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The Best Way to Make Black Beans Uses the Whole Can

Yep, even the liquid.


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beans in a bowl with spoon

Photo and Food Styling by Kendra Vaculin

Have you heard? Beans are cool now, especially the dried ones—which feels like a huge win for Big Dried Bean. The same features that used to make them a pantry last resort (takes forever, boring, a side dish at best) have been recast as ideal (meditative, homey, the backbone of a simple meal); now it seems like everyone’s got a pot going on their stove. I understand the allure and have absolutely simmered a brothy batch or two myself, but at heart, now and always, I am a canned bean evangelist.

In terms of convenience, canned beans can’t be beat; they're ready for use immediately, directly off the shelf. This means no soaking, no boiling, and best of all, no waiting. Sometimes I want to make hummus now and not in 12-14 hours. Sometimes I have 30 minutes between ZOOM calls for a WFH lunch. It is in these moments, and many others, that a can is where it’s at.

As for flavor, it’s true that a bean straight from the can can’t complete with the slow-cooked, aromatics-and-bacon-spiked variety. But with a bit of doctoring, canned beans transform into something so complex and versatile, you’d swear they took all day to make. When it comes to dressing up a can of black beans, in my house there’s one non-recipe recipe that rules them all: a smoky, sweet, and tangy mash that uses the whole can—even the liquid.


Smoosh black bean mash on a tortilla and you've got the foundation for a perfect taco. (Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Food Styling by Katherine Sacks)

The Very Best Black Beans In The World start like most good things: with onion and garlic. One small onion (or half of a big guy) plus two garlic cloves is all you need, finely chopped. If you have a small red pepper or a jarred roasted red pepper, chop that up too and add it to the mix. Then, sweat this sofrito in a bit of olive oil in a medium pot or skillet over medium heat until softened.

Once the vegetables are no longer crunchy, add the beans. This means the whole can, liquid and all, plus another half-can’s worth of either water or stock. Add this additional liquid to the can to measure and swirl it around to loosen whatever last beans might be stuck to the bottom before pouring it into the pot or pan.

Then we get our seasoning on. I like these beans taken in a vaguely Cuban direction, so I add ground cumin, ground coriander, and smoked paprika (between ¼ and ½ teaspoon of each), plus a good amount of salt and some freshly ground black pepper. Stir everything together and then let it cook down for a while, stirring occasionally and mashing with a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon, until thickened, with some broken down beans but still pretty chunky.

This process will take anywhere between five and 10 minutes depending on the size of pot or pan you’re working with, but be patient: Starting with what looks like too much liquid and letting it cook down slowly is what gives the finished product such a creamy consistency. If at any point the mixture starts to gurgle and pop too forcefully, or you can feel it sticking to the bottom of the pot as you stir, lower the heat slightly.

Finally, when you’ve hit the consistency you want (the mash will set up more as it cools), take your black beans off the heat and stir in equal parts honey and apple cider vinegar—I like about a tablespoon of each. Like Italian agrodolce, the combo of sweetness and acidity gives the beans a bit of something extra, a complexity that a can of beans has no business bringing to the table. I think it’s what takes this dish from average to undeniable.

A batch of The Very Best Black Beans is a pot full of potential. Smear some across a tortilla before building a taco or quesadilla; load up a burrito bowl with spiced rice, onions, and peppers; top a scoop with fried eggs and cheese; or eat the whole thing with chips and call it dinner. It’s sweet and savory, satisfying any time of day, and you even get a bit of that meditative stirring in. For me, it’s reason enough to be on Team Canned Beans for life.

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This post originally appeared on Epicurious and was published April 1, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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