Old School Beans in Mexico

After our first experience cooking beans in a clay olla last Sunday, I admit I still have much to learn. We ended up with some very good tasting beans, but there were issues along the way, some of which we can fix, but others that we can’t and will have to figure out a way around.

Last week we bought both an olla frijolera and a kilo (2.2 pounds) of flor de mayo beans. Sunday afternoon Brett and I sat down and sorted through all the beans, removing several small pebbles, a few small twigs, and any bean that looked suspicious (moldy, mis-colored, etc.). For one person this would have been a tedious task, but the two of us had the sorting done in a short time. The beans were then placed in a colander and washed.

We sorted by taking small handful of beans from the bowl on the left, spreading them out on a solid blue plate and removing anything that shouldn’t be there (rocks, twigs, discolored beans, etc.) and putting the good beans onto the blue and white plate. It took two of us around 20 minutes to sort through a kilo of beans.

I used the recipe for cooking the beans I had found in this informative post about some of the varieties of beans available in Mexico and how to prepare them. I chopped up half an onion and four large cloves of garlic, put them in the bottom of the olla and added some olive oil, placed the washed beans on top, covered everything with water, placed the pot on the stove, and turned the heat to the lowest possible flame, which turned out to be not all that low.

Washing off the sorted beans; chopped onion, garlic, and olive oil in the bottom of the pot; beans covered with water; beans cooking on the lowest flame available

I knew in a very short time that I was trying to cook w-a-y too many beans in our small olla as they quickly swelled and moved closer to the top, ready to spill over. I removed enough to overfill a bowl; those beans went into the freezer and will be cooked later. The beans in the pot were covered with more water and continued to cook.

These swelled beans had to be taken from the pot because it was ready to overflow. They’ll get cooked later.

We were expecting it to take around two hours for the beans to cook due to the altitude, but because of the amount of beans remaining in the olla it took a little over three hours until they were soft. Also, because the flame was too high the water continually boiled off quickly, and we were constantly having to add water; a lidded pot might have worked better. The design of the pot and the number of beans also made it somewhat difficult to stir the beans at the bottom, and in the end some were scorched, but not enough to ruin the pot or the rest of the beans.

We finished our first bean experience with a gallon Ziplock bag of some very delicious beans! Cooking in the clay pot definitely gave the beans a good flavor, far better than anything I’ve ever had cooked in a metal pan or from a can.

Making frijoles refritos. Mine ended up somewhat lumpy as we do not have a potato masher in the apartment, but they were still very tasty. I followed Don Day’s recipe but added the juice from 1/2 a lime at the end. The beans that had gotten scorched in the pot also added a subtle smoky flavor to the finished beans.

I used three cups of the beans i cooked to make refried beans (substituting olive oil for lard) on Monday and used them in some simple tacos for dinner that night and huevos rancheros on another night – delicious! We will be using the leftover beans in other dishes or as a side. Kept in a sealed bag they will store well in the refrigerator, up to a month or so.

Frijoles refritos tacos with pico de gallo, avocado, and cilantro . . .
. . . huevos rancheros

We’ll try cooking a fresh batch of beans when this one is gone and will use some of the lessons learned from our first try:

  • We won’t try to cook so many beans at once! Half or a quarter kilo or so at a time will be enough.
  • Although soaking is not necessary, it will lessen the cooking time.
  • A lower cooking heat would be better, but since we can’t go any lower on our stove here, we’ll need to watch the beans move carefully.
  • As the beans cook, we’ll trying covering the top of the pot with a plate so the water doesn’t boil off so quickly, and creates some pot liquor.
  • Beans cooked in a clay pot taste far superior to those from a can or made in a saucepan or pressure cooker!

14 thoughts on “Old School Beans in Mexico

  1. Interesting! Cooking beans is more about the technique than the recipe, isn’t it?
    One thing I’ve learned in my experience with cooking beans is that if I replenish the pot with cold water while beans are cooking, it stalls the cooking process, and then it takes longer for beans to cook. Instead, I keep some hot water in the kettle to add to the pot if necessary. Another step I take is to parboil the beans for about 15 minutes. It helps to make the beans easier to digest. I drain them and put them back in the pot in hot water and continue cooking. I don’t soak them, I prefer to parboil them instead. I usually cook 2 cups ( which is aprox half kilo) in 4 cups of water and simmer. If you could find any sort of clay disc or metal disc that you can place under your pot, straight over the flame, it would prevent the dish to stick and scorch. Regardless, you’ll get better at cooking your beans by learning as you go. That clay pot is darling!


    1. It really is all about technique, complicated here by the altitude and having a stove without a simmer setting. Thank you for the parboil idea – I may give that a try next time. Our neighbor brought up her “flame tamer” (ceramic stones on an iron base) and told us to try that next time as well. Our housekeeper told me today that our pot was the perfect size for two people!


      1. Flame tamer…what do I say? I learn something new every day. Your housekeeper knows best, that pot is a keeper. For some reason, food cooked in clay pots tastes better. I adore the clay pot dishes served in Thai restaurants- Osha in San Francisco is wonderful if you ever find yourselves in the city.


  2. OK, I don’t have a clay pot, but this makes me want to cook the bags of dried beans in my pantry. I have an ancient family recipe from one of my aunts that ends up as a huge pot of baked beans at family gatherings. We soak them overnight, then add some baking soda (I think?) and boil them briefly in the morning, and then finally drain and start cooking them. I think I’ll just do basic beans first…much more flexible for the end product. 😂


    1. The clay pot really gives beans a distinctive flavor. I am really looking forward to trying it again, but with fewer beans, either soaking or parboiling first, and the using the “flame tamer” our neighbor shared with us. I have learned that almost everyone living in our complex has bought their own new stove (even if they’re renting!) to get more control over the heat.


      1. Wow…interesting. I haven’t heard of a flame tamer, but I can see how that would be really helpful. A couple of my burners are not large enough when I need multiples. Maybe that would help…


      2. I learned about them when I sold cookware back in the early 90s, but have never needed one until now. Our neighbor loaned me hers for the next time I cook beans.


    1. In any other oven than the one we have that might be a very good idea, but I don’t think our oven goes to less than 300 degrees. It’s the hottest stove/oven I’ve ever used!


    1. They are delicious – in spite of all the problems I had making them, I’m really happy with how they ultimately turned out and how they taste. Can’t wait to make a new batch, but first have to finish the ones I made this last time.


  3. As I was reading your post I immediately thought “flame tamer”. Many good minds with the sane idea!


    1. Never needed one until now but the lowest flame on our stove is what we’d consider a medium or medium low in the U.S. My cooking techniques have had to change, but if we come back a flame tamer is coming along with us!


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