The Best Southern Baked Beans

These beans may not look like much, but they are some of the tastiest I have ever made or had.
These beans may not look like much, but they are some of the tastiest I have ever made or had.

This is one of those times when a photo just doesn’t do justice to a dish.

But trust me when I say that these “Southern Baked Beans” are one of the very best bean dishes I’ve ever tasted.

And they are a cinch to make.

This keeper of a recipe is from “Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein, with 125 Recipes” (Ten Speed Press, 2020) by Joe Yonan, the food and dining editor of The Washington Post.

I am not the biggest fan of traditional baked beans. They’re just way too sweet, and frankly, I’d rather save the sugary part of my meal for dessert.

What makes these Southern baked beans so miraculous is that they are not cloying at all, but deeply, profoundly savory with just a whisper of natural fruity sweetness from tomato paste. In fact, it’s rather astonishing the depth and complexity they take on, given how few ingredients are used.

Yonan was inspired by the late-great Edna Lewis’ baked beans, which he writes in the book, forgoes the Yankee inclusion of maple syrup for the more subtle sweetness of the tomato paste. A vegetarian (as are all the recipes in the book), he swaps out her use of salt pork for liquid aminos instead. Tamari can be substituted. And if you aren’t on a gluten-free diet, soy sauce also works in a pinch.

Cranberry beans after soaking overnight.
Cranberry beans after soaking overnight.

I used cranberry beans, which I soaked overnight. The next day, the beans, some water, plus onion, the liquid aminos, tomato paste, Spanish smoked paprika, and dry mustard went into a heavy pot that was slid into the oven.

The beans are baked for three hours. That may seem like a long time, but your patience is worth it here. Plus, the beans bake in a low oven at 250 degrees, so even on a summer day, it’s not going to heat your house up royally. There’s also something to be said for the ease of being able to put a pot in the oven, and practically forget about it, while it does its thing.

When your timer goes off, lift the lid to discover beans that are now incredibly creamy in texture. Some may have even broken down a bit in cooking, which is fine. Best yet, pot liquor will have thickened, turning velvety and voluptuous.

These beans have a mouthwatering meatiness and smokiness that will have you coming back for more. Serve with crusty bread and a salad, if you’re vegetarian. Or if you’re not, as a side to ribs, or grilled pork chops or chicken. Heck, they’d even be amazing spooned over hot dogs or sausages tucked into buns.

After one taste, my husband immediately declared that I ought to make these regularly. Honestly, it’s the first time he’s ever been this excited about beans.

Southern baked beans that are far more savory than sweet.
Southern baked beans that are far more savory than sweet.

Southern Baked Beans

(Makes 6 servings)

1 pound dried navy beans (may substitute cannellini or cranberry/borlotti beans), soaked overnight and drained)

Water

1 onion, finely chopped

1/3 cup liquid aminos or coconut aminos (may substitute tamari), plus more to taste

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dry mustard

Kosher salt, to taste (if needed)

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Combine the beans with 4 cups water in a heavy pot over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the beans gently for 15 minutes. Stir in the onion, aminos, tomato paste, paprika, pepper, and mustard, cover, and bake until the beans are very tender and fragrant, about 3 hours. (Check the beans from time to time, and if the liquid has reduced so it is no longer covering the beans, add hot water to barely cover and continue cooking.)

Remove the beans from the oven, taste, and stir in salt if needed. Cover and let them sit until ready to serve.

Store the beans, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

From “Cool Beans” by Joe Yonan

More “Cool Beans” Recipes to Enjoy: French Green Lentils with A Trio of Mustards

And; Kidney Bean and Mushroom Bourguignon

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8 comments

  • These look great! Love beans, and this does look like a particularly good recipe. I haven’t used liquid aminos — this would be a great excuse to do so. Sounds like a great book, too. Thanks!

  • They do sound good but I don’t know what my husband will say about no bacon.

  • Hi Karen: You might be surprised. My husband, aka Meat Boy, did not miss the bacon in these beans. 😉

  • Hi John: Yes, the “Cool Beans” book is definitely one to have on your shelf. You will use it time and again.

  • Proof that your blog is influential, Carolyn. I have been looking for a birthday gift for my vegan daughter-in-law who loves to cook, and whose five-year-old (our beloved grandsweetie) loves beans. This will be perfect!

    I saw some reviews saying there are not enough recipes with pictures though. I’m a big fan of every recipe having a picture. Did you find that off-putting in any way?

  • Hi Carroll: It’s a great book — definitely one to refer to time and again. It’s true that not every recipe has a photograph. But then again, I don’t know if any photograph would have captured how crazy delicious these particular Southern baked beans are. This recipe didn’t have a photo with it. But I figured whatever I made would taste decent, so I gave the recipe a whirl. Who knew I’d end up with a dish this spectacular? Only tasting it — not even seeing it — would reveal that. 😉

  • You make a very good point that not every dish that is delicious is also photo-worthy! I love to just sit down and read a cookbook. If a picture catches my eye, so much the better, but more often than not it’s the words which inspire me. (“Oooh, I never would have thought to try *that* combination; it sounds so good!”) And yes, once again, your words have convinced me, Carolyn; book is on the way!

  • Hi Carroll: I think we all gravitate to recipes with photos first. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But yes, sometimes the true gems are the ones that are less apparent. It’s kind of like that shapeless dress on a hanger in a boutique. It doesn’t look like much at first glance. But try it on for size, and it can be something transformative. 😉

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