Baked beans are almost a staple here. I cannot think of a barbecue place in Memphis that doesn’t serve beans on the side. And if you live in Memphis, you eat barbecue. Some places stir in bits of pulled pork shoulder, some make the beans with their house barbecue sauce, some throw in jalapenos. And of course, some places have better beans than others. But when you are eating a nice shoulder sandwich, or a big rack of ribs, the beans seem to be the perfect compliment. I love baked beans, so in the barbecue setting, even bad baked beans are still pretty good.
For most of my life, a barbecue meal was the only time I ever ate baked beans. They were not a part of our meal cycle at home. But several years ago, I got it into my head to make my own version. I looked around for recipes, and most of what I found involved doctoring up a couple of big cans of baked beans. Friends I asked mostly had no idea: “Just buy some from your favorite barbecue place.” Finally, while lamenting my lack of baked beans recipes, a friend offered up hers – that she’d of course had for years. She calls them Firehouse Beans. It involved beans, onions, bacon and sauce – but also a couple of big cans of pork and beans. I loved the recipe. I made it all the time. It became one of those recipes – the kind that for a period of time, you can’t stop making. I made those beans at any chance I got. I made it for family gatherings. I invited friends over to grill so I could make the beans. I made the beans whenever asked to bring something to a party. I took the beans to lake weekends. I made the beans for myself and froze the extras.
Eventually, the beans got a break in my repertoire, after I had fed them to anyone who would eat them. But when the time came to resurrect the beans, I decided to come up with a way to make them without the canned pork and beans. Now, I still use canned beans, rinsed and drained thoroughly. The mix of beans are coated in a sweet, tangy, slightly spicy sauce with onions and smoky bacon. I don’t know what my friend will think of the changes I have made to her recipe, but I love these beans even more. They are definitely back in rotation.
This recipe makes a HUGE batch of beans, perfect for a big weekend party, with burgers and dogs or barbecue. The recipe is easily halved, and extras freeze well. You can make the beans a day before serving them and keep them in the fridge. Reheat them over low heat in the pot, or better yet, scoop into a casserole dish and reheat in the oven. I love these so much, I even bought a 9x 13 glass dish with an insulated carrier to tote them to parties!
Brilliant Baked Beans
I happily use a 10-ounce bag of frozen chopped onions. I love the subtlety of cane syrup, but dark corn syrup, sorghum or maple syrup works as well.
1 pound bacon
3 cups chopped onions
1 cup ketchup
¾ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup cane syrup, sorghum, or dark corn syrup
2 teaspoons dry English mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 ½ cups apple cider or pure apple juice
8 (16 – ounce) cans of beans – a combinations of kidney beans, red beans, pinto beans, great northern beans or navy beans (black beans do not work), rinsed and drained
Cut the bacon into small pieces, place in a large Dutch oven and sauté over medium high heat until crispy. Remove the bacon from pan with a slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. Drain off half of the bacon drippings (reserve for another use). Leave the bacon grease to cool a little bit, the put onions in the pot and sauté until soft and translucent. If you drop the onions into the blistering hot grease, they will fry and be crispy, not soft and caramelized.
Meanwhile, whisk ketchup, vinegar, sugar, syrup, mustard powder, salt and pepper in a small bowl. When the onions are soft, pour in the sauce and stir to coat. Cook until bubbling and the sugar is melted. Pour in the apple cider and stir until heated through.
Drop the drained beans into the pot and stir carefully to coat with the sauce. Stir in half the crisped bacon. Bring the pot to bubbling, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally to prevent the beans from sticking. Stir carefully or the beans will break up and become mushy. Near the end of the cooking time, stir in the remainder of the bacon.