Like most people, my experience with baked beans has mostly involved taking a can opener to a can of Van Camp's or Heinz and reheating. Taken objectively, one might say that baked beans are bland with an insipidly sweet sauce whose only saving grace is an ample dose of vinegar; the occasional bit of meat you may find is more like a piece of wet cardboard than any recognizable animal protein.
But the thing about food is that it can't be eaten objectively. Every food is inextricably linked to memories. For me, baked beans conjures up images of sitting around a crackling campfire and eating a them straight out of the can, the smell of burning wood hanging in the air, infusing each bite with a marvelously smoky flavor.
Even if you've never tasted a food before, certain expectations are set by things you have heard, the atmosphere in which you taste it, or even your mood that day. Indeed, our likes and dislikes are often less about objective measures and more about our experiences. This also explains why our opinions of foods can change based on good or bad experiences.
For my version of baked beans, I wanted to recreate childhood memories of sitting by the campfire, while using ingredients that are a better fit for my adult palette. These beans have a sweet smoky sauce with bold meaty flavor that's kept in check by the last minute addition of apple cider vinegar. Plenty of big chunks of bacon cut from a slab ensure that you're never hunting for the meat, and the satiny beans, give way to a smooth creamy interior.
Whether you serve it alongside cornbread and barbecue, or as part of a fry-up, these baked beans will change your opinion of this classic staple, whether your past experiences have been good or bad.
- Thoroughly wash the beans and add them to a bowl along with enough water to cover by at least 2 inches. Cover and let the beans rehydrate overnight.
- The next day, add the bacon to a dutch oven in a single layer and fry over medium heat until it has browned on one side and then flip the pieces over and brown the other side. You don't need to crisp the bacon.
- Add the onions and sauté until tender and brown.
- Add the bourbon, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan.
- Drain the soaked beans and add them in along with the brown sugar, mustard, tomato juice, water and cloves.
- Bring the mixture to a simmer and then turn down the heat to low, cover and cook for 3 hours. Stir the beans periodically and add some water if the mixture gets too thick.
- When the beans are very tender, salt and pepper to taste and then add the cider vinegar.