How to eat: beans on toast (2023)

Never let it be said that Birmingham does not cover all food bases. Home to four Michelin-starred restaurants, Brum is also, according to a recent Heinz survey, Britain’s baked bean capital: 69% of Brummies eat beans weekly, enabling this alternative windy city to edge out its top five rivals Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool (London trailed in eighth).

Britain may embrace global foods with gusto – bao, burritos and bibimbap are increasingly commonplace – but certain key British foods (or, rather, bastardised American imports), are immovable. It may not sell the best beans, but Heinz shifts an incredible 1.5m tins each day. About 23% of Britons eat beans at least twice a week.

In celebration of this enduring classic, How to Eat (the series defining how best to enjoy Britain’s favourite dishes) will this month consider beans on toast. Around 90% of people say it is their preferred way to enjoy beans, even while, as HtE will now explain, many of them are getting it catastrophically wrong.

A word on homemade beans …

And that word is: no.

There are certain foods (ketchup is another) that industrial food manufacturing has refined with such relentless precision and popularised so vigorously, that they are hardwired into our collective consciousness as the definitive iteration of that food. They are comforting not because they are the best version possible, but because they are utterly consistent and utterly familiar. In a turbulent, unforgiving world, baked beans are always there: bland, sweet, residually tangy. Always the same. Always warm and nourishing. Unless you eat them cold from the can. Which is disgusting.

(Video) Beans on Toast - Whatcha Eating? #214

Are we consumers manipulated by the industrial-food complex? Yes. But the baked bean (quick ‘n’ easy to prepare, affordable, relatively healthy) is a strange food on which to take a stand. Particularly when, despite all the time and energy wasted on this task, no one – no overly earnest foodie, no pretentious chef – has ever created home-cooked beans that even closely mimic what we love about the factory version.

The flavours and textures, particularly when using ludicrous pulses such as broad beans and chickpeas, invariably end up closer to an Italian bean stew. That stew may be better for us. It may even be objectively tastier. But, frankly, when HtE wants beans on toast, it wants beans on toast. Not a patronising lecture about good taste served on artisan sourdough, that, if you are daft enough to order it in an upmarket cafe, comes with a £7 price-tag.


Manoeuvrability is crucial here. It is more important than bread quality. There will be sauce to mop up, which requires either a) a third, untoasted slice of buttered bread on the side, that you can swipe through the dregs (HtE’s treat to itself), or b) toast of no more than 12mm thickness, which can be easily manipulated. You must be able to fold it over slightly to create a kind of mop (like the long industrial ones school caretaker’s use) to sluice bean juice off the plate.

Use far thicker, 4cm-deep doorsteps, as trendy brunch cafes tend to, and while that toast is visually pleasing, it is difficult to cut and move around your plate. Your fork prongs must be just so: a millimetre off going right through the toast – so that you are fully in control of it, without the fork scratching noisily on the plate. With extra-thick toast that kind of surgical precision is impossible. It is like waving a sponge around on the end of a stick. Per mouthful, the toast-to-sauce ratio is also all out of whack.

Given all that, while a thinly sliced loaf of slowly proved real bread will elevate your beans on toast, it is not essential. Expensive bread is better used where it will not get covered in bean juice. A decent supermarket loaf will do the job. Something brown and wholemeal is preferable to give the dish a baseline earthiness and character, but that is as exotic as the bread should get. Nutty, seeded granary-style breads or, even worse, overtly sour sourdough or rye breads (wonderful in other contexts) will bring all sorts of potentially clanging textures and flavours into play, in a dish whose very essence lies in its simplicity.

Note: it should go without saying that the toast should be buttered. Applying anything else (spreadable butter, low-fat olive oil and vegetable oil spreads, margarine) is like slapping Dulux white emulsion on a Picasso.

(Video) Brits Try Other Brits' Baked Beans On Toast


There is a false dichotomy associated with beans on toast. We are, supposedly, split between those who serve the beans directly on the toast (70% of us, according to the Heinz survey) and a rump who serve beans with toast on the side. (HtE presumes that is all on the same plate? Who would serve the beans in a separate bowl, with a side-plate of toast? That is not beans on toast. That is soup).

But surely there is a third way, a compromise solution that all right-thinking people use? 1) Place a piece of toast centrally on a plate. 2) Take a second piece of toast and angle it, like a ramp, half-on, half-off the first piece of toast. 3) Distribute the beans across the angled slice, allowing the rest to pool on the plate. Thus, you lightly moisten one slice, while, for the sake of variety, leaving the lower toast relatively free of bean juices.

Some people find that the bean juices make the “ramp” piece of toast too soggy, but that is because they are not eating fast enough. You cannot hang around with beans on toast.


At its purest, simply open a can and pour your beans into the pan*. HtE respects that. In fact, after years of tinkering with various additions, it may be the highest expression of baked beans. You may think a little milk or grated cheese will enrich the beans as they cook, but the former creates too much sauce – your plate becomes waterlogged – and cooked-in cheese brings an oddly gluey texture to the beans.

The desire to add a little savoury heft and/or gentle spiciness is understandable. HtE will countenance the addition of hard-fried chorizo or smoky bacon, perhaps with a judicious splash of mild tabasco or Worcestershire sauce.

(Video) Americans Try Beans On Toast

Anything beyond that, however, and you transform this into an entirely different meal. People frying off garlic and onion and adding tomato puree, white wine and thyme to their baked beans are, again, creating a bean stew, and a really half-arsed one. Likewise, you cannot just lob in chillies, curry powder or BBQ sauce and expect it to end well. It will not.

*The correct portion for two rounds of toast is about 250g of beans, or around two-thirds of a 400g tin, which leaves you with leftovers but insufficient beans for your next meal. It is almost like the common serving sizes, 150g, 200g, 415g, were all designed so that they never quite provide enough for one or two portions. #capitalism #fightthepower


Mavericks may favour Lancashire, mozzarella (!) or feta (!!), but there is only one cheese you want grated on baked beans, and that is cheddar. Not a powerfully flavoured, domineering and, in this context, disruptive extra-mature cheddar either (draw the line at a “four”). You must also broadly rather than finely grate the cheese. If you finely grate it, it melts too quickly, leaving unedifying oily pools across your beans. You want the cheese to be a distinct layer, a rich, waxy and boldly savoury contrast to the sweet, fibrous and tomato-y beans below.


Tomato ketchup only: an acidic intensifier, a livener that, at the same time, is utterly complementary.


(Video) How to Make Beans on Toast in 8 Easy Steps

Tea. There is something about the rusty, tannic nature, the metallic edge of a strong brew, which, uniquely, both rinses the palate effectively between mouthfuls and, at the same time, smoothly lies under the flavours of beans on toast in a way that, like a deep bass note or loft insulation, enhances and rounds-out its warm, comforting qualities.


Sixty five per cent of us, reports Heinz, eat beans for tea, but beans on toast hits the mark at any time of the day – from the bleariest of mornings to the beeriest of finishes. However, filling as it may be at 4am, when you need to eat something, HtE’s long-term empirical research has found that beans on toast does very little to alleviate a hangover.


There are many dishes you would not make at home. There are many things you are incapable of making. But beans on toast is not one of them. It is a strictly domestic dish that, frankly, any numpty can nail. It has been perfected. It does not require professional intervention. It does not require cooking from scratch. No-one wants a chef to “give it a twist”. There is no need to garnish it with chives or flat-leaf parsley.

So beans on toast, how do you eat yours?


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