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Maine Baked Beans

November 14, 2009

Beans, as you may or may not be aware, have been, for a very long time, a staple in the Maine diet; they are easy to grow in that climate, store well in long winters, and are a cheap source of plant protein.  (In fact, uncooked dry-packaged beans can be stored in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry area.  If kept for more than 12 months, dry-packaged beans will lose moisture and may require longer cooking times. Nutrient value is not lost with age.   Cooked beans may be refrigerated, in a covered container, for up to five days; cooked beans may be frozen for up to six months.)  My grandmother, Marie, and her husband Sherwood still raise dry beans, despite the fact that she is now 75 years old and he isn’t far behind!  They sell close to 19 varieties (there are hundreds of varieties of dry beans, out of which only 26 are edible).  They raise only a portion of what they sell, opting to buy from a wholesaler some of their other varieties; this makes their clients very happy, and allows them to make their locally famous “15 bean soup mix”, a recipe for which I will also include here.  Grammy and Sherwood used to donate their beans to Church functions, and even to the food pantry to help those less fortunate.  Since they grew all of the heirloom varieties, Jacob’s cattle, Yellow Eyes (the preferred beans of bakers), Great Northern, and Soldier beans, their stock was very respected.


Mom makes a batch of beans at least once a month, perhaps even more often, depending on the weather.  She would also make them to take to potlucks and other functions, even a batch was made for the wedding reception that my sister and new husband had at their wedding.  Here is my mother’s recipe, which can be made in a crock pot (slow cooker) in the modern kitchen:


Marion’s Baked Beans

2 cups dry beans (soaked overnight and parboiled)


½ to ¾ cups white sugar

¼ cup molasses

salt pork

touch of salt (perhaps a half a teaspoon)

pinch or so of powdered mustard

1 inch of water (enough to cover beans)


Dry beans have to be soaked (in hot tap water) overnight to get them ready for cooking.  Use a large bowl as they will expand in size as they soak  If they are new beans, fresh from this season, then that time can be cut and a few hours would suffice.  New beans also don’t have to be parboiled, but I always do, just to get some of the “snap” out.

A word to the wise about the “snap”, when you soak the beans overnight, add a couple of heaping tablespoons of baking soda to the water.  The baking soda, which will get rinsed off when you parboil the beans, helps to break down the plant cell walls that cause flatulence…We don’t sing as children, “Beans, beans. Beans—the magical fruit.  The more you eat, the more you toot.  The more you toot, the better you feel… then you are ready for another meal!” for nothing!

The snap, while sometimes unpleasant, is a natural part of bean eating.  It affects some worse than others.  My grandfather, Gene Sweet, used to be bothered something awful.  When I was a child, he was already in his fifties and had retired from farm living.  In their living room, they had a matching chair and couch—it was gold-colored but has since been reupholstered.  He always sat in his chair, clad in green Dickie pants and shirt, after a good meal.  As the snap came about, he would sometimes say to my brother, Todd, “Did you see that?”  Todd always replied, “See what?”  Grampy would then respond, “That elephant that just ran under the couch!”  I can tell you, it was not a pleasant elephant—no one ever went to look for it!

Parboiling beans is easy.  In two or three quarts of boiling water, drop in your presoaked beans.  Let the water come back to a boil.  In about three to five minutes time, when you take a slotted spoon and fish some of the beans out of the water and blow on them, the outer “skin” will crack on its own.  They are ready to cook for three to four hours, sometimes more, sometimes less, then in the mix of other ingredients.

Salt pork, which every one used to make and store in large crocks in the basement when I was a child, is sometimes hard to find in the stores now.  You can make a reasonable substitution by putting in nice ham chunks, or bacon pieces, for example.  Recently, the “out-of-staters” have introduced “vegetarian baked beans” to the area, which means they cook them without pork, but no true Mainer really understands the point to making the beans without it!

You can cook the beans in their molasses brine in a crock pot (slow cooker) as mom does.  It will take three or four hours, or until the beans are nice and tender—depending on how old the beans are.  It is easier in a slow cooker than doing it in an authentic bean pot in the oven.  To cook them in the oven, if desired, is traditionally done in a glazed clay pot, or, I suppose a Dutch oven.  (Start with a cold oven to let the pot heat up evenly, or you will crack it in the shock of the heat.  It is a bit trickier as it takes some better monitoring to make sure that you have added extra water slowly throughout the day so that they don’t boil dry and become like stone pebbles.  I don’t recommend actually doing them in the oven unless you intend to be home ALL day and have the patience to watch them; actually baking beans in the oven takes about 6 to 7 hours in an oven just hot enough to keep them boiling but not at a roll (about 275 degrees probably)—the slow cooker is just as tasty.

My father’s mother also adds a minced onion to her recipe, and sometimes a few tablespoons of ketchup.  Her recipe is not my favorite, though.  I sometimes add a bay leaf or two, since ham is a little less tasty than salt pork.  (It is important that you don’t add salt too early, as it arrests that cooking process on the skins of the beans, making them tough.)


For the more adventurous, though I am guessing that inside city limits, one may encounter a bit of resistance, you may use the same baking recipe, but cook them in a hole in the ground.  We call these “Bean-Hole Beans”.

Few Down Easters realize that Maine baked beans are really Boston baked beans. Remembered only by name in Bean Town, the meal was the staple Sabbath fare of the early Puritan settlers. Beans soaked overnight Friday would be cooked all day Saturday for the evening meal. As the Puritans observed the Sabbath from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, the meal and leftovers cut down on the workload and left time for religious services. Which was no small task: Sunday service began in the morning, continued after dinner, and often resumed after supper. (In many parts of New England, dinner is the midday meal and supper is in the evening.)
       Puritan cooks borrowed their sabbath meal from Native Americans, who pit-cooked the beans in maple syrup and bear fat. Steamed corn bread rounded out the nutritious fare. But the Puritans made changes, substituting molasses for maple syrup and salt pork for bear fat. They also changed the corn bread into brown bread by adding additional ingredients.
       The Puritans also adopted the Indians’ cooking method. The pot of beans was placed in a hole in the ground filled with heated stones or hot coals. They came to be known as “hole-in-the-ground” or “bean-hole” beans. The latter is the more widely used expression today.

Maine’s Penobscot Indians used the art of cooking in a hole in the ground for hundreds of years. Today, bean-hole beans are still a popular Maine tradition, a traditional foodway that Maine lumberjacks borrowed and adapted from Penobscot practices.  The ideal pot for full flavor is a cast iron kettle with a lid (often referred to as a Dutch oven). If you don’t have one and can’t borrow one, any sturdy pot with a lid will do.

1. Dig a hole in the ground large enough to hold the pot with two or three inches of clearance on all sides, and at least six inches of clearance on top.

2. Build a fire in the hole with dry firewood and let it burn down to large embers and ash while preparing the beans.

3. Adds beans and brine according to recipe above.

4. When the fire has burned down in the bean hole, shovel out enough of the embers and ashes to make room for the pot, and place the pot in the hole.

5. Place a wet dishtowel over the top of the uncovered pot and push the lid securely down over the cloth.

6. Place embers and ashes around the sides and on top of the pot then cover these with the dirt you removed when you dug the hole.

Cook for approximately 6 to 16 hours for absolutely delicious beans.

Serves approximately four.


Note: Many foods have enhanced flavor when cooked in a hole in the ground in this manner. If you dig the hole in an appropriate place, you can continue to use it for outdoor cooking.


Beans in Maine, at all of the bean suppers in every Grange Hall that I have ever been too, are served with a bit of extra molasses on the table—sort of in a syrup container like in pancake restaurants. The grange was a fraternal organization for the social and political interests of farmers and as a result became a central building for all events in town.  East Corinth, where I grew up, now uses its Grange Hall as the home of the Historical Society Museum.  At one time there were near 540 Grange Halls in Maine; today there are only about 180 that remain.  Eating at a Bean Supper in a Grange Hall is a local tradition.  They advertise the suppers in the local papers, and people come from all over to go to the suppers.  Some families, older folk, make it a circuit and do all of them, socializing with their many farming friends at least once a week.  Some of the churches are now picking up where the Grange Halls are disappearing with age and deterioration.  The Grange Halls were always large and cavernous, making for good echoing sound.  Whenever we get into a restaurant where the architect made no allowance for people talking and where it is so loud you can’t hear the person next to you talk, we always recall Bean Suppers at a Grange!

Marion Rowe, my great-grandmother, used also to serve them with what she called “Spicy Chili Sauce”.  Irene probably made them that way too.  I am not sure why Grammy Rowe called the sauce “Spicy”, since it is not “spicy” as in hot to taste, but rather because it had cinnamon and other usual Maine kitchen spices in it.  People, like Dorothy Marsh, a long time neighbor and friend of Marion and Rethel, miss her sauce at the bean suppers now.  My mother still makes the sauce every year in the fall and “puts away” a couple of batches for winter.  Their recipe for “Spicy Chili Sauce”, which you can spoon on a couple of spoonfuls at a time to your beans as a condiment, is as follows:



Marion Rowe’s Spicy Chili Sauce


4 quarts peeled, cored, chopped red ripe tomatoes (about 24 large tomatoes)

1.5 cups chopped sweet green peppers

2 cups chopped onions

1 to 1.5 cups apple cider vinegar

1 cup sweet red peppers

1.5 cups sugar

1 tablespoon of salt

1 tablespoon of celery seed

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground cloves.

*chopped cilantro or parsley (flat leaf)


Combine all ingredients.  Bring to a boiling simmer until thick as wanted (Sauce is not thick, it is more like a good loose gravy where when you turn over a large spoon and run your finger down the middle, the mixture holds the shape), about 1 to 2 hours.  Stir frequently to prevent sticking.  Pour boiling hot into hot Ball jars, leaving 1/8-inch headspace.  Adjust caps and process 15 minutes in hot water bath.  Recipe yields about 8 pints.  (*While cilantro and parsley are not traditional Maine ingredients, it does, Marion has discovered, add a wonderful little something extra to the sauce.)

            Of course, no good bean supper would be complete without a generous helping of coleslaw, and perhaps a good red hotdog; more importantly, one should have a delicious brown bread with raisins.  Marie, my grandmother, made hers steamed inside of an old coffee can in a hot water bath for three to four hours, which is what made it such a perfect addition to the baked bean!  Her recipe reads:


Marie Megquier’s Brown Bread


2 cups sweet milk

1 cup sour milk

1 cup corn meal

2 cups Graham flour

2 bread spoons molasses (which is equivalent to about three to four nicely rounded, almost heaped tablespoons)

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons soda

fold in raisins


Another variant of the bread calls for Maple Syrup instead:


1 cup cornmeal
1 cup rye flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup pure maple syrup
1 cup raisins


To steam this bread, more precisely, grease two 13- or 16-ounce coffee cans, including the insides of their plastic lids. Place a trivet, large enough to support both cans, in the bottom of a wide, deep lobster pot (a canner, as we call them). Add hot water to about 3 inches above the trivet. Place the pot on a burner over medium heat.

Divide the batter evenly between the cans and put on the lids. Wrap a large piece of foil over each lid and secure with a twine. Using a pairing knife, poke a couple of steam vents in the foil. Put the cans in the water; the level should rise about half to two-thirds the way up the sides of the cans. Cover the pot with its lid if it will fit, or fashion a foil tent.

Bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for approximately 2 hours. Check the water level once or twice, and replenish with boiling water if it falls below the halfway mark. The bread is done when a tester inserted deeply into the center emerges clean. Remove the bread from the cans.

Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly grease a baking sheet. Place the breads on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes to dry the outside surfaces. Serve warm, or transfer the bread to a wire rack to cool completely.  Yield: 2 round loaves, 8-10 slices each.


Finally, a great “15 Bean Soup” can be made whenever you have a good ham bone to boil and make stock.  Since I still have many of my Maine habits with me, I have a nice freezer in the basement, where I “put away” foodstuffs in case the “Big one” comes (referring to the snows of winter in Maine, of course).  I will buy a few large hams when they are on sale and cut them up into meal sized steaks and I cook the rest of the meat off the bones.  When you get done picking the meat, the bones are ready for either dog or trash, and you are left with a delicious soup stock.

To the stock I add the 2 cups (total) of the 15 varieties of dry beans, presoaked naturally, that my grandmother puts together. Grammy’s fifteen bean mix usually includes dry green split peas, yellow peas, red and green lentils, black turtle beans, yellow eyes, King of the Early, Jacob’s cattle, Marifax, kidney, garbanzo, pea beans, Great Northern, pinto, and Soldier beans. Add to the soup the chunks of meat that came off the bone.  I also add some mixed veggies: carrots, peas, green beans, onion, zucchini, and anything else that I want to use up from leftovers in the fridge.  It is good to add a couple of bay leaves, parsley flakes, and other herbs and spices to taste.  Cook on the stove till done—soup will be a nice thick and very rich stew almost.  Delicious!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ali permalink
    November 14, 2009 4:41 am

    I love beans! Thanks for the recipes and info

  2. gilles garcia permalink
    July 30, 2010 2:14 am

    Thank you for this colorful ad entertaining recipes which read a little bit like
    a nostalgia history book. All the recipes are that much more mouth-watering.

  3. November 17, 2010 7:20 pm

    i’d love to do outdoor cooking because it is very enjoyable specially if you do it with your friends ‘*.

  4. Marion permalink
    February 2, 2011 5:02 pm

    Teaching Dad to make the beans today. hopping it’s not a dry atmosphire day where the beans boild dry every hour on the hour.

  5. May 5, 2016 12:51 pm

    I bought the Marifax and made the traditional baked beans with them. They are the very best baked beans that I have ever had. I kept going back for another taste. These beans have substance! I am adding this post to “Recipes”.

    • jamesrwilson permalink*
      May 10, 2016 10:40 pm

      The marifax are a wonderful bean indeed… and such a distinctive color. My personal favorite is the King of the Early bean, but the yellow eye and Jacob’s cattle were my Mother’s favorites.

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