How To Transform a Can of Beans into the Best Refried Beans

updated Jul 27, 2020
The Best Homemade Refried Beans

Here's how to transform a can of pinto beans into creamy, smoky refried beans.


Prep5 minutes to 10 minutes

Cook30 minutes

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Refried beans topped with cotija cheese and cilantro in a blue ceramic bowl with vintage spoon
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Refried beans equate to comfort for me, the same way lugaw (filipino rice porridge) and mac and cheese do. I love a bean and cheese burrito, and I especially love an enchilada plate with a side of rice and beans — the cheese gooey and melted over my beans. I always mix my rice into the beans laced with enchilada sauce and shovel it all into my mouth at once.

Because I grew up in a town 50 miles from the Mexican border, refried beans are a part of my life fabric. I have early memories of ordering them at Mexican restaurants with my family and, as I got older, eating at the drive-thru taco and burrito shops that dot the Southern California landscape. But ever since I left — first for Seattle, and later New York — that particular style of Mexican food has been hard to come by, and rarely lives up to my memories. 

I tried canned refried beans and they weren’t the same, and for a long time I’d never attempted to make them from scratch. But a few years ago, I learned the very best way to make them, and it yields more delicious results than I ever thought possible. Today, I’m sharing my version of that recipe with you.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Discovering the Best Homemade Refried Beans

My introduction to homemade refried beans came when I was working in a test kitchen alongside my friend Rick Martinez, a cook, food writer, and effervescent video host with a love of Mexican cuisine. One day, Rick’s father came to visit us and made refried beans for breakfast. One bite brought tears to my eyes. They were deeply savory, slightly smoky, and rich, and immediately transported me back to the hundreds of times I’ve been comforted by eating beans. They were the best refried beans I’ve ever had.

Today, I’m sharing the closest thing I can to what I experienced that day in the test kitchen. My version is expedited, made from a can of pinto beans and just a handful of ingredients, but just as savory and smoky. Here’s how to do it.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Making Refried Beans from a Can of Pinto Beans

While I love cooking dried beans, more often than not I need to feed my hangry bunch ASAP — which is why this recipe begins with a can of pinto beans. Judging by the way they disappeared from the skillet in my home, you won’t be disappointed.

To give the beans their smoky flavor, you’ll start by cooking bacon until crisp, leaving a little in the pan to cook the aromatics and reserving the rest to stir into the beans later. If you’re a vegetarian, omit the bacon and add a little smoked paprika; start with 1/4 teaspoon and work your way up from there.

As the aromatics cook in oil (for vegetarians) or the bacon fat, open up two cans of pinto beans and pour off some of bean liquid, which you’ll mix with water and then add to the skillet with the bacon. Once it’s simmering, add the beans and remaining liquid in the can and return to a simmer. The bean liquid adds creaminess, mimicking the starchy cooking liquid you’d get if you were to cook dried beans from scratch.

Just before serving, you’ll stir the reserved bacon fat into the beans and mash until broken down. Enjoy warm and, if you’re like me, wrapped into a bean and cheese burrito.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell
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Here's how to transform a can of pinto beans into the very best refried beans.

The Best Homemade Refried Beans

Here's how to transform a can of pinto beans into creamy, smoky refried beans.

Prep time 5 minutes to 10 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes

Serves 4

Nutritional Info


  • 4 ounces

    thick-cut bacon (4 to 5 slices)

  • 2 cloves


  • 1/2

    medium yellow onion

  • 1/2

    medium green bell pepper

  • Kosher salt

  • 2 (about 15-ounce) cans

    pinto beans

  • Vegetable oil

  • Chopped cilantro leaves and crumbled cotija cheese, for serving


  • Medium regular or cast iron skillet

  • Slotted spoon

  • Cutting board

  • Chef’s knife

  • Can opener

  • Small heatproof bowl

  • Potato masher

  • Liquid measuring cup

  • Wooden spoon


  1. Chop the ingredients. Chop 4 ounces thick-cut bacon into 1/2-inch pieces. Finely chop 2 garlic cloves, 1/2 medium yellow onion (about 1/2 cup), and 1/2 medium green bell pepper (about 1/2 cup).

  2. Cook the bacon. Place the bacon in a medium regular or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Cook until the bacon is crisp, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a small plate. Pour the bacon fat into a small heatproof bow, leaving a small amount in the pan to cook aromatics.

  3. Cook the aromatics. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, and a pinch of kosher salt to the skillet and cook over medium heat until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the beans.

  4. Reserve some bean liquid. Open 2 cans pinto beans. Pour off 1/3 cup bean liquid into a liquid measuring cup; keep the remaining beans and bean liquid in the cans. Add enough water to the measuring cup to reach 1 cup.

  5. Add the bean liquid, beans, and bacon. Add the bean-water mixture and reserved bacon to the skillet. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the beans and the remaining bean liquid from the cans. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook until the liquid has reduced by half or you can briefly see the bottom of the skillet when you stir, about 15 minutes.

  6. Add the bacon fat and oil. Pour the reserved bacon fat into a measuring cup and add enough vegetable oil to reach 1/4 cup. Add the oil mixture to the beans and stir until combined.

  7. Mash the beans. Reduce the heat to low. Mash the beans with a potato masher until most of the beans are broken down. The final texture should be a lumpy mash that’s still runny enough to pour. If the beans are too thick, stir in water a little at a time. Taste and season with kosher salt as needed. Top with chopped cilantro leaves and crumbled cotija for serving

Recipe Notes

Store in an airtight container for up to three days.

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