recipe: baking up some heirloom beans

IMADE VEGETARIAN BAKED BEANS WITH MARTHA STEWART, my ex-boss, on her television show in 2011, one of the more out-of-body experiences of the relatively quiet current life I began when I dropped out of the corporate world in 2007. After that show, a lot of people wrote in to ask for the recipe, and the source of the heirloom beans I use. Their wish was my command (although it had to wait till I made another batch so I could take some photos first); my answers became this blog post.

The way I cook is all about big potsful of things, and freezing or canning for later: cook once, eat multiple times. For the price of 1 pound of dry beans and a few simple ingredients, the yield is enough for six or eight portions, most of which are frozen in small containers for later use.

This easy recipe takes very little active prep, but lots of waiting on each end for soaking and then baking. We gardeners are patient types, no?

beans and onions

vegetarian baked beans

  • ingredients:
    1 pound dry beans (I like a Cranberry type, but a creamier-textured Navy-style small white bean is the traditional choice and cooks faster; in this batch I used ‘Yellow Eye’)
  • 2 quartered medium onions
  • 1/4 cup+ molasses (I use Wholesome Sweeteners organic style, very rich)
  • 1/4 cup+ maple syrup — I like Dark Amber for robust flavor
  • 4 Tbsp. grainy mustard
  • 4-6 Italian-style paste tomatoes, roughly cut up—alternatively use other tomatoes, canned tomatoes, or even some red sauce
  • boiling water, enough to cover an inch or so above solids in pot
  • small amount of olive oil

Soak the beans overnight; discard the water. Add fresh water and simmer beans briefly (maybe 30 minutes) to just barely tender while preheating oven to 350ish. The “right” temperature really varies with the size of pot you are using; you want the beans to bubble in the oven.

Put water on to boil.

Coat an oven-proof covered pot, such as a Dutch oven or large Pyrex casserole or ceramic bean pot, with a splash of olive oil. Lay the quartered onions in the bottom. (Note on selecting a pot: There must be enough headroom to put in all ingredients above, plus at least 1 inch of boiling water, plus clearance to prevent overflows.)

Drain beans; dress them with the other ingredients above (sweeteners and mustard and tomatoes). Pour over the onions.

Pour boiling water over the mixture until it’s an inch or so above the solids.

Cover and bake until done, between two hours and forever.  Many recipes say to leave baked beans uncovered while cooking; doing so, with certain large beans, I have had it take six hours or more. I cover the casserole, and periodically check to see if water is receding. If so, I taste a bean; if not nearly ready, I add more boiling water, often a couple of times.

Once the beans reach an almost-ready tenderness, uncover and turn up heat to 375F the last hour (give or take) to reduce the liquid to a thick, dark brown syrup, turning the ingredients a couple of times to mix everything up.

If the flavor isn’t sweet enough, or tomato-ey enough, or wants salt, add it during this last phase.  Or balance the maple-to-molasses ratio to suit your taste. This is a flexible process, not delicate chemistry. You can even make the beans soupier, with more sauce than I like, by not cooking down so long.

Again: The freshness of the beans you start with, how well you soak/cook them first, and the vessel you cook in really make the timing and temperature combination vary.  Experiment.

frozen tomatoes

baked-bean tips and tricks

  • Don’t want to pre-cook the beans? Soak them for 24 hours, changing water several times, and plan to bake them longer, perhaps all day.
  • No good tomatoes in winter? I avoid needing to use canned by freezing a few bags of whole paste types at harvest time (above) for just this kind of recipe.
  • Like them spicy? Add a few dashes of hot sauce to the dressing.
  • Like them with meat? Instead of some or all of the onion, place chunks of thick-cut bacon in the bottom of the pan.
  • Want more? Double the recipe, and use a larger pot.
  • Like leftovers? I portion the baked beans out, then freeze for later meals.

what beans to use

want to grow your own?

GROW A variety of bean adapted to shelling, and let the pods dry on the plant. If rain is forecast late in the growing cycle, pull whole plants, roots and all, and dry them indoors, such as hanging on a line in the garage.


  • Rancho Gordo heirloom beans (sold by the pound, dried, for culinary use)
    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Pru. Yes, it’s a very easy way to have tomatoes on hand for soups, stews, etc. all winter long. Just put them clean, dry, whole (i take of stems, but that’s it) into freezer bags. Voila! I have been doing this for many years; all my old (and newer) “putting food up” books recommend it. Easier than canning them to say the least.

  1. Eve Fox says:

    Those look and sound delicious! I have been meaning to make beans like this for the last couple of months. Just the prod I needed. Thanks for sharing your recipe and tips. -E

  2. Christine says:

    I have been doing this with my cherry tomatoes the last few years. It’s been life altering :-) I always end up with waaay too many cherry tomatoes and I can’t bear to waste them. It’s such a simple solution. They are a wonderful (sweet!) addition to soups, stews, pasta, etc.

  3. Amy says:

    I love this idea – I have always made sauce from my end of season harvest – but this is a great alternative and will try this year. Even with my limited raised bed veggie patches and container gardening I always have a tomato and basil surplus –

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Eve. I love baked beans (on toast, on baked potatoes, plain), but always felt like the canned ones were too sweet (and the organic canned ones are really expensive, like $2.49 or $2.79 a can). This way I can really adjust the flavor to my taste.

      Welcome Amy. Yes, “putting up” tomatoes in freezer bags=great timesaver and convenience. I have stopped buying canned tomatoes since I started doing this and making my own sauce years ago. Just pop one out and toss it in a recipe. Voila!

  4. Eve Fox says:

    How lovely to get a reply so quickly! You’re absolutely right about the canned ones – both the sweetness and the expense. I was just looking in my local health food store and a can of the organic vegetarian beans was actually more like $3.79! There are some lovely bean recipes in one of my new favorite cookbooks — Recipes From The Rootcellar — not sure if you know it, but it’s been a great source of inspiration for me this winter. As we just moved back to the Hudson Valley after a number of years in the Bay Area, I’d been a bit worried about what it would be like to cook without a huge selection of fresh, local veggies all winter (I’d gotten so spoiled!) but the book was a huge help to me. Anyway, I’m running on here but thanks again for the recipe and for all the gardening inspiration and knowledge.

  5. Kai @ Folk Farm Daily says:

    There is nothing like fresh from the garden beans. You can even sprout them before you eat them to get extra nutrition. Beans are a valuable and reliable food source for plant growers. They often put out a lot of produce very efficiently.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kai. I haven’t sprouted beans in a long while, but what a good idea. They are great in salad (or AS salad!).

      Welcome, Alice. Vegetarian here for 32+ years, and still ticking! :) Beans and grains are my basics, and I love them even after all these bowlfuls all these years.

      Welcome, Ginger. Ah, that Francesca! You can make these soupier with more sauce or any way you like until they please her. I recommend the small, more creamy-texture white beans like a Navy style from the health food store for her. Nice to hear from you here.

      Hope to see you all soon again.

  6. Johanna says:

    Yum yum yum, I bet the house smells amazing during the baking. I’m going to be home tomorrow and thunderstorms are forecast — the perfect baked bean kind of day, no?!

  7. I really enjoyed your segment on Martha – both of you are so inspiring! I’m constantly on the lookout for tasty bean recipes as I move away from meat in my diet (although not completely!) towards more beans and grains. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Ginger says:

    Can’t wait to try this recipe. Francesca has gone vegetarian, so I’m always looking for ways to incorporate more protein in her diet. Thanks!

  9. Rebecca says:

    Thank you so much for the recipe Margaret. My husband is going to love these.
    I am reading your wonderful new book. I couldn’t wait to get home from work tonight so I could read the next chapters.

  10. Dolores says:

    Thank you for YOUR bean recipe. I made the one listed on Martha’s show when you were on, but I should have doubled the other ingredients as I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that I purchased a 2 lb. bag of yellow-eyed beans.
    My vegetarian adult daughter loved them. They were not as dark as yours for the above reason so my husband didn’t touch them. I will make them again correctly.
    I continue to love your newsletter; such interesting info re the spider tree and the nanny photography–what a lovely find and interesting lady.

  11. Sheryl says:

    Just a note about freezing tomatoes. I’ve been freezing any variety of tomatoes for years (we raise several varieties). The frozen whole tomatoes are added to pots of soup, stew, or chili, added to meat loaf, and used in spaghetti sauce during the winter months. I also can whole tomatoes for just eating as a side dish. I use the cherry tomatoes to make tomato juice.
    I plan to bake the bean dish as my taste buds were having seizures as I read the recipe. Thanks for your clear and concise directions and for your help in making flower gardening not seem so daunting.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Rebecca. Glad that you (and your husband) will try some beans. And so glad you are enjoying the book; what nice news.

      Welcome, Sheryl. They are very versatile; thanks for sharing other ways to use frozen tomatoes. And it’s so easy, isn’t it? Enjoy the beans!

  12. Ingrid says:

    It’s a bit labour intensive, but you can do lots of cherry tomatoes at once: halve them and nestle them in a rimmed baking sheet filled with kosher salt and fresh thyme. Dry them in a low oven until barely moist and them pack them into jars of olive oil. Keep them in the ‘fridge and enjoy them added to pasta, salads, whatever you can think of all winter long (or as long as they last – they’re a bit like candy). You can use the salt-thyme mixture over and over all season long, just add more thyme as it loses its zing. . David Hawksworth, the chef at West in Vancouver, shared this with us and we’ve been doing it for several years.

  13. Judith in Wisconsin says:

    Begged for and received the same recipe along with a perfect Roseville bean pot for baking the beans from my mother-in-law in 1965 when I was a young bride! Her recipe came to her, as a young woman in the 30’s, from an older neighbor. They both often added salt pork “for flavoring”– which was truly never needed, and we now know is not a healthy addition.

    I’ve shared your book with several friends, and keep it next to my bed for use on sleepless nights or when I need a bit of inspiration before closing my eyes.

    Thanks again!

  14. Sara says:

    I love those yellow-eye beans. When I saw them I knew they must be from rancho gordo. I just boiled up a bunch last night for use throughout the week. You’re right, they are like cannellini, but they are fun because of the yellow eye.

  15. Donna Campbell says:

    Hey Margaret, Since I know I will have an abundance of tomatoes this year, your freezing idea will work for me. Yes, I have most of my veg garden in since I live in Zone 3. Thank you for your blog.

  16. Jennifer in Hudson Valley says:

    A gardening friend sent me A Way to Garden and I immediately signed up I’m loving it. Is it wrong to ask if I can make this in a slow-cooker? I don’t usually do long oven sessions unless it’s cold and I need the heat in my house.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jennifer. I don’t see why not. Seems like just the right recipe for a slow-cooker. I think you will have to experiment to see how often the liquid needs topping up a bit and then how to get it to thicken toward the end (maybe w/cover off?).

      Welcome, Linda. I am so glad to hear the aroma and flavor were what you hoped for. Me, too. Ate a defrosted container today again. I love the dark syrup and combo of molasses and maple and mustard.

      As for tomatoes in containers, make sure the pots are large enough (I prefer a whiskey barrel-sized pot for such a plant) and I also prefer to use somewhat less rampant growers, a determinate type. Use a bark-based potting soil mix, something with good texture, not pure peat or anything too light, as it’s not heavy enough for a big plant.

      See you both soon again, I hope.

  17. Linda says:

    OH MY GOSH, I made your bean recipe today. My home had the most wonderful amora and I thought no way are they going to taste as good as they smell, but THEY EVEN TASTED BETTER! I have been making and trying many new healthy recipes lately, and this one is the BEST, by a long shot. I just used a can of whole tomatoes (no good fresh ones in my state yet). Can’t wait to try it this fall as I am going to try to grow heirloom brandywines for the first time:) And thanks for the freezing tips too. Hopefully I have a good crop to do that. What is the best way to grow potted tomatoes please? I will be purchasing your book next!!!!!! THANKS.
    ps……..loved you on Martha too.

  18. Stacy says:

    I was looking forward to making these this weekend and they were fabulous! I used adzuki beans because they are easy to find, and I cooked them in an old bean pot that I found in my grandmother’s garage (don’t worry, I washed it well first!). The one pound of beans fit perfectly in the bean pot with the other ingredients, and because the lid was not tight fitting the liquid boiled off after about four hours in the oven, leaving the beans perfectly cooked and the flavors caramelized.

    My toddler loved it too. Plus there is plenty left for later! Yum, yum, yum.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Stacy. Adzuki beans — what a great idea. I will try them next! Glad that everyone in the family approved of the final product. :) Thanks for saying hello, and don’t be a stranger.

  19. Mary Sherman says:

    I love Rancho Gordo’s heirloom beans (and chilis, and cinnamon, and vanilla) – this looks like a great recipe that I’ll certainly try out. Oh, and I finally bought your book ! Can’t wait for it to arrive!

  20. Linda says:

    just took some bean out of the pantry, going to soak tonight, and bake tomorrow, haven’t done this since last winter, so excited!!!! These beans are the best!

  21. Jennifer Pierce says:

    Is there anyway you could have your website have a “print recipe” icon so when I print off the recipes they come out succinct? When I clicked on this one it produced 17 pages!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Jennifer. An interim solution: Best to highlight the test you want (copy/paste) and paste it into a Word document or other text file, then print. Or I also do this: I take a screen grab photo of it (I am on a Mac, which means I use the command key, shift key and numeral 4…then size it and take the snapshot).

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