The Truth about Baked Beans …

Baked Bean Taste Test

Those of you who have been following along for a while will know that we do like a good taste test.  You’ll also know we’ve been a little preoccupied with growing dried beans these last couple of years and we have a lot of dried beans in the store cupboard. So we decided to perfect home-made baked beans. To get our eye in we decided to taste a range of baked beans one cold wet winter weekend and award marks for:

  • number of beans
  • flavour and texture of beans
  • flavour and texture of sauce
  • Taste of overall product

It turns out that not all beans are created equal. Two were disqualified before we’d even begun. Sorry Weight Watchers – your beans are a sad excuse for food and would send me running for the nearest slice of hot buttered toast. Apologies also to Whole Earth – we so wanted your saucy organic baked beans to tantalise our taste buds, but with 15 different ingredients fighting it out your product just tasted brown and slightly fruity with a dose of musty wholefoods thrown in. Perhaps their journey from the UK didn’t do them any favours but this was just too much worthiness in one tin to taste any good. Just eat the toast.

baked bean taste test

So we tasted five main brands:

Budget faired the worst, made in Italy, a thin tasteless sweet glossy sauce with 5% tomato puree in it, wrapped around a miserly number of tough under-cooked beans. Even the tin is 10 grams less than the standard size. Italians involved clearly knew these were for export or their mothers wouldn’t forgive them.

Oak – didn’t fair that much better with mushy beans and a glossy runny sweet sauce that screamed vegetable gum and maize thickener.

Pams – in a close third place with the most amazing sauce, good texture with notes of smokey bbq and grilled onions.  Also the biggest can and highest beans per capita but the texture of the beans let them down – too mushy.

Watties – in second place absolutely nailed the beans – a good amount cooked just perfectly – soft but with a little bite. The sauce was super tomatoey but overly sweet and sticky.

Heinz – in first place these had a good flavour in both the beans and sauce – not too sweet or gooey – everything you’d expect from a tin of beans which isn’t much. Beanz really does meanz Heinz. These are also made in NZ as are Pams and Watties.

baked bean taste test

One thing that did surprise us was just how much sugar was in most of these brands. Tomato puree does have natural sugars and beans have a little natural sugar in them too but nothing like the levels in the cans we tasted. Just to give you a comparison:

  • Half a can of Coca-Cola contains 19.50 grams sugar
  • Half a can of Watties baked beans contains 15.54 grams sugar

Most of us could polish off half a can of beans and the brands we tasted had between 10 – 15 grams of sugar per half can and that can’t all come from tomato puree. Pams was one of the better ones with a teaspoon less sugar than Watties per half can.

sugar in watties baked beans

So we thought seeing as we are so clever and righteous, we’d make the ultimate baked beans at home with no added sugar. We picked apart the labels, assembled the nice ingredients and had a go and it was pretty horrible actually. It looked the part but tasted like a vinegary tomato sauce with none of the love the ingredients deserved. See photo below.

homemade baked beans

We had another go with a recipe recommended by Gareth Partington of Partington Wines, an organic vineyard and winery in nearby Upper Moutere and realised the error of our ways immediately. We’d been trying to recreate an industrial product when we should have been trying to understand the bean!  During Mk-1 we’d made a sauce and cooked the beans and put the two together but no – baked beans – as the original makers intended are indeed baked – together – for ages as it turns out.

And this makes sense because beans need long slow cooking to soften and absorb the flavours of what you cook them with. Gareth’s recipe calls for 4 hours in the oven and having made several batches now we agree. The secret to a great baked bean is long and slow cooking. The second secret is the right bean. All of the baked beans we tasted are made with Navy beans also known as Haricot beans, a medium white bean that unfortunately is not commercially grown in New Zealand. I trialed growing some dwarf haricot beans as part of our heirloom bean trial but had no success and it seems I’m not alone.

homemade baked beans

The UK is one of the great consumers of baked beans and a lot of work has been done there to see if a cold-climate haricot bean can be developed. Until then most Navy or Haricot beans come from the USA and this makes sense in a way because that is the home of the original baked bean. Native Americans cooked dried beans with fat and water and this was picked up by the pilgrims who cooked dried beans with a little ham. The ham was dropped in lean war years and baked beans as we we know them today were created. Many American recipes still contain smoked bacon or ham and maple syrup.

The recipe we’ve arrived at includes haricot beans, onions, garlic, tomato puree, cider vinegar, bay leaves, black pepper, salt, mustard powder, mace, allspice, apple juice and a little molasses. It turns out that baked beans need a little bit of sweetness from somewhere but we don’t think they need as much as the commercial brands are putting in there.

homemade baked beans

Quantities are not an exact science with this recipe – follow your nose – or your taste buds. Soak the beans overnight and discard the water. Place all ingredients in a baking dish and cover with fresh water then bake in a moderate oven, stirring occasionally for 4 hours.

Update: You’ve asked for the actual quantities we’ve used so here we are:

  • 1 lb of dried haricot beans soaked overnight and drained
  • 1 1/3 cup of finely chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup dried English mustard powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1 cup tomato puree (half and half homemade tom chilli sauce and tom puree is good)
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup apple juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 8 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tablespoon of molasses

I softened the onion and garlic in a little butter then added beans and other ingredients. All in an oven proof dish. The original recipe has 12 bacon slices which I didn’t use – if you do use these cook them with the onions and garlic. It looks like a lot of water but it does all cook down.  Put it in a moderate oven 180C and cook for 4 hours stirring on the hour.  I also didn’t put the salt in until the end as it makes the beans go tough.

We’ve tried using other varieties of beans that we’ve grown with this recipe and the ones that work best are small to medium sized varieties like Pinto, Borlotti and the heirloom North American shell out beans like Good Mother Stallard and Indian Hannah.





  1. Maryanne Mummery

    Really good information about one of our age-old standard tinned foods! I shall try Heinz for the first time having always trusted Watties.

    1. Thanks Maryanne, yes I know – who would have thought eh. Make your own I reckon.

  2. For years I’ve been draining off most of the juice from tinned baked beans and replacing with a slosh of red wine – makes a sort of grown-up version. But your method sounds great, so I’ll try it. Thanks Heather.

    1. Oooh, that sounds lovely. Why didn’t I think of that!

  3. Is there a recipe for the baked beans please?

    1. Hi Glenda, I’ve udpated the blog now with quantities. Enjoy.

  4. Great study – thank you. I have been making Julie Le Clerc’s recipe for home – baked beans in tomato sauce for many years – totally delicious and loved by all – recipe includes cannellini beans, pork hock or piece of pancetta, cans of tomatoes, garlic, onion, mustard, brown sugar, worcestershire sauce, fresh herbs, olive oil and salt and pepper (featured in her ‘Cafe @ Home’ book – page 47)
    Love your website and information.

    Many thanks

    1. Thanks Marian, that sounds like a fantastic recipe. I have a few of Julie’s books but not that one. Mustard powder seems to feature in a lot of the recipes.

  5. Hey guys
    That’s bloody brilliant research done right! We always have a small stock of baked beans and will now endeavour to change to Heinz. Our kids love them so no doubt the changes will be better for all. That’s an inordinate amount of sugar and really eye opening, and the comparison between soda and the baked beans is also great idea as some people are a wee bit naive when it comes to this, as for us, we’re certainly aware of the amount of sugar in them but I think that comparison puts things into perspective! Great read team and another awesome recipe which hopefully will be another great to add to the repertoire.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I know – we were a bit surprised too. I predict some new products on the market soon with a lot less sugar in them.

  6. Do you have a recipe?

    1. Thanks for your question – yes blog updated now with quantities – a recipe such as it is.

  7. SUPER interesting reading this bleak rainy afternoon. T’was great to know the differences in the Baked Bean tin varieties ….I personally dont buy or eat BB’s but do really like the idea of making ones own. That smokey/maple syrup/ham hock addition sounds very morrish, winter warming and tasty…THANKS for taking the time to do all the testing, analysing and honesty…….its really appreciated.

    1. You’re welcome Sandy. You can always count on us to be honest!

  8. Great experiment, thanks for going to this effort Country Trading! Growing up in the USA I would say my mother’s homemade baked beans probably had molasses and brown sugar, along with bacon or leftover ham bits. We didn’t have tinned baked beans, they were always homemade, baked in a casserole dish. I just checked my old standard cookbook, “Fanny Farmer,” and “Boston Baked Beans” are made with navy or Great Northern Beans, along with salt pork, dry mustard, dark brown sugar and molasses. (and yes, we would have called them Boston Baked Beans…) The “Barefoot Contessa” uses what we call “kidney” beans, along with bacon, brown sugar and maple syrup. I don’t think you really can make true baked beans without sugar or some substitute thereof, but if you make them at home at least you know what’s gone into them!

    1. You’re welcome Karen – your Mum’s baked beans sound fantastic. I have seen some of these Boston Baked Beans recipes and they sound really good. I’ve had a go with smokey bacon bits and they’re really good.

  9. Can we please get a wee hint at quantities so it’s not a complete disaster? I’m not good with beans…
    Julie Taylor-Jeffs

    1. Hi Julie, recipe update at the end of the blog now with quantities and times.

  10. Two things: I used to work for DSIR in the 1970s and there was some research being done into navy beans which were grown in trial plots at Lincoln, wonder what happened to them. Secondly, Moosewood Cookbook has an awesome recipe for homemade baked beans and, as you note, they take long slow cooking to develop their flavour. I have made the recipe successfully using pinto beans.

    1. How fascinating Lee, thank you for sharing that. I’d love to know w hat came of the trial plots. My friend Julie has that Moosewood Cookbook and it has some lovely recipes in it – she makes a mean chocolate brownie from it. Will check out the baked beans one next time I visit her.

  11. You should also try Indian recipes. They’ve only had about 10,000 years of cooking to figure things out. I’d recommend something like a “chawli masala” or “chawli usal” (if you have a kitchen grinder). You’ll be stunned at how tasty beans can be.

    1. Thanks Sean, I will give your chawli recipes a try. I always love a new bean recipe and yes beans are amazing.

  12. I’d avoid tinned beans completely. You get dehydrated beans in any store, really.

  13. Great recipe. Did you use the blackstrap molasses we can buy in the supermarket? That type of molasses can be quite strong and bitter. From memory, American molasses are more like our treacle. Could you clarify please? Many thanks.

    1. Yes Chris, you are bang on – the blackstrap molasses is quite strong and bitter so I used a little but I’ve also used treacle or maple syrup too in it’s place.

  14. Hi Heather just read some of the bean observations and I grew a bean I got from the heritage trust, called Turkey Craw. It was a really nice green bean but also nice as a fresh shellout, but as a dried bean as well it held its shape and nice and creamy.

    1. Thanks for that Ana – I’ve heard of Turkey Craw as a green bean but didn’t know it was good as a dried one too – I’ll have to make room to give it a grow.

  15. Sounds like a wonderful recipe, do you think it would be possible to preserve these? (minus the bacon)

    1. Hi Emma, yes I meant to have a go myself in the pressure canner this year but didn’t make a big enough batch. I would still pressure can them – not just preserve them in water bath as there is not enough acid in the recipe.

  16. Just interested in whether this could be done in a slow cooker rather than baked? Left overnight perhaps …

    1. Yes you know I think this would work a treat – I don’t have a specific slow cooker but in essence that is what you’re doing.

  17. I’m a Brit visiting New Zealand and a connoisseur of Heinz Baked Beans! I picked up a tin of Watties beans (made by Heinz btw) and, knowing so much sugar has been added in recent years ( not when I was a kid some 50 years ago I hasten to add!) I chose the 50% less sugar.

    BIG mistake! I have just finished my half tin on toast and it was awful. SO sweet, but a ‘false’ sweet. I looked at the ingredients and they have used Steviol! Was horrified as I’m anti sugar anyway but equally do not accept the so-called ‘healthy’ alternatives. This one may not be the carcinogenic aspartame we should all avoid but it is still an artificial sweetner. Will absolutely avoid in future!

    1. Oh dear – that is disappointing. When will manufacturers wake up and realise that actually a lot of people have a palate and desire for less sweet products – leave out the Stevia and the sugar I say. Hope the rest of kiwi cuisine doesn’t disappoint.

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