Mastering how to make a pot of traditional pot of Mexican beans will change your life! Homemade beans are cheaper and taste much better than canned beans. With this recipe you can have a week’s worth of vegetarian meals.
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Where Do Beans Come From
Once believed to have originated in Peru, the common bean is now thought to have been first cultivated in what today is called Central Mexico. From there it spread throughout Central and South America before making it’s way to Europe via the Spanish. *
Do Mexicans Eat a Lot of Beans
In Mexican cooking there are 3 ever-present ingredients: chiles, corn and beans. They can all be prepared into a great variety of forms, but what doesn’t change is their importance in the deep history of Mexican cuisine.
In the book “Nuestro mero mole”, Jesus Flores y Escalante wrote that Mexico is the country where beans are used the most.
He goes on to say that beans can be found in 70% of Mexican dishes, the percentage includes appetizers, snacks, side, and main dishes. That is a huge number and a great reason for those interested in authentic Mexican cuisine to learn to cook beans from scratch.
Most Mexicans have cooked beans either on the stove or in the fridge ready to go.
Beans are such an integral part of our daily nourishment and so Mexican cooks take the process of simmering a pot of beans quite seriously. Each person has their own unique way of preparing them.
Everything from the preferred bean variety, the type of pot used to the seasonings can differ greatly from one cook to another.
You don’t have to feel overwhelmed because your beans can be prepared any way you like. I’m going to share some basics and tips to help you navigate the process. At the end you will have all the information you need and be proud of your simmering olla de frijoles (pot of beans).
Frijol or Frijoles: Guide to Mexican Beans
Frijol means beans, as in dried beans. Frijoles referrers to cooked beans.
Which Dried Beans Should You Use
In Mexico there is a big choice of dried beans. It’s believed that over 50 varieties of beans are eaten in Mexico. They are all delicious and can all be prepared the same way or in a variety of recipes.
Each family tends to have a favorite or a couple of favorites they stick too. Different Mexican regions will also determine which beans are used.
How to Make Mexican Beans From Scratch
Choosing The Beans
The beans should be of good quality. Avoid wrinkled, damaged beans, and ones with holes.
- The wrinkled beans are too dry, they’ll take much longer to cook and won’t taste as good as smooth-skinned beans.
- Damaged or ones that are chipped or split should be discarded.
- Beans that have holes may be infested with bean weevils, you don’t want to eat them. You might want to throw out those packages because the weevils will infest other dry goods in your cupboard.
Sorting The Beans
The next step is to pick through them. This means that we need to inspect them for rocks, debris, and wrinkled, discolored, damaged, or beans with holes. We, of course, will throw those in the garbage and only keep the whole smooth-skinned ones.
Do Dried Beans Need to Be Soaked
Growing up I never once saw my mother or any other extended family member soak beans overnight. I personally don’t like to pre-soak beans, the only exception is if I won’t be home for the required simmering time.
The reason some cooks pre-soak beans is because it speeds up the cooking time. Some also believe that this process eliminates the enzyme that causes flatulence. (In the seasonings section I’ll tell you another way you can neutralise the enzyme.)
One reason I don’t like to pre-soak beans is that I’ve read that nutrients can be lost in the process. Additionally, they can easily begin fermenting and develop a sour smell and taste.
If you choose to pre-soak The World’s Healthiest Foods website suggests “placing them in a bowl of cold water and keeping them in the refrigerator for eight hours or overnight…drain and rinse the beans well with clean water” before cooking.
What About The Quick-Soak Method
Another method people use to expedite the cooking process is the “quick-soak” method.
Quick-soak is done by bringing the dried beans to a boil, then turning off the heat and allowing them to sit for an hour before continuing to cook until soft.
Saveur had to say this, “we found that an hour in warm water made virtually no difference in the cooking time, so go for either the overnight soak or none at all. “
What Kind of Pot Should Be Used to Cook Mexican Beans
You don’t need to own all of these, one kind will do just fine.
Many Mexican people use earthenware pots (called ollas de barro in Spanish) to cook their beans. These pots are where the name for beans, prepared this way, get their name: frijoles de olla or beans of the pot, the pot being an earthenware one.
Those that use earthenware believe that the pots impart an indispensable and unique flavor.
My mother, like many other Mexican cooks, occasionally uses an old-style pressure cooker to cook beans. She once had one explode and after seeing the results I forever swore off of those pressure cookers.
The new modern electric pressure cookers are a much safer bet. I use mine all the time.
How To Season Pinto Beans
This is another element in the frijoles cooking process where opinions vary greatly. I’ll give you my opinions and different options but feel free to pick and choose from the list.
If you research instructions for cooking dried beans the opinion is to skip the salt until the beans have softened. My brother-in-law salts only at the end, while my mother waits after the beans have softened and 20 minutes before the beans are done.
In all honestly, I sometimes add the salt at the beginning and other times after softening, I haven’t noticed a real difference in the cooking times. What I would suggest is to always use sea salt.
One of my sisters likes to use culantro (not exactly the same thing as cilantro), I like to add leaves of epazote. You might have a difficult time locating this Mexican herb, but if you find it then I highly suggest using it.
Epazote has a very unique smell and flavor that I find quite pleasant. It is also used by many because it prevents the unpleasant side effect (flatulence) some can experience from eating beans.
I recently read that some cooks like adding baking soda to help eliminate the intestinal problems. I’ve never seen Mexican cooks do this so I can’t tell you if in fact, it works. It makes me wonder if a bitter taste is left on the beans?
Onions, Garlic and Chiles: The use of these three varies greatly. Some Mexican cooks use only onion, while others don’t use any until the boiled beans are ready to be made into refried beans.
About half of the family members I interviewed said they like to add a clove or two of garlic.
No one in my family mentioned adding chile peppers to the boiling beans, but I’ve read many recipes where people add a jalapeño or Serrano chile.
One of my cousins made a good point, she said she waits to add any additional ingredients until she either mashes or makes a dish out of the boiled beans. I personally like to use all three (onion, garlic, and chiles), but it is up to you.
Oil: I always use olive oil to sauté the onion, garlic, and chiles before adding my beans to the pot. Though this isn’t the traditional Mexican oil of choice, it is mine for health reasons.
Half of my family members also mentioned adding a splash of oil to the simmering pot. One cousin said she does so to prevent the beans from becoming sour and to help them last longer.
What Causes Beans to Take Longer to Cook
The following are ingredients to be cautious of when cooking a pot of beans.
Though not commonly used (in fact I’ve never seen them) by Mexican cooks, acidic ingredients in a basic pot of beans call for caution.
Ingredients like lime, lemon, tomatoes, vinegar, etc., should be added only once the beans have cooked through. The reason being that acid will slow down the cooking time tremendously. Instead, if you want to add those ingredients wait until you mash them or prepare the cooked beans into bean stews.
Okay now you’re ready to get that first pot of beans on the stove! Below is how I make frijoles for our everyday consumption. (Well, we actually don’t eat beans every single day, but you get my point.)
How to Make Mexican Frijoles de Olla
Making a big pot of frijoles de olla is incredibly easy and so inexpensive! Check out my easy recipe and all of the tips to make Mexican pinto beans.
How to Make Mexican Pinto Beans (Frijoles de Olla)
- 2.2 lbs. or 1 kilo dried beans pinto or bayos or peruanos or flor de mayo
- ¼ small white onion skin removed
- 3 whole large cloves of garlic peeled & left whole
- sea salt to taste
- fresh or dried epazote optional but adds great flavour
- plenty of water
- fresh or dried Mexican chillies optional
- Pick through the beans to remove and dirt, rocks and broken or damaged beans. Rinse thoroughly, then place the beans in a large pot that has a lid.
- Add the onion, garlic and epazote if using. Pour in plenty of water to more than cover the beans. Cover and turn the heat to high and allow to come to the boil.
- Once boiling, turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer for about 2 hours. You'll need to check on the beans now and then to make sure they have plenty of water, if not add more so that they don't burn.
- After about 2 hours or ONLY once the beans have softened and their skin begins to curl or break away, you can add sea salt. Add a about 1.5 teaspoon at first then simmer and then taste the beans again and adding as much more salt as you desire — just be careful because it's easier to add than it is to take away saltiness! When salting the beans you can add more water and simmer for another 20 minutes, taste again and repeat if necessary. Don't worry if there's "too much" broth as you can use it for reheating the beans and for making refried beans.
- Store leftovers, once cooled, in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or you can freeze for several months if desired, they freeze quite well.
Now that you’ve made a pot of Mexican beans you can use them in any of your favourite Mexican recipes or turn the pot into a beans stew. The beans you’ve just made can be served as is with some warm corn tortillas on the side for a hearty beans soup meal. Alternatively they can be mashed up to make frijoles refritos or refried beans.
Originally published on February 2014
Nancy Lopez is a food blogger and author of the cookbook Mexican Tamales Made Meatless. Born in Mexico, raised in the US, and currently living in Southern Mexico, she has followed a meatless diet for almost 10 years. It is her passion and mission to share all she has learned about vegan Mexican cooking and vegetarian Mexican recipes. Mexican Made Meatless is a blog dedicated to preserving the authentic flavors of Mexican cuisine just without the meat. It’s a place to celebrate Mexican culture and all it’s delightfully delicious traditional foods. Read more…