1 teaspoon to get the same effect, as paste is more concentrated than sauce or ketchup.
Toasted sesame oil - To me, this umami-boost is unnecessary, but if you're a huge umami fan, then add it for a little extra oomph.
Liquid - broth and/or water - the broth gives these beans flavor complexity and I urge you to use at least 50% broth. But if you prefer your beans "straight up", ie with plain water, that's fine. Either way, make sure the liquid is at least hot to the touch when you add it, so you don't cool the beans down too much.
While these baked beans are vegetarian, they become vegan if you simply use Worcestershire sauce without anchovies. As part of a holiday meal, they go well with my favorite potato salad and cole slaw. And what you use for a main course is up to you. Maybe just a cool gazpacho if the weather stays hot, or a full-on meat BBQ with ribs or brisket if you are a carnivore.
However you decide to go, hope that your holidays are good and that these Fabulous Vegetarian Baked Beans are a part of at least one meal this weekend.