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Dark Days Challenge: Perfect Pinto Beans

One of the most essential skills for anyone interested in making a delicious, low-cost meal is knowing how to make a tasty pot of beans.  Since I’ve decided to focus on basics here for a while, that means I’m about to tell you everything I know about them thar legumes.  Pull up a chair, people.  Get comfy.  Grab some guacamole.

This week for the Dark Days of Winter Challenge, the Unicyclist and I decided on tacos.  We’d scored local pinto beans through our CSA as well as at the Guadalupe Farmers’ Market, and we do so love a good taco.  Typically, we build ours with soft corn tortillas, black or pinto beans, salsa, guacamole, and a hearty handful of lettuce or spring greens.  I’ll give you the Unicyclist’s guacamole recipe later this week (your knees will melt), but let’s stick with the beans for now, ¿qué no?

I learned how to make a good pot of beans from one Afra Llamas, a woman with whom I worked for several years.  She was newly a U.S. citizen, originally from Mexico, and, baby, could that woman cook.  Silky arroz con leche, salsa so fresh and delicious that people would smuggle it out of parties in disposable cups, and pinto beans cooked to perfection.  I’d fussed and bothered over making good beans for quite some time, adding and removing onion, peppers, garlic, cumin, and all sorts of other goodies in order to make something drool-worthy.  Finally, in a stroke of inspiration triggered by a morning potluck catered by Afra Llamas, I had the brilliant idea of just asking her.  It turns out that making perfect beans is less about ingredients than it is about technique.  Remember that, people.  Play with the ingredients if you want, but if you fuss with the technique, I make no promises.

Saucy Pinto Beans

This recipe calls for the use of a pressure cooker, a potato masher, and a mortar and pestle.  For a natural foods cook, these are wonderful additions to the kitchen.  Please consider picking up these items if you don’t already have them.  The pressure cooker is especially helpful, and despite some urban (and suburban) legends, perfectly safe to use if you follow three very simple directions: make sure the lid is properly sealed when you use it, always use a wooden spoon or some such implement other than your fingers to release the pressure without getting steam burns, and never, ever take the lid off without first releasing ALL the pressure.  I heart my pressure cooker 4eva.  Eight years and no casualties.

Ingredients (6-8 servings)

3 cups dried pinto beans

water to cover them

2 T high-heat oil (I used grapeseed oil)

2-3 small dried red peppers, crushed in a mortar and pestle or briefly buzzed in a spice grinder (I used 4 tiny chiltepines and a chile japonés today)


The night before your taco-fest, sort through 3 cups dried pinto beans by pouring them on the counter and picking through them for small stones.  (Trust me, if you eat many beans, you will eventually find some stones.  It’s much better to find them on the table during a sort than to crack a molar during dinner.)  Sweep the sorted beans into a pressure cooker, cover them with water, swirl them well to wash, and pour off the water.  If the water was very cloudy and you think the beans would benefit from another washing, go for it.  Otherwise, cover them with water so the water is double or a little more past the height of the beans and let them soak for about 8 hours.

If the beans are at or above the water level, add enough that there is a good inch of water above the top of the beans.  Although some people change the water at this point, keeping it will give your beans a richer flavor.  I always keep it.  Put the lid on the pressure cooker, seal, and bring to a boil over medium to high heat.  (This only takes about 5 minutes, so don’t wander off.)  When you hear the pressure cooker first start hissing, immediately turn the pressure down to low (I put my stove on 2) and let it simmer for 20 minutes.  As soon as the 20 minutes are up, pull it off the heat and let it sit for 15-20 minutes to finish cooking.  Do not release the pressure during these 15-20 minutes.

After it has sat, release the pressure as described in your pressure cooker owner’s manual and check to make sure the pintos are nice and soft.  If they need a bit more cooking, make sure to do that.  At this point, you can either store the beans to finish preparing later, or you can go ahead and finish them up.  (Please note: If you put the cooked beans in the fridge before they have been finished, you will want to warm them briefly on the stove before continuing for best results.)

Turn on the hood fan above your stove.  (Trust me on this, unless you want a faceful of pepper gas.)  In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add the grapeseed oil and heat over medium-high until it’s nice and hot.  Add the crushed chiles (and a sprinkle of whole cumin seeds, if you like) and swirl them in the oil until they brown, but don’t let them get dark.  At this point, scoop a nice big ladleful of beans from your pressure cooker, leaving behind as much of the liquid as possible.  Drop the beans in with the oil and chiles and let them sizzle for a few seconds.  This is what is going to make your beans oh-so-delicious.  Add another ladleful of beans and use the potato masher to smash them.  Continue adding beans, a ladle or two at a time, and smashing them with your mighty spud masher, adding more bean liquid as necessary until you’ve mashed the whole pot.  Keep in mind that your beans should be soft, but neither runny nor gloppy.  Hint: If you put them on a plate, they shouldn’t pool like soup or glob up like mashed potatoes, but they should spread into a soft, smooth mound.  Add salt to taste.

Turn down the heat to low, warm up some tortillas, grab the greens and guacamole, and call the dinner guests.  Soup’s on!

I use this same method for black beans, minus the mashing.  Equally tasty.  Technique, m’dears, technique.  Give it a try.  Life is short, and beans are delicious.

By the way, these beans were conventional AZ pintos from the farmers’ market, selling for .79/lb. The three cups of dried beans themselves cost all of 1.00. Adding the oil and spices, you can tack on maybe a quarter. Organic corn tortillas run .99/dozen. Pile on greens from the garden, a spoonful of salsa, and guacamole (avocado is at 2/$1 right now) with garden cilantro, and you’ve got a doggone fine dinner for less than one dollar per person.


9 Comments so far

  1. Chris February 22nd, 2009 8:54 pm

    I doubt I’ve ever read such a detailed and knowledgeable discourse on the art of beans. But I can safely say that I needed every last bit of information because I am practically clueless when it comes to making them. They’ve never been one of my favorites and if I feel like using them, I just go for the canned. But because I’ve been craving tacos, these techniques seem well worth the effort. Thanks for the tips!

  2. Laurel February 22nd, 2009 10:07 pm

    Call it the Simple Spoonful Beanifesto.

    We eat so many beans this way, it’s not even funny. It is, however, really delicious, especially with guacamole. That recipe’s coming this week. And it is really knee-meltingly-good with these beans.

    Stay tuned…

  3. Mangochild February 23rd, 2009 2:15 am

    I’ve always cooked beans in the pressure cooker, I think it might be one of the “norms” in my background that’s I’m always surprised to learn some get worried about them. Preparing them on my own, well, it just tastes so much better than canned. Your recipe looks great – and I have local pinto beans to use!

  4. Jill, The Veggie (and pressure cooker) Queen February 23rd, 2009 7:34 am

    What a wonderful post on two of my favorite subjects — beans and the pressure cooker. I like my tacos just the same way.

    If people are afraid of the old jiggle-top type cookers (and you can include me in that camp), they can buy a new spring-valve type which is fool-proof. Just ask me, I teach many fools how to use them without incident in 13+ years.

    You did give the most important instructions about how to use an old style cooker — follow important directions. Most accidents are because people get impatient.

    I am going to make your beans this morning, now that you’ve inspired me for what to put in my pressure cooker today.

    Great post.

  5. kirbysmom February 23rd, 2009 8:39 am

    You make me wanna run out and buy a pressure cooker!

  6. pam February 23rd, 2009 2:13 pm

    I have been searching for the perfect beans for tacos and I think I may have just found it!

  7. [...] cooking skill (I agree). This week she made the beans taught to her by a former coworker – saucy pinto beans. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been searching for the perfect method for years and [...]

  8. Edie March 7th, 2009 10:28 am

    Our house eats beans in many ways…red beans, pinto beans, navy beans, black beans, etc. In lue of the pressure cooker, I use a dutch oven–although the pressure cooker will significantly lessen the cooking time. For me, that’s half the fun! Nothing like Mondays for Red Beans and Rice.

  9. Laurel March 10th, 2009 7:20 am

    I agree–hooray for beans!

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