Mexican Cooking 101: Frijoles

Since pre-Hispanic times, Mexico has enjoyed having one of the legumes richest in flavor and nutritional properties in its diet: frijoles, or beans. Beans have been part of the Mexican diet per excellence; findings confirm that the bean was cultivated in Mesoamerica 8,000 years ago and that it was one of the main species that was integrated into the basic diet of indigenous cultures. Since then, the bean was already an important part of the indigenous economy, just as it continues to be today. 

Beans are a dish that we love because they are full of protein and carbohydrates, they are filling, inexpensive, and versatile, we can prepare them in a thousand ways! It is not for nothing that it is an almost invariable food in Mexican homes, making it a staple of the Mexican diet.

Cooking with beans makes for infinite applications within the Mexican kitchen since it can be served as breakfast accompanying scrambled eggs with chorizo, as an appetizer, as a soup, as a garnish for many main dishes or as a base for many typical Mexican foods. Beans are a product that can be used to prepare soup or salad; make sopes, tlacoyos, tostadas, enfrijoladas, or stuffed chiles. Furthermore, modern creative culinary minds have fashioned a wide variety of dishes and desserts, which are now part of Mexican cuisine.

To prepare all these dishes, however, it is necessary to cook the beans to soften them before any other marvelous preparation. The beans once cooked, are known in Mexico as frijoles de olla, or pot beans. This dish consists of a kind of thick soup that has whole beans immersed in a type of broth. It really is a simple recipe, but its flavor is extraordinary.

Though a slow process, some are afraid to cook it, which is why in this week’s blog we break down how to easily cook beans in 5 simple steps, starting with the basics: how to prepare beans in the traditional way, including some tricks to give them an authentic and delicious flavor. 

As you know, most legumes are consumed when they are hard. So how do you transform a stone-firm bean into a soft and creamy delicacy that goes well with everything? The answer is simple: water, time, and patience. So, with that in mind, let’s jump into these 5 easy steps to make delicious and authentic frijoles de olla!

Step 1: Sort and clean the beans.

Do this by placing a small quantity in a light-colored plate with plenty space to expand the beans and see through them. Using your hands separate the broken beans and search for any impurities such as debris, dirt, branches, and pebbles/stones.

Transfer the clean beans to a strainer where it will be easier to give a second rinse. Beans can come with lots of dirt, so make sure to give them a good cleanse to get rid of any impurities.

Step 2: Soak the beans.

Soaking beans has three main benefits: it reduces cooking time, reduces the water needed to cook, and makes them easier to digest by breaking down compounds in the beans that can cause gas.

To soak them, place the beans in a large bowl, cover with cold water, enough to cover them all plus about an inch or two more, and soak for at least 10 hours, or overnight. Once the beans are somewhat tender, drain them and transfer them to a strainer to rinse them under cold fresh water for one last time.

Step 3: Cook the beans

In a large pot put at least four times the liquid of the amount of beans you are going to cook. For example, 4 cups of water for every cup of beans. The beans should float freely around the pot at all times. Bring the beans to a boil over high heat. Remove the foam that accumulates on top.

Traditionally, clay pots are used to give the beans an earthy flavor, but you can use any pot that is large enough. This is your opportunity to add onion and cloves of garlic for flavor (for the above measurements, we’d use ½ onion and 2 garlic cloves). You can even chop and sauté the onion and garlic before the water and beans for a smokier flavor. You can also use your favorite kind of stock (or a combination of water and stock) instead of water.

Step 4: Simmer the beans.

Once the water starts boiling, reduce heat and simmer for 1-2 hours, until the bean is soft and creamy to the touch; move occasionally.

Check that everything is going well and add more water if necessary. While the beans are cooking, occasionally check that the water does not drop to the height of the beans. If the water level is too low, the beans at the top of the container will not cook as well as those at the bottom, or worse, they may burn. 

Step 5: Season the beans.

The best time to add seasoning to the beans is approximately 10-20 minutes before they are ready, or when you notice a few of the bean’s skin is starting to crack open.

To season the beans add salt and epazote, avocado leaf, laurel leaves, or holy leaf to your beans which will add a unique flavor.

According to our mothers and grandmothers, salt should be added last because of salt’s properties to retain liquids, which would cause the beans to not absorb water well, evenly, and fast, making them harder, too.
Similarly, the epazote, laurel, holy leaf, or avocado leaf provide the most delicious flavor, but this flavor can be lost if left long in the heat. 

They are ready!

Cooking times may vary depending on the type and maturity of the beans. Make sure they are soft enough to break apart with very little force. The best way to check if beans are ready is by taking them between your thumb and index finger and squeezing them lightly.

The beans are ready, now what?

There are many recipes for cooking with beans. Their stock, or liquid, alone is so full of nutrients that it is given to pregnant women in Mexico. To take advantage of the stock that remains in cooking, you can add chorizo, bacon and chili to make frijoles rancheros. If what you want is to make refried beans, put a little oil in a pan, sauté onions and garlic and add the beans. With a press, mash the beans and season. If you drain them and let them cool, they can be a great addition to salads.

Dare to experiment with beans; together with corn and chile, these are the three basics needed to learn for authentic Mexican cooking. So, what will you be making now that you know how to cook frijoles de olla? Would you like for us to share some recipes with beans? We’d love to hear from you!

Also, don’t forget to check out our Kitchen collection, we might have that special touch you are looking for in tabletops, linens, and serveware! Do you plan on making this or any other recipes soon? If so, we would love to see you in action! Please don't forget to tag us in your social media @Lolomercadito and subscribe to our mailing list so that we can continue sharing all the love!

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