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Homeplate: Bean hole beans – if you enjoy a challenge

  • Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)

    Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)

  • Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)

    Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)

  • Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)

    Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)

  • Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)
  • Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)
  • Bean hole beans are cooked in a cast iron pot that is placed in a hole in the ground and covered with hot coals. (HILLARY NELSON photo / For the Monitor)

I had to drive to the Seacoast along Route 4 recently, and all the way over I kept seeing signs advertising a bean hole bean fundraiser. Bean hole beans? It had to have something to do with baked beans, of which I am not a huge fan, having eaten one too many of them on the Saturday nights of my New England childhood. Still, my curiosity was piqued. What exactly was a bean hole?

As chance would have it, I arrived home to the following email from Monitor food page editor, Jenifer VanPelt: “So here’s a crazy idea . . . what do you know about bean hole beans?”

Serendipity! And so began the wildest adventure of my many years as a Monitor food columnist.

I started by reading about the lore and history of bean hole beans. Apparently, they were a staple of the logging camps of Northern New England, where abundant wood and locally grown dried legumes made bean hole beans an inexpensive protein source for lumberjacks.

The cooking technique, one that early settlers reputedly learned from local Native American tribes, involves digging a hole in the ground that’s about twice as wide and deep as the cooking vessel, lining the hole with rocks and then building a big fire in it. After several hours, when the rocks are hot and a deep bed of coals has formed, a covered cast iron pot of par-boiled and seasoned beans is lowered into the hole and covered with coals. Then the pot, coals and hot rocks are completely covered with dirt until the hole is filled in completely.

Depending on how big the pot is, the beans are left to

slow-cook in the ground anywhere from four to 24 hours. The process is then reversed – the dirt scooped out, the coals scraped away, the kettle hoisted out of the pit, the top dusted off to keep dirt out of the pot, and the beans are served.

The recipes for bean hole beans I looked at were crazy, indeed. I would need a dozen pounds of beans and 5 pounds of salt pork, a cast iron cauldron big enough to bathe in, a baby grand-sized hole, half a wall’s worth of rocks and a cord of wood. I would need to stay up all night keeping the fire going while not burning down nearby trees and houses; I would need a tractor and chain to lower the pot into the pit and to haul it back out again.

It occurred to me there was a good reason bean hole suppers are traditional fire department fundraisers. I fantasized about calling fellow Monitor columnist Tim O’Shea, (who specializes in almost killing himself in search of great copy) and saying: “So here’s a crazy idea . . . what do you know about bean hole beans?”

Instead, I got out the 1961 edition of Betty Crocker’s Outdoor Cook Book (which also happens to contain my favorite recipe title ever: “Pocket Stew”) and looked up bean holes. Sure enough, I found a downsized version of the technique, which gave me the courage to continue.

What follows is a combination of various baked bean recipes and advice from many sources on constructing a bean hole. The result was actually quite tasty, though the delicious smokiness of the beans may have been the result of the ham hock I used and not the fire. I suspect most of us would be just as content with the same recipe made in a slow cooker.

That said, if you happen to be camping and already making a fire, or if you just enjoy a challenge, by all means give it a whirl.

Oh, and if you wear glasses, take them off before getting too close to the fire. Heat can cause lens coatings to “craze” (melt into a crackle pattern), as I learned while lowering the bean pot into the hole.

I knew I should have called Tim.

Bean hole beans

1 pound dried beans, preferably something traditional in Northern New England, such as yellow eye or soldier

1/4 cup maple syrup or molasses, or a mixture

1 large onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 whole head garlic, unpeeled, but cleaned of any dirt

1 pound smoked ham hocks, or ½ pound slab bacon sliced into chunks, or ½ pound salt pork sliced into chunks (the ham hock weighs more because it contains a bone)

1 small cinnamon stick (optional)

4 or 5 whole cloves (optional)

1 tablespoon dry mustard powder, sifted if lumpy

2-4 chopped fresh plum tomatoes or 3 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

water as needed

a 5 quart cast iron dutch oven or kettle with a tight fitting lid

tinfoil

sea or kosher salt, as needed

Rinse the beans well in cold water, picking through and removing any stones and discarding. Cover with abundant cold water and set aside to soak overnight.

The next day, about an hour or so before the bean hole is ready for cooking (see below), rinse the beans, cover with fresh water to about 2 inches above the beans and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20 to 40 minutes (depending on the beans), until they are just tender. Do not add salt. Salt will toughen beans if added too soon in the cooking process; also, there will be salt in the pork, and you may not need to add any.

When the beans are tender, remove from the heat and drain, reserving the cooking water. Set the beans and water aside to cool a bit.

Meanwhile, get all of the other ingredients together. When the bean hole is just about ready to use, gently combine the beans, syrup and/or molasses, onion, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, mustard, tomatoes or paste, and pepper and the remaining cooking liquid. Add enough fresh cold water that it covers the beans by an inch or two (more water means soupier beans). Add the ham hock, bacon or salt pork, gently nestling it in among the beans. If you are a vegetarian, omit the meat.

If the lid for the cast iron pot is rounded on top, flip it over and put it on the pot upside down – you will need a dished out area for the coals. Tightly seal the top of the pot with tinfoil so that no dirt or ashes will be able to get into the beans as they cook. Place the pot into the bean hole and cook as directed below.

Making a bean hole: Find a spot well away from anything that can catch on fire. If, as at my house, this involves weeding the wildly overgrown unused end of the vegetable garden, do remove more weeds than you think you need to (voice of experience speaking here) or they will catch on fire.

Dig a hole about twice as wide and deep as the pot, a bit narrower at the bottom than at the top. Put a big flat rock at the bottom in the center and then line the rest of the bottom and sides of the hole with rocks.

Start a fire in the hole. You will need to burn a surprising amount of wood to get a layer of coals several inches deep at the bottom of the hole, so have more than you think you need on hand. The fire will also take three or four hours of tending, so plan accordingly.

When you have a deep layer of coals, remove any big pieces of wood from the hole. Push the coals to the sides and lower the covered pot of beans on to the flat rock. I was able to do this with fire mitts on both hands (though I did melt my glasses). If your pot has a bail, you may be able to attach a piece of chain to it and lower it that way. Just be careful not to dislodge the lid.

With a shovel, push coals all around the pot and dump a pile of them on top of the lid to cover it completely.

Fill the hole with the dirt you dug out of it, until it is even with the edges of the hole, covering the pot, coals and rocks completely.

Wait. If you made 1 pound of beans, you can dig them up after 4 hours. You can also let them continue cooking many more hours if you like. Some people leave them overnight. If you have made a large batch of beans, it will take 10-24 hours.

Carefully reverse the process. The most important part is not dislodging the lid of the pot and getting dirt in the beans. Be sure as much soil as possible has been dusted from the tinfoil, before carefully removing it.

Open the pot carefully so you don’t get a steam burn. If you worry about such things, the beans should register about 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. They may be very soupy, but will thicken as they cool. Taste the beans and add salt only if needed. They may be perfect as is because of the salt in the pork.

Serve hot. Makes 6-10 servings, depending on appetite.

Legacy Comments1

Nice article. By coincidence, the Winnipesaukee Masonic Lodge in Alton will be having a Bean Hole Dinner on Saturday, August 23rd, from 4:30 to 7:00. Lodge is located 1/4 mile south of the Alton Traffic Circle on rte 28. Donation $10. Four pots of beans: 3 Navy and 1 Kidney. And you are correct on taking a lot of time. We start the process on Friday morning for the Saturday dinner.

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