Those of you who have been following along for a while will know that we do like a good taste test. You'll also know that we've been a little preoccupied with growing dried beans these last couple of years and that we have a store cupboard full of them. What to do with them all? We may joke about them but many a kiwi has grown up loving baked beans for breakfast. They’re warm, rich, and tasty, and they’re meant to be nourishing and full of energy, but what is in the store-bought versions, and could we do a better job of making them ourselves, while using up some of our lovely beans? What better time to put our summer growing efforts to good use and have a go.
First, we decided to have a look at some of the commonly available brands here in New Zealand. After a cold wet winter weekend of taste testing, we awarded marks for:
- Number of beans
- Flavour and texture of beans
- Flavour and texture of the sauce
- Taste of the overall product
It turns out that not all beans are created equal. Two were disqualified before we'd even begun. Sorry Weight Watchers - your beans are a sad excuse for food and would send me running for the nearest slice of hot buttered toast. Apologies also to Whole Earth - we so wanted your saucy organic baked beans to tantalise our taste buds, but with 15 different ingredients fighting it out, your product just tasted brown and slightly fruity with a dose of musty wholefoods thrown in. Perhaps their journey from the UK didn't do them any favours but this was just too much worthiness in one tin to taste any good. Just eat the toast.
That left these five brands:
Budget faired the worst, made in Italy, a thin tasteless sweet glossy sauce with 5% tomato puree in it, wrapped around a miserly number of tough under-cooked beans. Even the tin is 10 grams less than the standard size. Italians involved clearly knew these were for export or their mothers wouldn't forgive them.
Oak - didn't fare much better with mushy beans and a glossy runny sweet sauce that screamed vegetable gum and maize thickener.
Pams - in a close third place with the most amazing sauce, good texture with notes of smokey bbq, and grilled onions. Also, the biggest can and highest beans per capita but the texture of the beans let them down - too mushy.
Watties - in second place absolutely nailed the beans - a good amount cooked just perfectly - soft but with a little bite. The sauce was super tomatoey but overly sweet and sticky.
Heinz - in first place these had a good flavour in both the beans and sauce - not too sweet or gooey - everything you'd expect from a tin of beans which isn't much. Beanz really does meanz Heinz. These are made in NZ, as are Pams and Watties.
One thing that did surprise us was just how much sugar was in most of the supermarket brands. Tomato puree does have natural sugars and beans have a little natural sugar in them too, but nothing like the levels in the cans we tasted. Just to give you a comparison:
- Half a can of Coca-Cola contains 19.50 grams of sugar
- Half a can of Watties baked beans contains 15.54 grams sugar
Most of us could polish off half a can of beans and the brands we tasted had between 10 - 15 grams of sugar per half can and that can't all come from tomato puree. Pams was one of the better ones with a teaspoon less sugar than Watties per half can.
So feeling particularly clever and righteous, we thought we’d just make the ultimate baked beans at home with no added sugar. We picked apart the ingredients on the labels, assembled the nice ones, and had a go. The result was pretty awful actually. It looked the part but tasted like a vinegary tomato sauce with none of the love the ingredients deserved.
We had another go with a recipe recommended by Gareth Partington of Partington Wines, an organic vineyard and winery in nearby Upper Moutere, and immediately realised the error of our ways. We'd been trying to recreate a commercial product when we should have been trying to understand the bean! For our first attempt we made a sauce and cooked the beans separately, then put the two together. But no - Baked Beans - as the original makers intended, are indeed baked. In tasty ingredients. For ages. Think blackened cast iron pots over embers in a North American back-country, cooking low and slow through the night to the tune of soft snoring and coyotes, ready for a hearty breakfast as the dawn breaks.
This makes sense because beans need long slow cooking to soften and absorb the flavours of what you cook them with. Gareth's recipe calls for 4 hours in the oven and having made several batches now, we agree. The secret to a great baked bean is long and slow cooking. The second secret is the right bean. All of the baked beans we tasted are made with Navy beans also known as Haricot beans, a medium white bean that unfortunately is not commercially grown in New Zealand. I trialed growing some dwarf haricot beans as part of our heirloom bean trial but had no success and it seems I'm not alone.
The UK is one of the great consumers of baked beans and a lot of work has been done there to see if a cold-climate haricot bean can be developed. Until then most Navy or Haricot beans come from the USA, the home of the original baked bean. The First Americans cooked dried beans with fat and water and this was picked up by the pilgrims who cooked their dried beans with a little bacon or ham. The ham was dropped in lean war years and baked beans as we know them today were created. Many American recipes still contain smoked bacon or ham and maple syrup.
The recipe we've arrived at includes haricot beans, onions, garlic, tomato puree, cider vinegar, bay leaves, black pepper, salt, mustard powder, mace, allspice, apple juice and a little molasses. It turns out that baked beans need a little bit of sweetness from somewhere but we don't think they need as much as the commercial brands are putting in there.
- 450gms/1 lb of dried haricot beans soaked overnight and drained
- 1 1/3 cup of finely chopped onions
- 1/4 cup dried English mustard powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
- 1 cup tomato puree (or half and half homemade tom chilli sauce and tom puree is good)
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup apple juice
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 8 cups of water
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 tablespoon of molasses
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (added at the end of cooking - see note below)
I softened the onion and garlic in a little butter then added beans and other ingredients. All in an ovenproof dish. The original recipe has 12 bacon slices which I didn't use - if you do use bacon, cook it with the onions and garlic. It looks like a lot of water but it does all cook down. Put it in a moderate oven 180C and cook for 4 hours stirring on the hour. I didn't put the salt in until the end as salt makes the beans go tough.
We've also tried the recipe using other varieties of beans that we've grown, and the ones that work best are small to medium-sized varieties like Pinto, Borlotti, and the heirloom North American shell out beans like Good Mother Stallard and Indian Hannah.
Let us know how you get on.