All you need is a can and a plan. 

By Darcy Lenz
July 02, 2019

Here’s the thing, baked beans from a can… they’re not something to turn your nose up at. As far as ready-to-eat foods from cans go, they’re pretty darn good. In fact, when I went poking around for tips for this article in our test kitchen, and I asked “Do you have any brilliant ideas for improving canned baked beans?” one recipe developer looked me dead in the eye and said, “Eat them with a golden retriever.” Point being, you’re definitely not starting from zero when you crack open a can of baked beans, so jazzing them up can have huge flavor returns. 

Similar to how making a boxed cake mix taste homemade can be as simple as bumping up ingredients that are already there, you can enrich your canned beans with a fresh hit of the foundational ingredients that give baked beans their signature smokey-sweet flavor in order to amplify a from-scratch feel. That said, as we’ve already established, canned baked beans are fairly well balanced as is. So for those who are game to edge a bit outside of the standard baked bean flavor profile, I’m also including a list of ingredients you could add to the beans for a quick pop of pizazz. These tweaks are for folks looking to put a tasty homemade spin on theirs that will set them apart. 

I’m going to give you two easy methods for this. Follow the one that speaks to the level of time and involvement you have to give. The primary difference between the two is that one involves chopping. Keep in mind, both of these methods are loose guidelines. I’m providing measurements, but this is one of those situations where, unless this is the first thing you’ve ever cooked, you can most likely eyeball it. The measurements for each method assume that we’re working with two 28-ounce cans of homestyle baked beans, whatever brand you like. Scale as need be for your crowd. 

Method 1: A Simple Shortcut to Homemade Flavor

Break out a big cast-iron skillet. Place 3 strips of bacon in it (preferably thick-cut) and plop it over medium heat on the stove. Cook the bacon until crisp, flipping as necessary, and then remove the strips to hang out on a few paper towels and drain off some of the fat from the pan, leaving about 1 tablespoon. 

Now, you want to have some diced onion (about ⅓ to ½ cup of it)—yellow, vidalia, whatever you have on hand is fine—ready in the wings, along with 2-3 cloves of minced garlic. If you're really getting into it, chop up some bell pepper too. Add the onion (and bell pepper if you're feeling it) to your bacon drippings in the pan and saute until translucent and fragrant; next, add in your garlic as well as a few sprigs of fresh thyme and saute for another minute or so.

Once everything is softened and smelling great, pour in both cans of baked beans. Finally, stir in 2 tablespoons of light or dark brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of ketchup, 1 tablespoon of yellow mustard, 1 teaspoon of soy sauce, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, and ¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper. And don’t forget your bacon; crumble it right into the beans. Cook this mixture, stirring, until everything is thick and warmed through. If you want to literally bake the baked beans, rather than heating them on the stovetop, I admire your dedication to authenticity and you can pop your skillet into a preheated 375° oven and bake them until the cows come home. Or until they’re warm and bubbly (about 15 minutes). Your call. Fish out the thyme sprigs before serving if you feel so inclined.

Method 2: If You Need to Short-Cut the Shortcut

Let’s do this, quick and dirty. You’re going to essentially follow method one, but skip the part about cooking bacon, chopping up fresh onion and garlic, and sauteing the aromatics in your bacon drippings. You just go ahead and heat your beans, stirring in the sugar, the condiments, and the pepper, plus a quick hit of onion powder. Badda bing, badda boom, you’re ready to party. 

Note: If you have a smidge more time than “none” on your hands, take this method and give it a small upgrade by laying 3 strips of bacon over the top of your flavor-enhanced beans in the skillet. Then pop them into a 375° oven and cook 15 to 20 minutes. 

Additional Ways to Kick Up the Flavor

Here are more ideas for quickly giving your canned baked beans some love. Add as much or as little feels right. You can add one or two of these in lieu of upping the baseline ingredients (like ketchup and mustard) as described above, or do a little bit of each. And if you have a stroke of inspiration about a flavor booster you don’t see listed here, by golly, try it out!  This is your can of beans, boss; you call the shots. 

  • Chili sauce of your choosing
  • Ginger (freshly grated or dried)
  • A squeeze of fresh citrus
  • Maple syrup
  • A dash of nutmeg (freshly grated or dried)
  • Peach or blueberry preserves
  • A dab of tomato paste
  • White miso paste
  • A splash of root beer 
  • Your favorite BBQ sauce
  • A handful of chopped meat from your smoked Boston butt

A good rule of thumb to remember is that a fresh ingredient or two is almost always your quickest path to success any time you’re trying to dress up a packaged product. So even a fresh garnish, like a handful of chopped scallions, can make canned beans feel more special.

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