Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Proper Way to Soak and Cook Beans AND My Secret To Perfect Refried Beans

Long before I knew that the quality of a margarita was paramount to the the success of a Mexican restaurant, there was this little place in Memphis called Molly’s La Casita. There may still be a Molly's downtown on Central Ave, though I am not sure if it is open today. We would frequent the Park and Mendenhall location before it shuttered in the early Ninties.

Like the routine loving child that I was, I would always order the exact same thing at Molly's, the Tres Tacos. Three crispy tacos of seasoned ground beef with Mexican red rice and the most ridiculous refried beans imaginable. I can still imagine the taste, but I could not ever find a replacement to them. A nice dark brown color, they were the right balance of meaty and salty. They were ever so slightly pasty but the beans still held their shape creating a balance of texture. They did not reduce to a soupy one note sauce as many lazier restaurants' beans do. Molly's sublime legumes defined refried beans in my mind and virtually all my subsequent encounters with the side dish have been met with abject disappointment.

Recently I have unlocked the secret to these beans, these pearls of protein. Lard.

Yup. Sorry to burst your bubble. You were expecting paprika maybe? Lard is the secret of the best refried beans imaginable. But lard needn’t scare you. It is not any higher in fat than butter or olive oil. And many people are surprised to learn that lard is highest in monounsaturated fats, though it does contain some saturated fat like all fats do. Lard from ethically treated pastured animals is also high in Vitamin D. It is not a fat to be feared. But lard is tricky. Although it is an animal fat many manufacteurers hydrogenate lard to make it more shelf stable. And hydrogenation is bad. So few people are buying and cooking with lard these days that it is much better to render your own. Any butcher could get quality leaf lard for you. I order mine from Lewis-Waite Farm. It freezes well and the rendered fat keeps in the fridge indefinitely. And while my recipe isn’t necessarily authentic (I don’t know, maybe it is! I just kind of made it up), this warm-your-bones side dish is a great accompaniment to a lean meat dish!

Refried Beans
2 pounds of dried pinto beans, or a combination of pinto and kidney beans
Salt to taste (I used around 1-2 tablespoon)
1/4-1/3 cup of rendered leaf lard
Optional sliced onion, garlic, cumin, paprika and black pepper

Stay with me...the following recipe is longer than it needs to be. But I am specific for a reason.

Start by soaking your beans. It takes times. Properly soaked beans not only digest better, allowing your body to access the nutrition better, but proper soaking and long slow cooking helps to de-gas those beans as they work their way through your tummy. The Weston Price Foundation has a wonderful article on exactly how to soak beans called Putting the Polish on Those Humble Beans In it Catherine Czapp schools us on the proper temperature for your soaking water and why that is. I will attempt to recreate that here.

Start by placing a medium sized pot of water on the stove stop, about 10-12 cups. Take your beans and place them in a collander. Wash them thoroughly and remove any dirt, sticks or rocks. Transfer your beans to a large bowl. When the water begins to form tiny bubbles on the bottom of the pot but BEFORE it begins to boil, take the pot off the heat and pour it over your beans. Although the water is hot, you should be able to touch it without burning your hand. If it feels like a comfortable warm bath your water is not hot enough. If your hand burns upon touching the water, it is too hot. By the way, please use your common sense. Please DO NOT stick your hand in a pot of boiling water. I am absolutely not advocating that.

Once you've added your hot water, stir the beans and allow then to soak. Drain the soaking water and repeat the process 3-4 times over the course of 24 hours. After a day of soaking they will feel springy like fresh, uncooked beans.

Drain the final batch of soaking water and place them in a Dutch oven or large pot. Cover them with cold water and put them on to boil. To the pot place add half a sliced onion, one to two minced garlic cloves, paprika and cumin, a good tablespoon of salt and freshly cracked black pepper. If I was a better blogger I would have written down all the measurements. But I don't really measure as I cook. Oh well, I will make that as a goal for NEXT year. Let the beans come to a boil and then turn down the heat to a simmer. As they cook you can add more water if you need. You want to avoid a roiling boil or else the beans will cook too fast and the beans will be GASSY! Give yourself several hours to cook them. A crock pot is also a wonderful thing to use to cook the beans slowly. But whenever I use use a crock pot to cook beans I always end up finishing them on the stove top....but more on that later.

When the beans are cooked through and very soft, taste them for seasonings. Add more salt as needed. Remember you can always add more, but you can't take any away. Turn the heat on higher to evaporate any water. The higher boil will also begin to break up the beans. Stir the pot and they will break up more. That is what you can't get from a crock pot. The crock pot gets the beans soft, but it doesn't break them up. That's why I always finish them on the stovetop. When they are the right consistency, kinda pastey kinda spreadable but not destroyed, heat up a good heavy pan. And throw in your lard.

Melt your lard. When it gets hot enough to fry, spoon in your beans slowly. Stir them around to incorporate the fat. Add more water or adjust the seasonings.

And there you have it, refried beans. Meaty. Salty. Amazing with tacos. Not slightest bit vegetarian. Use the leftovers to make chili, or throw them over eggs with hot sauce for fantastic huevos rancheros. Or just eat them over rice with sensual slices of avocados. But please please please whatever you do, don't substitute the fat. It is lard, or it just isn't as good.

This post is shared with Traditional Tuesdays and Real Food 101 and Real Food Wednesdays and Healthy 2Day Wednesdays and Simple Lives Thursday and Fight Back Fridays and Momtrend's Friday Food Link


  1. What is "rendered leaf lard?" I don't think I know what that means!

  2. Thank you for the detailed instructions! I tend to use canned beans because the whole soaking process is intimidating (and I don't plan that far in advance) but I look forward to trying this. Only one question... How do you render lard?

  3. Good questions Andrea and Jen. Leaf lard is like a cut of meat that is all fat. I believe it comes from the back or loin area and has a less gamey taste than other cuts of pork fat. Rendering lard is only slightly more challenging than melting a stick of butter. I wrote about it last Spring...


  4. I lived in New Mexico during my college years and have perfected my refried beans. They take a fraction of the time and taste muy authenico. I agree that soaking is key, but I have never bothered with any particular water temperature (doesn't a pot of any temperature water will become room temperature after hours on the counter?), so this almost boiling (which you suggest we do 3-4 times, did I read that right??) seems like a crazy waste of time! I can tell you from multiple first hand accounts that perfect re-frito beans come from 3 things:
    1) 12-24 hrs of soaking
    2) PRESSURE COOKER! <---- why would you waste hours of time when you could have beans ready in 45 mins that taste just as good as all-day simmered beans? Hence the reason every Mexican household has a much-used one of these.
    3) Lard or bacon fat

    For me, my effort is going to the process that doesn't require me to stick fingers in almost-boiling water 3-4 times, then watch the beans "almost" boil for a few hours, for the same yummy beans that I can get in 45 mins (plus pressure cookers are amazing scientific tools and you should use them because it's like an experiment every time).

  5. I'm surprised you are using leaf lard, I'd think you'd want the pork-y flavor from the backfat or other lards.

  6. Thanks for sharing!I have beans in my crockpot right now for refried beans tonight. I haven't found a local source of lard yet, so we'll use butter. I didn't know I was supposed to soak the beans in hot water. I've always soaked them like I do my grains - in a bunch of water with a little bit of vinegar. I have to soak overnight (I work all day, so I can't tend to the beans every few hours) so I can't change them out over and over. I may have to consider this new method now - and start eating beans on the weekends when I have time to mind them.

  7. TOTALLY agree! the world is a much better place when you're eating lard - I realize I live on an organic meat farm and have access to lots of it, but still. IT's so full of vit d3 - pigs store it under their skin, you know that, right? - and I think eating converted sunlight makes everything bettah!

  8. Liberty, Eating converted sunlight? I love that!! What a great thought!

  9. Thank you for this article! Very helpful and although I've been making my own refried beans for years, I never really had such a great way to soak them like you've described. I guess when I read NT, I didn't pay enough attention!

  10. FYI....Leaf Lard is the white fat around the kidneys.... ; )

  11. alszambrano, don't put acids like vinegar (or tomatoes) in your beans until the last stages of cooking. It makes the beans hard and takes longer to cook (believe me, I know this from personal experience!). 1/4 tsp. of baking soda in the soaking water will speed the soaking process without messing up the taste. The skins will split and the beans "break up," as described in the post, much more easily.

  12. Just ate at Molly's last night, but it has been on Madison for over 30 years. the beans are still the best in the world!