“The fragrance of tall whispering pines! The thunder of surf on rock-ribbed jagged coasts. Moonlight softly dancing over one thousand and one wooded lakes and forest streams. These, and delicious baked beans, baked with that good old-fashioned flavor by B&M … distinguish Maine and its charm above that of any other State!”

So asserted an advertisement for the beans that ran in the Portland Evening Express on July 2, 1938. (Where is lobster on this list?) Exactly one World War, the invention of the internet, the rise of pickleball and 83 years later, B&M decamped for the Midwest, home of cornfields, cheeseheads and tornadoes. We just don’t get it. Bereft Mainers say the beans have not tasted the same since.

A story we ran on that very topic earlier this month elicited more than 30 comments online, including complaints, prayers, politics, puns, digressions and recipes. “In short, the new owner has wrecked an iconic brand,” one commenter wrote.

Burnham & Morrill Co. was founded more than 150 years ago in Maine; the company began selling the canned baked beans in the 1920s. But if the relocated beans taste different (read: worse) to you today, the solution is as apparent as Nubble Light on a clear day: Cook up a pot of baked beans from scratch.

“Beans are wicked easy to make,” said Jason Osborne, who grows 42 acres of heirloom beans at the Osborne Family Farm in Charleston. “People think it’s a big mystery. Put them in the frigging Crockpot in the morning and you are having beans for dinner.”



We’ll get to cooking instructions shortly, but first, let’s step back in time.

Colonists in New England were introduced to dried beans by Native Americans, and they “helped to save the Massachusetts Bay Colony from starvation,” according to James Beard’s “American Cookery.” Dried beans were a good source of food when the snow lay deep and the fields were frozen. New Englanders eventually (mostly) replaced the maple syrup that Native Americans used in their beans with molasses, a sweetener that was plentiful because of the grim 17th-18th centuries’ Triangle Trade (rum to Africa, enslaved people to the West Indies, molasses to the colonies).

Traditionally, and for many to this day, New Englanders ate baked beans on Saturday night and enjoyed the leftovers for Sunday breakfast. Breaking the Sabbath by work of any sort was a severe offense in Puritan New England, and cooking on the Sabbath – like pretty much everything else including riding too fast on your horse, raccoon hunting or “unseemly walking” – was forbidden. The beans would cook all day Saturday and thus be ready for eating by the time the Sabbath began, as it did for Puritans, on Saturday evening.

Boston embraced baked beans – made in a bean pot with molasses, salt pork, mustard and, sometimes, an onion – with such a fervor, the city became known as Beantown and the dish itself as Boston Baked Beans, though don’t call them that to a Mainer. Here, they are known as ” ‘baked beans,’ or occasionally Maine baked beans. Never Boston baked beans,” cookbook author and 13th-generation Mainer Nancy Harmon Jenkins wrote in an email. “I believe we have been quarreling with Massachusetts since around 1620.”

A Nov. 19, 1908, article from the Republican Journal, of Belfast, went into great and hilarious detail to quantify Bostonians’ passion. “Taking the average height of a Bostonian as 5 feet 5 inches and the height of a bean pot as 10 inches, one can easily figure that a Bostonian in a year eats two and five-seventh times his own height in baked beans, and more than his own weight.”

Back home in Maine, meanwhile, bone-weary, famished lumberjacks sustained themselves in no small measure on bean hole beans – beans buried in cast-iron pots in the ground and left to cook all day – and churches, grange halls and lodges came to hold baked bean suppers. Both traditions continue to this day. Asked how long the Peoples United Methodist Church in South Portland had been holding Saturday evening baked bean suppers, Doreen Gay, a member of the congregation who helps organize them, joked in an email, “Since Jesus rose from the tomb!”


People line up for dinner at the baked bean supper at the Peoples United Methodist Church in South Portland in mid-November. The church opens its doors at 5 p.m., but according to organizers, people start to line up as much as 40 minutes earlier. As soon as they come in, they select their favorite slice of pie, then they sit down and wait for their table to be called for dinner. The supper costs $10. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Not everyone is a fan.

“The worship of Boston baked beans is a mystery to me, since my palate cannot reconcile the sweetness of the syrup or molasses and the simple hardy flavor of pork and beans,” Beard wrote in “American Cookery” before, resignedly, including a recipe. (As a native of that other Portland, what did he know?) “However,” he continued, “this dish has stood for American cuisine as few other dishes have.”

Charley Baer, who has been growing heirloom beans in Maine and Massachusetts for more than three decades — now in South Berwick at Baer’s Best Farm — would agree. “To be honest, neither my wife nor I are especially fond of traditional baked beans,” he said. “We eat beans regularly, chili, or tomato-based recipes, because we have a barnful of them.” But traditional New England baked beans are “not my thing. I’d certainly eat them, but I don’t go out of my way. I like sugar in my coffee and not in my beans.”

Perhaps he’d be surprised to learn that canning factories are to blame. Manufacturers increased the amount of sweetener in baked beans. Whereas many old recipes call for 3 tablespoons molasses to 1 pound beans, modern recipes – presumably accommodating palates formed on that sweeter canned taste – use as much as 1 cup sweetener. The pickles that traditionally accompany baked beans are meant to cut through the sugar. Brown bread is also in order.

If New England baked beans have their detractors, they have always had plenty of devotees, too. “The Maine Bicentennial Community Cookbook” devotes a chapter to baked beans in part because so many Mainers wrote in with recipes, according to editors Karl Schatz and Margaret Hathaway. (Doughnuts get their own chapter, too.)


Rolling back the clock to Aug. 19, 1909, the Kennebec Journal took a visiting Texan to task, at great length and with considerable sarcasm, for denigrating the “noble dish.” “As for flavor, well who can describe it?” the paper wrote. “Once enjoyed, it lingers in the memory like a pleasant dream, and rare indeed has been found one so callous that, having once enjoyed it, he failed to ever afterward do it reverence.”


Onward to cooking. Baer compared the difference between canned baked beans and dried beans that you make and bake yourself as “like comparing canned green beans to fresh cooked ones.” Luckily, making baked beans, as a subscriber told us, “is not rocket science.”

Still, there are decisions to be made. Which variety of beans to use; which pot; what sort of sweetener; what type of meat; to soak the dried beans or not, or for that matter to parboil; and what about out-of-the-box additions that cooks have tossed into the pot over the years?

We consulted Mainers and other experts and expected to find passionate feelings on the “right” way to bake beans. We pictured the sorts of heated debate that foodies regularly indulge in when arguing over the best pizza, the best bagel and whether it’s OK to eat your lobster roll with butter instead of mayo. In fact, we found, if not consensus, then a gentle live-and-let-live attitude.

“Mostly, people wanted to make it their family way,” Hathaway said about the recipe contributions to the “Maine Bicentennial Community Cookbook.” “A lot of people, even if their bean recipe is the exact same as six other recipes we got, are proud of it and think of it as their own, as their family’s recipe.


“It does seem, from what people submitted to us, that the situation is important,” she continued. “It’s a communal thing. You don’t eat beans by yourself. People sent in a lot of stories about Saturday night beans as a family. It’s not a lonely food. There is nothing fancy about it, but it’s about breaking bread and breaking open the beanpot together.”

Parishioner Keith Snoddy carries several pounds of baked beans from his car into the Peoples United Methodist Church in South Portland for their baked bean supper. Snoddy has been baking beans for the monthly suppers for more than a decade. He starts on Friday night, soaking the beans, then cooks them in boiling water until tender while he eats breakfast on Saturday morning, before he adds the molasses, mustard and other ingredients and bakes the beans. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


For Osborne, of Osborne Family Farm, bean choice is a simple matter of preference. He himself has a decided preference for yellow-eye beans, especially those he grows. “They are sweet. They are mild. My yellow-eye is a mixed strain. It’s a little smaller than your traditional yellow-eye. It stays a little firmer.

“It’s really regional who likes what for beans,” Osborne continued. “If you’re from Down East, around Columbia Falls, Machias, Addison, they like what’s called Marfax. That bean was from the Depression. It was given out (to farmers) free. It’s an all-brown bean. It’s a beanier flavor. It stays firm.

“A lot of people grew up eating Jacob’s Cattle. Jacob’s Cattle you find in southern Maine and New Hampshire. They like Jakes. That’s a bigger bean. Myself I’m not a fan. I don’t like the big beans. I know a lot of people who grew up – they use red kidneys. To me they sound disgusting. You gotta be kidding me? There is something out there better than a red kidney!”

South Portland resident Keith Snoddy is also a yellow-eye fan, though for a very different reason. Snoddy is a long-time member of the Peoples United Methodist Church in South Portland, and he has baked three to four pounds of beans each month for the church’s baked bean supper for at least a decade. He uses an old recipe he found in this newspaper that calls for yellow-eyes. “I’m just following the recipe,” Snoddy said. “It’s always worked. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”


Other recipes, in cookbooks and online, also variously call for pea (aka navy), great northern, soldier or cannellini beans. Marjorie Mosser’s 1939 classic “Good Maine Food” is almost devil-may-care about the bean selection, suggesting “pea, yellow-eye, kidney, wax or any other sort of dried beans.” And as long as you are confident they will cook in the same amount of time, it’s fine to mix it up.

Incidentally, B&M Baked Beans are made with pea beans, which Osborne and Baer both pointed out do not grow in Maine.


In a by-no-means-comprehensive survey of recipes we did and cooks we asked, soaking the beans overnight and then parboiling them the next morning before adding the other ingredients is standard operating procedure – with a few outliers.

Baer explained that the dried beans you buy in grocery stores may be several years old. His own beans are dried until their moisture content is 12 percent. But as beans age, the moisture content continues to drop to 9 or 10 percent. Because these drier dried beans are tougher, they must be soaked and then cooked for a long time. One selling point of his fresher dried beans, Baer said, is that they can be cooked more quickly and without an initial soak.

Harrison resident Linda Kautz grew up eating her mother’s beans and later raised two bean eaters of her own. She said she always means to soak her beans overnight on Fridays, but she often forgets. In which case she gives them a quick soak on Saturday morning and then parboils them. If you, too, forget that overnight soak, many cookbooks suggest putting the beans in water, bringing the water to a boil, then shutting off the heat and letting the beans soak, covered, for one hour before proceeding with a recipe.


About a parboil, in her “Cooking Down East,” no less an authority than cookbook author and longtime newspaper food columnist Marjorie Standish skips the step.

Another trick to hasten the cooking of the beans? Some old cookbooks suggest adding baking soda to the cooking water. (Personally speaking, what’s the hurry? The slow, stately methodical simmer is part of the pleasure.)


While the beanpot is traditional, we found more than a few cooks who are delighted with their Crockpots. “You can leave home!” Kautz said. “You don’t have to be strapped to your stove!”

Snoddy bakes his beans in a big turkey roaster he borrows from the church, and Dutch ovens will work just fine, too. The Boston-based magazine Cook’s Illustrated offers a recipe for sous vide baked beans. “Cooking the beans sous-vide ensured no blow-outs and creamy, tender beans,” the famously perfectionist magazine observed. Finally, over its long history in Maine, B&M baked its beans in gigantic kettles, which weighed 900 pounds each when filled and were big enough to comfortably hold a person or two – and cast off in the recent move, some now used as flower pots and fire pits in former employees’ homes.



Salt pork is traditional. Bacon is seen not infrequently. Mosser noted, “In place of the conventional pork in baked beans, State-of-Mainers frequently place 6 spareribs of pork in the bottom of the bean pot.” In “The New England Open-House Cookbook,” Sarah Leah Chase calls for smoked ham hocks, which, if you ask us, sounds like letting the South win. And in “The Essential New York Times Cookbook,” Amanda Hesser suggests pancetta (the noive!). Vegetarian is OK, too. Up-to-the-minute cooks might want to experiment with seaweed for that umami flavor.


Molasses, maple syrup, brown sugar and white sugar. All appear in various quantities and ratios in recipes, new and old.

“The main thing besides molasses, it’s got maple syrup in it, and you know almost anything with maple syrup is, I think, good,” Snoddy said about his church beans.

“I’m heavy on the molasses for sure,” Kautz said about her version of baked beans. “That’s the big thing for me.” Asked just how sweet baked beans ought to be, Kautz gave a hearty laugh. “Sweet enough,” she said.



Recipes regularly call for ginger (usually ground, sometimes fresh), onions, cloves, ketchup, bay leaves, vinegar and, to a lesser extent, garlic. We’re not sure how we feel about a few more unorthodox additions that, in recipes we surveyed, ranged from parsley and celery to soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. None other than Marjorie Mosser offered a variation on baked beans that doctored canned beans with, among other things, brandy and lemon rind. No thank you.


Typically, Maine baked beans are baked, covered, in a very low oven, 250 degrees, for a very long time, 8 to 10 hours. You remove the lid in the last hour or so of cooking, so the salt pork can crisp up and the surface get slightly crusty. If at any point the beans are drying out, more water should be added.

“The most important trick in bean baking is to keep the water level constant by adding only a little boiling water, and often,” Mosser instructed her readers. “If the water is allowed to boil far down, so that a lot must be poured in, the beans will be greasy.”

Dysart’s Restaurant & Truck Stop in Hermon, which has been serving its famous beans since 1967, also has some homespun guidance on how much water to use: “Experienced cooks say the beans use more water when it is going to rain,” it notes on a recipe on its website.

Finally, do not sweat it!


Osborne, who grew up in Pennsylvania, said he learned to make baked beans from his brother-in-law’s father, a native Mainer who was casual, to say the least, with his instructions. He used his fingers to demonstrate to Osborne the right size pinch of dried mustard. He passed on the classic Maine technique to tell when the beans are ready: gently blow on a few and their skins should come off. “My favorite thing is he told me you have to cover them up by this much water, and he showed me his knuckle,” Osborne said. “‘Well what if my knuckle is different from your knuckle?’ He said, ‘Then I guess you better figure out how big my knuckle is.'”

Baked beans cook Keith Snoddy lifts the lids from the beans for the Peoples United Methodist Church baked bean supper. “Little beans are for Bostonians, big beans are for Mainers,” Maine culinary historian Sandra Oliver once told a crowd gathered for a bean hole supper in Camden, according to an anecdote cookbook writer Sarah Leah Chase related in “The New England Open-House Cookbook.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

This recipe comes from Dysart’s, which notes on its blog that it cooks the beans slowly with care, molasses, salt pork and love. “It’s then that they become irresistible.”

Maine Baked Beans

1 pound yellow-eye beans, soaked overnight
1 large onion
1/4 pound salt pork
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons dry mustard
1/2 cup molasses

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. In a large covered pot, add the soaked beans and the remaining ingredients with enough water to cover beans. Bake for about 8 hours. Check the beans periodically to make sure they do not need water. If water is needed, add enough boiling water to cover the beans again.

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