What Exactly Are Refried Beans (And Do They Need To Be Fried)?

Refried beans, known in its home country of Mexico as frijoles refritos, are one of the most iconic Mexican dishes. That said, many people wonder why exactly it's called refried beans. Understandably, most people assume that means frying the beans twice, but that's not really accurate. The real reason behind the strange name is a classic case of mistranslation.

In Mexican Spanish, the prefix "re" is an informal slang that basically means "very" or "well". When Mexican people say "frijoles refritos", it roughly translates to "well-fried beans", which is more fitting given the high heat used for the frying part of refried beans. The borders of language have caused quite a misunderstanding among many newbies to Mexican cuisine.

While it's true that refried beans aren't actually double-fried, you do cook them twice, albeit with two very different methods. The beans are soaked in water for eight to 10 hours until soft, boiled (sometimes with garlic and herbs), mashed, then finally fried on a piping hot skillet with some oil. The results are a delectably chunky yet smooth puree of deliciously spiced beans. Mistranslated name aside, few dishes capture the essence of Mexican cuisine quite like frijoles refritos.

Refried beans are a staple of Mexican cuisine

When making refried beans, you have several options such as the Peruano or red kidney beans. Chef Rick Bayless, who specializes in regional Mexican cuisine, provides other bean options, saying, "Oftentimes, I use black beans as they do in the southern part of Mexico, but now we can do a sort of northern version with pinto beans." 

Restauranteur Arnie Segovia revealed the secret to perfect refried beans. He said, "Whenever you go to a Mexican restaurant, and you wonder why their beans are so delicious and what is it that they do to those beans, the secret is right here my friends. It's lard." Lard kicks up the flavor of the beans and gives them a meatier flavor profile, but it also makes the dish unhealthier as a result. However, there are healthier options.

As a non-traditional healthy alternative, Chef Ellie Krieger of Healthy Appetite uses "chicken broth and lots of other spices to boost up the flavors and texture". As for oil, Krieger opts for the healthier olive oil, as opposed to lard. Lastly, whether you're making a healthy or not-so-heathy version of refried beans, it's always best to buy dried beans when possible. Canned beans are packed with sodium, and you have no control over the amount that's in the can. Buying your own beans lets you control how salty you want them, as well as any other flavors you want to include.