Baked beans hold a special place in my life. Every time I taste them, it brings me back to my childhood, specifically the nights my dad would cook dinner. My mother is a therapist and would see patients in the evenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays at her home office, meaning my father was solely responsible for dinner on those nights. The routine loosened up a little bit then, and one of my favorite dad meals was scrambled eggs and a can of baked beans. At the time I had no idea how closely this skewed toward an English breakfast (for the record, my father was of Eastern European Jewish descent, so I’m not sure if this was just coincidence). I just knew that I loved this meal, particularly the baked bean aspect of it.
Baked beans are the perfect comfort food. They are sweet, hearty, and warm, and often flavored with a little bit of bacon or pork, another comfort food staple. You can eat them on their own, you can use them as a topping, or you can mix them up with whatever other food is on your plate. Add a little bit of spicy mustard or Sriracha to them if you like to make the flavor pop a little more. And while it might seem like a dated food, people are still scarfing down baked beans. According to Serious Bean Co. co-founder Trey Taylor, the current trend toward plant-based foods has played a part in this. “More and more people are trying to incorporate meatless meals throughout the week, either for the health benefits or to help manage grocery expenses,” he wrote in an email. “Beans are a great plant-based source of protein and are healthy and economical.” Beans are also high in fiber and vitamin B, and may help improve your blood cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association. Also, cooking dried beans can be a task many people don’t have time for. “Baked beans are still a relevant pantry staple because it takes time to cook your own,” said a representative for B&M Beans.
The history of baked beans dates back to the Native Americans, but the British promptly co-opted this food and made it a staple of their cuisine, particularly in the English breakfast or the oddly delicious beans on toast. In America, baked beans are synonymous with New England, and more specifically with Boston where molasses was used as a sweetener to avoid British taxes on sugar during colonial times. In Maine, residents dig “bean holes” to bake pots of bubbling beans in the ground. “Baked beans are a staple in the New England region,” said the B&M rep. “We often hear about consumers stocking up on B&M when they are in the Northeast and bringing it home to areas of the country where we are not distributed.” But baked beans are associated with other food cultures around the country, too — they are a frequent side dish for Southern barbecue, for example. Watch an old Western, and you’ll likely see a grizzled cowboy sitting by a campfire in Wyoming eating baked beans straight from the can.
Nowadays, most canned beans are cooked in the can rather than pre-baked, as crucial baked bean technology has advanced over the years. One thing that bean tech has not been able to conquer, however, is flatulence. Yes, baked beans will make you fart, as our bodies are unable to digest sugars called oligosaccharides which create gas in your lower intestine. Just embrace this. Baked beans and other shelf-stable pantry items have been quite popular over the past few months, as people have stocked up on food during the pandemic. “For a while, we saw a strong increase in sales because of pantry stocking,” said Taylor. “But now the continued sales growth is a result of people seeking new and interesting dishes to make at home in order to bring more variety to their meals.” Here are five classic and new baked bean brands to try for yourself.
B&M is a proudly New England brand, with a bunch of different brick oven-baked styles that include maple, bacon and onion, and “Boston’s Best.” The brand also makes canned brown bread, but that probably deserves its own deep dive. The Original flavor is baked with molasses, pork, and different spices, resulting in a high-quality baked bean that stands up with the best.
Bush’s doesn’t just make baked beans, but honestly that’s probably why you know this company’s name. There are a lot of different flavors to choose from, so you can take a bean journey from the slightly spicy Sweet Heat to the smoky Barbecue to the Brown Sugar Hickory. The Original flavor is where the brand got its start back in 1969, comprised of a blend of bacon, brown sugar, and spices slow-cooked into these plump beans.
When you think of Heinz, ketchup is likely the first thing that comes to mind (it’s the best, don’t even mention Hunt’s). You may have seen those blue-green baked bean cans in the specialty aisle of your grocery store, along with other British products like Aero chocolate bars and HP Sauce. But the beans of main concern here are the Premium Vegetarian Beans you can find in full or half-size green cans nearly everywhere. These are some of the best, with the “rich tomato sauce” they lie in providing the perfect backdrop to these balanced sweet and savory legumes.
Whole Foods’ 365 lineup has its own version of nearly everything, and these products are mostly affordable in a store that is often not. I suppose these baked beans will do in a pinch, but there is just something a little bit off about them, from the texture to the flavor. According to the label, they are organic and “traditional.” While I can’t argue with the former, I beg to differ with the latter concept. The beans are on the smaller side, they are a bit too dry, and the sauce tends to be a bit clumpy.
Looking for some new-school baked beans with lively packaging and untraditional flavors? Check out Serious Bean Co. with a lineup that includes Dr. Pepper, Cracked Pepper, Buckin’ Buffalo, and the newest, Jalapeño and Bacon (a partnership with Texas sports and entertainment company Dude Perfect). This last flavor is very good, with a nice balance of sweet and spice that makes them good for eating on their own or even used as a topping.