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. *
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 his book “Nuestro mero mole”, Jesus Flores y Escalante states 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 appetisers, 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.
As if the number above did not make apparent how important beans are to Mexicans, know that in our homes there is always a pot of beans on the stove or ones in the refrigerator ready to be used. Because beans are such an integral part of our daily nourishment Mexican cooks take the process of simmering a pot of beans quite seriously. Each person has their own unique way of preparing them. Every thing from the preferred bean variety, the type of pot used to the seasonings can differ greatly from one cook to another. To prove my point I interviewed cooks in my family. Their responses were all different; some used pintos others peruvian or black beans, some used only salt as seasoning while others liked to use onion, garlic and/or fresh leaves of culantro or epazote. Additionally a few like to add a bit of oil to the pot and many preferred the traditional earthenware pot to cook their beans.
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).
Which Beans To Use
Walk into any market in Mexico and you’ll be happily greeted with a big choice of dried beans. (If you need to ask a vendor for the beans make sure you ask for the “frijol” of your choice, don’t use the word “frijoles” because that word is used to signify cooked beans only.) It is 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.
To make a basic pot of Mexican beans you can use dried pinto, peruano (also know as mayocoba) or black beans. Growing up my mom always used pintos, and that is what I like to use to, but different areas of Mexico have their preferred bean variety. What matters the most is that the beans be of good quality. When purchasing dried beans you want to 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. If your beans have holes then they’ve been 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.
(Leslie of La Cocina de Leslie likes to use peruano beans, check out her recipe here.)
Once you’ve chosen the bean variety it’s time to pick through them. This means that we need to inspect them for rocks, debris, and wrinkled, discoloured, damaged or beans with holes. We, of course, will throw those in the garbage and only keep the whole smooth-skinned ones.
To Soak or Not To Soak
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. It really isn’t necessary to soak beans because as long as you have the time to check on the pot now and then, there isn’t much else required.
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.) In my research I have found both people that believe this is true and those that do not. One reason I don’t like to pre-soak beans is because 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.
Another method people use to expedite the cooking process is the “quick-soak” method. This is done by bringing the dried beans to a boil, turning off the heat and allowed to sit for an hour before continuing to cook until soft. But this is what Saveur had to say about that, “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. “
Cooking Equipment To Use
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 flavour, but not everyone owns one so it’s perfectly fine to use a regular heavy pot to cook your Mexican beans.
My mother, like many other Mexican cooks, occasionally uses a pressure cooker to cook beans. She once had one explode and after seeing the results I forever swore off of pressure cookers. If you are experienced and comfortable with them, then go ahead an use it for a quick cooking method.
Seasonings: Salt, Epazote, Onions, Garlic, Chiles and Oil
This is another element in the frijol 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.
Salt: 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 soften 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.
Epazote or Other Herbs: 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 flavour 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. Half of my family members also mentioned adding a splash of oil to the pot. One cousin said she does so to prevent the beans from becoming sour and to last longer.
Ingredients To Be Cautious Of
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. If you choose to incorporate ingredients like lime, lemon, tomatoes, vinegar, etc., they 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.)
- 1 cup of dried pinto beans
- 1 small piece of white (Spanish) onion, skin removed
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 whole large Serrano or Jalapeño pepper, stem removed and optional
- splash of olive or vegetable oil of choice
- coarse or fine sea salt to taste
- 2-3 leaves of fresh epazote
- Pick through the beans and remove any debris, beans that have split or ones with holes. Throughly rinse and set aside. In a large pot heat a splash of oil, once warm sauté the serrano and onion just until the onion begins to brown and the chile blister— about 4 minutes. Next add the crushed garlic and sauté until it softens, careful not to burn the ingredients. Add the cleaned and rinsed beans into the pot then pour in enough water to cover the beans by 3 inches or 7.5 centimetres. Cover the pot and allow to simmer over medium heat until the beans have softened. Check on the pot now-and-then to make sure it has enough water, you'll need to add a bit more water from time to time.
- Once the beans have soften, or you can squeeze it between your fingers, add the epazote leaves and sea salt; I add about 1 tbsp of coarse sea salt. Allow to simmer over medium heat and uncovered for another 15 minutes. At this time the beans should be cooked through and the skins will easily slip off. Taste and adjust salt if desired. Make sure that there is plenty of broth leftover in case you want to use it for mashing or for soup/stew making. Remove onion, garlic, serrano pepper, and epazote leaves before serving or using the beans.
• Cooking time can depend on the quality of beans, drier ones will require longer simmering. Make sure to keep adding water so the pot does not dry out.
• Store the beans (once cooled) in the refrigerator in an airtight container. They will keep for about 1 week.
•Cooked beans also freeze 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.
I will be sharing my recipe (and many more tips) for refried beans in a couple of days. Epazato will also have it’s own special feature in the coming weeks (Update, read it here). Make sure you come back for both!