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How to Make Great Refried Beans
What do you do when life gives you more than 16 pounds of cooked beans? That was the question I was left asking myself after my tests last week to figure out the ratio between dry and cooked beans. Some I ended up freezing, the chickpeas I turned into a simple, tasty soup, and others made for a quick bean salad.
But I still had more left! With Cinco de Mayo approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to turn some of the beans into refried beans, or frijoles refritos, as they're known in Spanish. While refried beans are a relatively simple dish, I've never cooked them much at home, so I flipped through some books and looked online to get ideas on how I might go about making my own. As you can imagine, that opened up a can—filled with worms, though, not beans. I found myself confronted with questions of bean types, aromatics in the bean pot, fats used for sautéing, mashing techniques, and more.
With so many beans at my disposal, this seemed like a great opportunity to try multiple methods, with the hope of determining which one is best. What I found, though, is that there's no one right way to make refried beans. It's more of a choose-your-own-adventure kind of thing. The key is to understand how each element affects the end result; once you know that, you can make whichever style of refried beans you want.
Pinto beans are the most common choice for refried beans. This is definitely true in Tex-Mex cooking, and from what I've read, they're a popular choice in Mexico too, though other bean varieties are also used there. If not pintos, black beans are the second most common choice—they're the bean of choice in Oaxaca, for example. I made batches with both to see how they compared.
When most of us think of refried beans, it's the pinto bean version that comes to mind, and for good reason: pinto beans make absolutely stunning refried beans. Cooked pinto beans have a slightly sweet, earthy flavor, and are plump, tender, and creamy, which means they mash easily and beautifully.
Black beans are smaller than pintos, and, even when thoroughly cooked, have a firmer consistency. Depending on the tool you use to mash them, they can be a little harder to crush, partly because of their firmness, and partly because they're small. With the potato masher that I used, for instance, they tended to slip through its grooves, which meant I had to spend a bit more time working them into a paste. Black beans don't have the same sweet note that pintos do, but they still make delicious refried beans.
At its essence, refried beans are just a really flavorful bean purée, and while pintos and black beans are the most common choices, there's no reason this basic method couldn't work with any bean. Other beans, like chickpeas and cannellini, may not make a particularly authentic-tasting plate of refried beans, but they'd still be totally delicious.
While the variety of bean has a major impact on how the dish will taste, what you cook the dried beans with is also important. Onion and garlic, at the very least, will add remarkable flavor to the pot. In Mexico, it's common to throw a couple large sprigs of an herb called epazote in as well.
It's difficult to describe its flavor, but when fresh it has a scent somewhere between oregano and menthol. As my batch of pintos with epazote cooked, its smell changed, becoming more subtle and shifting to a green smell, almost like cooked broccoli, along with a hint of dill. In the finished dish of refried beans, I found that the epazote enhanced the sweetness of the pintos. (It also supposedly lessens the gassy effects of beans, but I didn't really have a methodical way of testing that, which is probably for the better.)
I happen to live in a neighborhood where it's easy to find epazote, but if you can't, other herbs will work as well, adding their own distinct flavors. A test batch that I tried with oregano resulted in beans with a deeper, woodsier flavor. The one thing you don't want to do is cook the beans in plain water with no aromatics: mine came out tasting flat and dull, and the refried beans I made with them were noticeably less delicious as well.
Once the beans are cooked, the next step is to heat some type of fat in the pan, then cook onion and/or garlic in it, and finally add in the beans with some of their cooking water. Next to the beans themselves, the choice of fat has a profound impact on the dish.
Lard is the fat called for most in the recipes I looked at, and oh man is it good. I managed to get some really beautiful lard from a Mexican grocer near my apartment. It had a darker color than the pearly-white lard you tend to find in the supermarket, and it smelled and tasted like fried pork rinds, giving the beans a rich, porky flavor. I imagine the whiter lards out there might have a less pronounced flavor, which some folks might prefer.
Lots of recipes also call for bacon drippings, especially from the Tex-Mex tradition. The exact flavor they add will depend on the specific type of bacon you use. I just got some basic, thick-cut Oscar Mayer stuff from the supermarket, and rendered the fat from a few slices. For me, the bacon added a little too much smoky flavor, overwhelming the taste of the beans, though I think bacon fanatics may like it anyway. If you do want to use bacon drippings, I'd suggest diluting it with some vegetable oil to cut the strength.
As I sautéed my onions in the vegetable oil, I was convinced this was going to be my least favorite fat. It just didn't smell particularly flavorful at all. But once I had mashed the beans into it, I was pleasantly surprised by the result: all the other fats added a distinct character to the refried beans, but the vegetable oil stayed out of the way, making it possible to taste the pure, delicious flavor of the beans. So if you want to really taste the beans, a flavorless oil is the way to go.
I wouldn't have even thought of trying butter had I not seen it in the cookbook Zarela's Veracruz by Zarela Martinez. She apparently had been impressed enough by a version she tasted in Mexico to include it in the book. There's no denying that refried beans made with butter taste...different. At first I was really thrown by the flavor, a dairy richness that immediately says French food when you take a bite. But after a few more bites it started to grow on me. It's tasty and worth trying, though I wouldn't make it my default choice.
The Mash and its Consistency
Once the beans and some of their cooking liquid are in the pan, the next step is to mash them up. You can mash them by hand, or use an appliance like a stick blender or food processor, and each will give a distinctly different texture. If you're lucky enough to own a dedicated Mexican bean masher, more power to you. I don't, so I used a potato masher instead, mashing the beans directly in the pan. It can take a little while to get the beans mashed enough, but I loved the final, chunky texture. A stick blender made a smoother purée, which I can see being appealing for certain things.
The food processor was my least favorite. Not only did it leave more dishes to clean up, since it requires dirtying all the processor parts, it also chopped the beans to a texture I found less pleasant. Unlike hand-hand mashing, which left larger pieces of their skin intact, the food processor chopped up the skins, creating a rougher, grittier texture.
The final consistency is also a matter of taste. Some people like their refried beans soupier, while others like them as a thick paste. I like them both ways and select a consistency based on how I wanted to use them (smeared on a tortilla, for example, I'd prefer a paste so that it doesn't leak out, but served with rice I'd like it more wet so it could soak into the grains a little). Controlling the consistency is a matter of either adding more bean-cooking water if the beans are too thick and pasty, or cooking them longer if it's too wet.
Outside of the basic elements outlined above, some people choose to add other ingredients to their refried beans, though it isn't required. Cumin is a popular spice and can be ground and added to the fat while sautéing the onions. Some people like to add either fresh or dried chilis to the mix, sautéing the fresh ones in the fat or toasting the dried ones in a cast iron skillet until fragrant, then blending them into the purée. In Mexico, avocado leaves are another popular choice—you may be able to find them dried at a Mexican grocer. I've seen some recipes that call for adding them to the bean-cooking pot, and others that purée them into the mash at the end.
What About Canned Beans?
Since time-saving methods are always nice, I tried a batch using canned pintos. Because canned beans don't come with much bean-cooking liquid (and what's there isn't very flavorful), I supplemented it with low-sodium chicken broth. The short answer is, yes, you can use canned beans. The truth, though, is that they didn't compare to the batches made with beans that had been cooked from dried—the flavor wasn't as earthy or layered. With such a huge quantity of great refried beans to eat, I scraped the canned batch into the garbage.