Cooking baked beans in a slow-cooker not only saves energy, but it fills the kitchen with the same rich aroma as if they had been baked for hours in a conventional oven. There is also little difference in the preparation procedure, which includes sorting and washing the beans, and presoaking them before transferring them to the slow-cooker and adding flavoring ingredients.
Despite their best efforts, dried bean processors don't always catch all impurities during the inspection process. It's common to find bits of debris, such as small stones, spoiled or decaying beans, small pieces of dried twigs or even insects, in a bag of dried beans. Do your own inspection by dumping them out on a light-colored surface, where the debris will be more noticeable. Then rinse the beans to remove dust, fine dirt and other contaminants they may have come into contact with during processing. Place them in a large colander, hold them under cool running water and allow them to drain thoroughly before proceeding with the presoaking step.
Pretreating the Beans
Many varieties of dried beans are suitable for long, slow cooking, and the size of the beans influences the cooking time. Smaller varieties -- such as Navy beans, pea beans, black-eyed peas, red beans and kidney beans -- are good choices for cooking in a slow-cooker. Presoaking speeds up the cooking time, and the longer you soak them, the less time they take to cook. Soak beans for several hours in enough water to cover them by about 2 inches, or preferably overnight. Reduce the cooking time even more by parboiling the beans for about 10 minutes before adding them to the slow-cooker and allowing them to rest for about an hour before slow-cooking them. Whichever presoaking method you use, discard the soaking liquid and replace it with fresh water in the slow-cooker.
The most basic recipe for baked beans calls for presoaked beans; salt pork or bacon; onion; a sweetener such as molasses, brown sugar or both; and ground mustard. Salt toughens the beans, so add it toward the end of the cooking time. Place the peeled and whole or halved onion in the bottom of the pot, with the salt pork or bacon and top with the drained beans. Add the amount of molasses or brown sugar the recipe calls for, along with the dried mustard, and enough boiling water to just cover the tops of the beans. Stir the ingredients, cover the pot and turn it on high to get things going. Once the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and cook for six to eight hours covered.
Slow-cooker baked beans are a perfect example of a one-pot meal, as all ingredients go into the cooker with the drained presoaked beans. The process is the same whether you use a slow-cooker or bake them in the oven, as the beans are surrounded by heat and cook on all sides evenly. The beauty of cooking beans in a slow-cooker is that, unlike oven-baking, no steam is lost because of the very low temperature; you should not have to add any additional water during cooking. If the top layer of beans appears to be a little dry at any point, simply stir them into the sauce and replace the lid. The beans are done when they are soft and no longer chewy. If you like beans a little undercooked, simply shorten the cooking time.
You can cut the onion up into smaller pieces along with the salt pork or leave them whole, as they eventually soften and break up during the long, slow cooking process. For vegetarian beans, simply omit the bacon or salt pork, and experiment with other flavorings. For example, incorporate maple syrup, spices, Worcestershire sauce or tomato sauce.