The Perfect Pot of Pinto Beans
Having lived in Texas for more than ten years, I began to feel a little ashamed that I didn't know how to make a simple staple of tex-mex cuisine - beans. After all, they seem simple enough. An excellent source of high quality fiber and protein, pintos can be combined with rice or cornbread to make a nutritious, soul satisfying meal - not to mention they are very inexpensive.
So why is dealing with a bag of dry beans a bit daunting to some?
Time. Beans are easy. The only difficult thing about making a perfect pot of beans is patience. Cooking pinto beans takes time. But with a little planning, you can prepare an inexpensive, delicious meal large enough to feed the masses.
I set out to overcome my fear of our little dry friends. I consulted the experts - people who had grown up in Mexico and learned how to cook beans from their grandmothers and great grandmothers. What secrets did I uncover?
First, dried beans need rehydration. There are several methods of soaking beans. I find the easiest method is to plan ahead and soak your beans overnight.
Start by spreading your beans out in a large pot and sorting out any inedibles (yes, sometimes a few, ahem, rocks and such can make it into a bag of beans). Some people take out the "ugly" beans as well, but you can eat those, too.
Put the beans into a colander and rinse them for a couple of minutes to remove any dirt from the outside. Move them to a large container, and cover them with twice the amount of water as beans. Then, the hardest step....wait. Just check the beans occasionally to be sure they are still covered in water.
After the beans have soaked overnight, pour off the water and rinse them again. Now you have clean, plump, happy beans - but not quite happy enough. It's time to add the flavor.
What you choose to flavor your perfect beans with is up to your personal taste. Traditional beans are flavored with some type of meat - bacon, ham hock, ham - I've even seen hot dogs used. I chose bacon for my beans. One trick - I discovered that you must fry your bacon before adding it to your beans. Frying creates those lovely brown notes associated with bacon. If you use raw bacon the flavor of the bacon just won't come out.
Next, decide how you would like to cook your beans. Certainly stove top boiling is fine, but I like the easiest, most carefree method - the crockpot. Throw your beans in a crockpot and you can forget them until mealtime. If you cook them in a crockpot, it takes about 4 hours on high for them to become tender.
Put your soaked beans and fried bacon in the crockpot. Drain a little of the fat from the bacon pan, saving those flavorful bits in the bottom of the pan. Using whatever liquid you'd like to cook your beans in - water, stock, beer - pour a cup or so of liquid into the bacon pan and get to deglazing!
When you have removed all of the yummies from your fry pan, pour the goodness into your crockpot. Add more liquid to bring the level up to about an inch above the beans.
Turn the crockpot on high, cover....and wait. Or not. Now is the time you can think about what additional seasoning you want in your beans.
You might be wondering why I don't recommend putting the seasoning in while the beans are cooking. First, too much salt in your beans will keep them from becoming tender. Second, you're going to be cooking these beans for awhile. Add seasoning now, and most of it will cook away.
Traditional seasoning is usually just a bit of garlic and onion, lots of salt, and pepper. Dried seasoning works well in beans, but if you prefer fresh garlic and onion, sauté them and add them to your crockpot about 30 minutes before you're ready to eat.
Other seasonings include:
Sugar - brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses - if your beans taste a little bitter, add just a bit of sweetener. Not enough to make them sweet, but just enough to cut the bitter notes.
Pepper - jalapeno, serrano, if you're adventurous, habanero. Chili pepper or cumin can be used as well, but just be careful you don't end up cooking a pot of chili without the meat.
Hot Sauce - your favorite fiery hot sauce can add multiple dimensions to your beans versus the heat you get from straight pepper.
Tomato - sauce, fresh, rotel - any of these will add a different twist to beans.
Cilantro - add just before serving your beans, or sprinkle on top after plating.
While your beans are cooking in the crockpot just check them now and then. As long as they are still covered in water, they're doing fine. The only way to really mess them up is to let them go dry.
When your beans are tender and you're almost ready to eat, add the seasoning to the pot. Traditional ranchero beans still have a lot of liquid in them, almost like bean soup. You can make your beans as soupy or thick as you like by adjusting the amount of liquid you add in the beginning. Remember, most of the liquid you add to a crockpot is going to stay put and not evaporate.
My last trick to share with you - the last little secret - is how to make your bean sauce creamy. When your beans are ready to eat, take out about a cup of beans and put them in a food processor or mash them by hand. Return them to your pot. Voila, or, Ole - creamy pinto beans!
You can set your crockpot to warm when your beans are done and they will continue to mature in flavor. Beans just keep getting better with time. Leave them in the kitchen with some rice or cornbread on the side and let your family and friends help themselves. Set out some shredded cheese and sour cream for indulgent toppings.
Did I really tell you how to make the perfect pot of beans? Not exactly. But hopefully I shared enough tips so you can create the perfect pinto recipe of your own.
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© 2008 Melissa Althen