If you’ve ever had a problem getting your baked beans to turn out nice and soft, then this recipe for Slow Cooker Baked Beans is for you.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get baked beans right. This supposedly simple comfort food has turned out unpalatable for me and mine so often that I’d almost given up trying.
But here – finally – is a recipe that works. No more beans that refuse to get soft.
There are few steps involved, so it’s not a ‘throw-everything-together-in-the-slow-cooker-and-cook-for-10-hours’ kind of recipe. The steps aren’t complicated, but they do require some planning ahead.
After soaking and pre-cooking, the beans are slow cooked for 8-10 hours with onion, tomato sauce, brown sugar and some spices for a large batch that will outdo the canned variety any day.
What contributes to failed baked beans?
There are three main factors that seem to contribute to beans not getting soft enough despite hours of cooking. These are:
- age of the beans
You can find conflicting information on any one of these factors and how they impact the final product. The process I use in this recipe accommodates them all. (These are very Canadian baked beans!)
Age of beans
Dried beans have a remarkably long shelf life, and I have successfully cooked beans that were embarrassingly old. Properly packaged dried beans will last about a year, after which time they may not soften up sufficiently.
Most larger grocery stores should have a product rotation cycle that ensures that the beans you are purchasing fall within that time frame. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell how old beans are just from looking at them. Beans that are very old or were stored improperly may not fully soften when cooked.
The older the beans, the longer they will need to pre-soak before using. I always soak beans for at least 8 hours, and usually longer (up to 18 hours). I’ve never found that the quick soak method (in which beans are boiled for 10 minutes and soaked for an hour) works as well.
Try covering your dried beans with water after dinner and leave them to soak overnight for cooking the next day. Drain the beans after soaking, and use fresh water for cooking. This helps reduce the substances that contribute to the gas some people experience after eating beans.
Bringing the beans to a boil and simmering for an hour to an hour and half before adding to the slow cooker will ensure that your finished baked beans are soft.
Before adding the beans to the slow cooker, try mashing one with the back of a spoon. It should mash fairly easily, though their may be a few dry bits in the center that are not fully soft. The skin of the beans should be soft.
Adding salt too early in the cooking process can prevent the skins of the beans from softening. For the initial boiling before your beans are placed in the slow cooker, do not add salt to the water.
It’s likely that the role of salt is influenced by other factors such as characteristics of the particular beans themselves and the water used for cooking. Many things can influence a chemical reaction, which is why you may find different opinions about when to add salt. In general, however, you will be safe if you leave out the salt until the later stages of cooking.
Like salt, acidity can prevent beans from softening. For this reason, you will often find older recipes recommending that you add some baking soda to the beans as they cook. Baking soda, however, can reduce the nutritional value of beans by breaking down protein and B vitamins, and leave an unpleasant aftertaste and texture.
Adding beans that have been precooked to a sauce with some acidity will not keep your beans from softening.
The key steps are to:
- give your beans an extended soak in fresh water
- precook your beans until skins are soft and beans are mostly cooked through
- leave out salt during the precooking of the beans
What type of beans should you use?
In the Maritimes, small white beans or ‘navy’ beans are the most popular for baked beans. You can use pinto beans, too, if you don’t have access to white beans. (Jacob’s Cattle Beans are an old variety of bean that you can sometimes find on store shelves and which also work well.)
Some additional tips:
- For deeper flavor, cook your onions and tomato sauce before adding to the slow cooker
- Use hot water (rather than cold) to help your slow cooker reach optimal cooking temperature more quickly
- Start the beans off on high for one hour before lowering the temperature to low for the remainder of the cooking time
- Add a bit of ginger to the sauce to help with digesting the beans
- This recipe works best in a 4.5- 5.5 quart / 4.5-5.5 liter slow cooker
This might seem like a lot of information for what is really a simple dish. I hope it helps you create great mess of baked beans and will encourage you to add this frugal meal to your repertoire. (And they taste even better the next day!)
For a traditional side, try serving your beans with a loaf of Down Home Oatmeal Molasses Bread.
- 1 lb / 454 g navy beans or small white beans
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml vegetable oil
- 2 cups / 500 ml finely chopped onion
- 1-1/2 cups / 375 ml tomato paste or sauce
- 1 teaspoon / 5 ml salt
- 1/2 cup / 125 ml brown sugar
- 1/4 cup / 60 ml molasses maple syrup, honey or additional brown sugar
- 1/4 cup / 60 ml cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon / 5 ml dried mustard
- 1 teaspoon / 5 ml dried ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon / 2.5 ml ground pepper
- Boiling water
In large bowl, cover beans with water and soak for up to 18 hours.
Drain water, and place beans in large saucepan. Cover beans with fresh water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer beans for 1-1/2 hours until a bean can be easily crushed with the back of a spoon. The bean skin should be soft, and the inside of the bean mostly smooth.
While beans are cooking, heat a pan over medium-low heat. Add oil to heat pan and swirl to cover pan.
Add onions and cook until soft. Add tomato sauce or paste and stir to coat onions. Cook for 1-2 minutes.
Add salt, brown sugar, molasses, mustard, ginger and pepper. Cook, stirring for 5 minutes and remove from heat.
Add cooked beans to slow cooker and spoon tomato sauce over. Stir to coat beans. Cover beans with boiling water so that there is an inch of water above the beans. Cover and turn slow cooker to high. Cook on high for one hour, then reduce heat and cook for 8-10 hours (the time will vary depending on your slow cooker.)
If the beans still seem liquidy at the end of the cooking tiem, remove the llid of the slow cooker and turn the heat up to high. Let cook for 30 minutes to reduce the sauce.