Joe Beef's Lentils Like Baked Beans

September 24, 2014

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: This month, we're teaming up with Kitchen Arts & Letters for a Back to the Kitchen Genius Series. Managing Partner Matt Sartwell is sharing memorable recipes from his 20+ years running the famed cookbook store; we get to revamp our weekday routines.

Next up: All that's good about from-scratch baked beans -- except this version can be ready for dinner tonight, and won't taste like dessert.

Shop the Story

This is the perfect recipe for people who love baked beans. It's also the perfect recipe for people who hate them.

Baked beans are polarizing: At least on their home turf in New England, they often taste as much like a jug of molasses as a wholesome pot of stew. (In the U.K. -- where baked beans were considered a luxury import starting in the 1880s and are now eaten for breakfast -- the standard can of Heinz baked beans is half as sweet as it is here.) And, according to some, the best recipes are made from a base of canned pork 'n beans. As key ingredients go, it would be hard to get more anticlimactic than that.

This version, from Montreal's Joe Beef restaurant, dials back the sugar (and the pork 'n beans) so we can taste everything else. It has everything we love -- or could love -- about baked beans, the smoky, tangy, meaty roundness of them, without tasting like dessert. It also doesn't technically use beans, but their smaller relative, the lentil.


"It fell on lentils but it could be any vegetable, any whole grain or legume," chef and co-owner Fred Morin (pictured above, at left, with co-owner David McMillan) told me. "The combination of tomato, brown sugar, mustard, and onion works magic always. Celeriac like baked beans, even baked beans stock as a sauce for duck. It's the coureur des bois 'Doritos' flavor."


Using lentils, importantly, also means that these baked "beans" cook in a fraction of the time. Where from-scratch baked beans can take anywhere from 2 hours (even starting with good old pork 'n beans) to the better part of a day, this recipe calls for the red lentils you'd typically see used in dal, which swiftly break down into mush and drink up nearby seasonings.

These lentils stand on their own -- a bowl of them could be dinner (and tomorrow's very good lunch), or you could add fried eggs, or toast, or a pile of wilted greens.

More: Another way to make lentils a meal -- tacos.


Joe Beef might be famous for the Double Down and horse filet with occasional horse jerky, but they don't overdo these things carelessly. They're surprisingly good at finding restraint and balance, of swelling up savory and sweet and smoky until they're just enough and no more. Here, to perhaps reassert who they are, they recommend a side of pork chop.

It's a very good pairing. But in lieu, Kitchen Arts & Letters co-owner Matt Sartwell told me, "I've learned to drop in leftover roasted pork shoulder: If I canned the stuff, I could put Van Camp's out of business."

Joe Beef's Lentils Like Baked Beans

From The Art of Living According to Joe Beef (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Serves 4

4 slices bacon, finely diced
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
2 cups red lentils, picked over and rinsed
4 cups water
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons maple syrup, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons Colman's dry mustard
1 teaspoon pepper, plus more as needed
1 bay leaf

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks this week -- and all month! -- to Matt Sartwell at Kitchen Arts & Letters.

Photos by Alpha Smoot

Listen Now

Join The Sandwich Universe co-hosts (and longtime BFFs) Molly Baz and Declan Bond as they dive deep into beloved, iconic sandwiches.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mrsbonvivant
  • tigerlille
  • Lynda Whitney
    Lynda Whitney
  • Sharon
  • Natalie
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Mrsbonvivant October 1, 2014
This recipe, seriously, is scary awesome. I can not believe it is SOOOOO delicious. My husband could eat it every day. Made exactly as directed; might use less bacon next time, or some other kind of pork product. But really, try this.
tigerlille September 25, 2014
At last... A recipe for which I have all the ingredients on hand. I'm excited. Lentils like baked beans with rice, here we come.
Lynda W. September 25, 2014
This sounds like a perfectly delicious recipe, and I am planning to make it very soon - next time we are going to cook some pork on the grill. But the reason I know it will be good is that it is almost exactly my recipe for baked beans using (gasp!) canned pork and beans - chopped onions, brown sugar, catsup, mustard, then strips of bacon on the top and bake until onions are fully cooked and bacon is crisped. It will look thin when mixed but will reduce while cooking to a very satisfying thickness; don't do too far until it is a thick paste or you will have to add a little water and stir in to correct it: it will thicken further as it cools. Make delicious beans and franks for a family weeknight meal by putting hot dogs on top of the beans before topping with bacon strips and baking. Sounds totally declasse' I know but is surprisingly good and we always served it with homemade coleslaw.
Sorry, Pioneer Woman, but this is not at all the way Southerners make baked beans from canned pork and beans, and it doesn't sound good to me.
Sharon September 24, 2014
There are many of us that cannot use maple syrup due to diabetes. Can you recommend anything as a substitute?
Natalie September 24, 2014
I am wondering the same thing as Lydia Sugarman's comment.

But, I also red LOVE lentils (and others) because I eat a lot of them (I'm vegan). Would this recipe miss the bacon? I usually veganize recipes by just leaving out or substituting something for meat. What do you think could be used to replace it? Or just leave it out? The spices seem to definitely stand on their own, as I can read from the ingredient list...
Kristen M. September 24, 2014
Hi Natalie, see my response to Lydia below about lentils. Also, I haven't tried a vegetarian version yet, but I do think that the seasonings will hold up -- just tweak it to your taste at the end. Maybe some smoked paprika could help if it feels like it's still missing a little smoky meatiness.
andagainitsraw September 27, 2014
I make a vegan version of Senate Bean Soup that originally calls for ham or bacon, but I use a teaspoon of liquid smoke instead to compensate for that smokey/cooked meat flavor. It works out magically.
lydia.sugarman September 24, 2014
As I was reading, I kept wondering about substituting French lentils. I'm not a fan of the mushiness of the other lentils, unless it *is* dal. I keep thinking the toothiness of the French lentils would add back that of actual beans.
Kristen M. September 24, 2014
Yes, I was intrigued by Fred saying any bean or whole grain (or anything) could work with this flavor combination. It's so good. If trying other lentils or grains, just keep an eye on them and add more liquid if it starts to get dry.