12 Ways To Upgrade Store-Bought Refried Beans

Good refried beans are delicious. But canned store-bought varieties are often subpar. They can be relatively tasteless, too thick and gloopy, or one-note without any texture. And sure, you can make refried beans from scratch, but sometimes you want the convenience of picking up a can at the store. Whether you want to serve refried beans as a side, eat them in tacos or burritos, use them to top nachos, or add them to a layered dip, you can make store-bought varieties much better with a few simple upgrades.

There are many ways to upgrade store-bought refried beans and the method you use might depend on the problem you're having with them. If they're too thick, you can make adjustments like adding milk, broth, or sour cream. If they're lacking in flavor, herbs and spices, chile peppers, and hot sauce can go a long way. If you want to add a combination of flavor and texture, you can add caramelized onions, chopped fresh tomatoes, or diced pickled jalapeños. Some of these methods come from homemade refried bean techniques, which is why they work so well for upgrading basic store-bought beans.

We've come up with many ways to upgrade canned refried beans. You can use these methods individually as a quick, simple upgrade. Or if you want to seriously spruce up your store-bought refried beans, you can combine as many of these upgrades as you like.

1. Add milk

If you've noticed how smooth and creamy refried beans are at restaurants, there's one simple upgrade that can help you achieve that texture: milk. It might sound odd, but adding some milk to your refried beans when you reheat them can thin them out and give them a creamier consistency. You can also use heavy cream if you want them to be even richer. Or if you avoid dairy, plant-based milks work here. It's best to choose one that isn't overly sweet, such as unsweetened soy milk or a fairly neutral oat milk.

All you need to do is add the milk when you reheat the beans in a pan, stirring it through as the beans warm. Start with a splash of milk, or a couple of tablespoons, then see how it tastes and what the texture is like before you decide whether or not to add more. It's a super simple upgrade that only takes a couple of seconds and can make all the difference to your refried beans. In fact, it's such an easy way to gussy up store-bought refried beans that it would be a mistake not to try it out at least once. Even if you're unsure about adding milk to refried beans, you might be surprised at the difference it makes. Restaurant-quality refried beans await you with very little effort.

2. Add sour cream

While we're still in the dairy zone, sour cream is another option for upgrading your refried beans. When you add sour cream to refried beans, it thins them out and boosts the creamy texture in a similar way to milk. However, the benefit is that sour cream adds a pleasant tanginess to the beans.

If you like this kind of dairy tang, sour cream is the upgrade for you — but if you don't, you might want to stick to milk. The other concern is availability. If you don't want to go to the store, you probably have milk in the fridge, but most people are less likely to have sour cream on hand.

As with milk, you simply stir the sour cream through as you reheat the beans. We'd recommend starting with around ¼ to ⅓ of a cup of sour cream per can of beans. Once everything is heated through, give it a taste. It's easy to add some more if the beans need to be thinner or you want more of that sour cream tang. Once again, this is a ridiculously easy upgrade. It barely adds any extra time to the reheating process, so it's worth trying out as a first port of call.

3. Mix in some herbs and spices

Sick of bland, boring refried beans? Perhaps what you need is to embrace herbs and spices. But what types of herbs and spices should you add? Cumin and chili powder are a good place to start. Cumin is often used in refried beans, while chili powder is a spice blend that often includes ingredients like paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, and oregano, so it packs a punch of flavor. On a similar note, you can make use of other spice blends, such as taco seasoning or fajita seasoning.

Other herbs and spices you could add include smoked paprika, chipotle chili powder, oregano, and coriander. However, refried beans are fairly versatile and can work with a lot of different spices. For instance, you could add a dash of warm spices such as cinnamon or allspice to bring some complexity to the mix. Stick to the herbs and spices you like and you're bound to upgrade your beans in a way that appeals to you.

You can add the dry spices straight to the refried beans as you reheat them. Or for even more flavorful results, bloom your spices by adding them to some hot oil in a pan and cooking them for a minute or so, until they become fragrant. Then add the canned refried beans and heat them as directed.

4. Caramelize onions

You can inject extra flavor into your refried beans by mixing in some caramelized onions. This adds a sweet, complex onion flavor that can bring a lot to basic store-bought refried beans. But not just that — it also adds texture. So, if you dislike refried beans that are overly smooth and lack texture, adding onions is a good shout.

But how do you caramelize onions? Caramelizing onions involves slowly cooking thinly sliced onions in oil or butter over low heat until they turn golden brown and develop a sweet and intense flavor. This process typically takes around 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the quantity of onions and the heat level.  What's the difference between caramelized onions and cooked onions? Caramelized onions are cooked low and slow. Stirring occasionally prevents sticking and ensures even caramelization; you can speed up the process by adding a pinch of sugar.

Once you've caramelized your onions, you can just stir them through your refried beans while you're heating them, or add them directly after heating. This is the perfect upgrade for an onion lover — or just for refried beans seriously lacking in flavor. Onions play well with lots of other add-ins, so this is a good upgrade to use in addition to garlic, spices, cheese, or hot sauce.

5. Reheat them with olive oil

If you're simply throwing your refried beans in a hot pan or microwaving them to reheat them, you're missing out on an opportunity to add extra flavor. One extremely simple way to bring some extra flavor to your beans is to reheat them with olive oil. While you can also use vegetable oil, a quality olive oil will bring more flavor to the beans. This is also a good opportunity to use an infused oil, if you have one, or a chance to infuse the oil yourself. Chile oil and garlic oil would both be excellent additions to refried beans.

All you need to do is add a generous glug of oil — at least a tablespoon — to a heated pan. Then add the beans and cook them until they're heated through. Starting with olive oil gives you a chance to add more extras, too. For instance, you could add olive oil to the pan, then fry some garlic or bloom some spices in it before throwing in your store-bought beans. If the beans are too thick, you can add milk, sour cream, water, or broth during the heating process.

6. Thin them with broth

Bought canned refried beans that are too thick or gloopy? An easy way to make them better is to thin them out with broth. The broth upgrades them in terms of texture, but it also boosts the flavor as well. If your chosen beans are already salty enough — or overly salty — you should be careful about adding broth, since it might make them unpleasantly salty. However, it's the perfect addition if the beans are under-salted or generally bland.

The first thing to decide is what type of broth to use. This works with any broth, including beef broth and chicken broth. If you're vegetarian or vegan, you'll want to use a vegetable broth or mushroom seasoning powder, or your favorite meat-free chicken or beef broth. You'll heat it, and then you need to mix it in with the refried beans to thin them. Start by adding around a quarter to a third of a cup of broth when you heat them. You can then add more if you need to. You'll get smoother and creamier beans, reminiscent of the type you might find in a restaurant.

7. Serve with cheese

Adding cheese is a good solution to improve basic store-bought refried beans that lack flavor. It adds savory, umami notes, and can improve the texture, depending on the cheese and how you use it. You can choose to add shredded cheese and melt it into the beans or you can top it with something crumbly, like Cotija. Both options add a cheesy flavor that can improve subpar beans.

Texturally, melted cheese thickens the beans. So it's a good solution if you happen upon refried beans that are too thin — or if you accidentally add too much of a liquid ingredient. Crumbly cheese can provide a contrasting texture to smooth, mushy refried beans. Both of which are good options and give you a choice depending on your preference.

Since cheese works with a range of other flavors, you can add it alongside making other upgrades. It works with added milk and other liquids, herbs, spices, chile pepper, hot sauce, and so much more.

8. Use fresh cilantro

Cilantro is a common addition to Mexican and other Latin American cuisines, so it makes sense to use it to improve canned refried beans that need a flavor boost. It brings a delicious herby flavor with some slight notes of citrus. As long as you don't belong to the subsect of the population that thinks cilantro tastes like soap, it's a great way to upgrade your refried beans quickly and easily. It's best to use fresh cilantro because it's much more flavorful than the dried stuff.

There are a couple of ways to add cilantro to your refried beans. You can finely chop it and stir it through the refried beans as you heat them. Or you can sprinkle it over the top of the cooked beans when you serve it, either as whole leaves or more coarsely shredded. When you finely chop the cilantro and stir it through, you'll get a better distribution of the herb throughout the whole dish. On the other hand, if you top your beans with cilantro, you'll get big fresh bursts of it.

9. Add lime

Another great way to make your beans taste better is to add some lime juice. This should be freshly squeezed lime, not lime from a bottle. Adding lime to store-bought refried beans can enhance their flavor in a number of ways.

First, lime juice adds a tangy acidity that can brighten up the flavors of the beans. Lime helps balance out the richness of the beans, making them taste fresher and more vibrant. It adds a depth of flavor to the beans, complementing the other seasonings in the dish. It can bring out the natural flavors of the beans and take them up a notch.

The other thing to consider is that adding lime juice, like other liquids, helps to thin out the beans to give them a smoother consistency. So lime juice can solve issues with both flavor and texture. Plus, the citrusy aroma and flavor of lime can make the beans taste fresher. It gives them a homemade touch and masks any canned taste. 

Lime juice goes nicely with fresh cilantro, so combining these two upgrades is a nice touch. However, it also goes with practically any other upgrade on this list. Just be careful of adding lime juice and another liquid or the beans might come out too thin and watery.

10. Splash in some hot sauce

Refried beans are usually mild, heat-wise. But, if you're a fan of spicy food, hot sauce might be the perfect way to upgrade your store-bought beans. The addition of a spicy element gives you a nice contrast to the richness of the beans and adds complexity to the dish. What's more, some hot sauce contains a blend of spices, herbs, and other flavorings that can bring another layer of flavor to bland refried beans.

The cool thing about adding hot sauce is that you can easily adjust the level of heat according to your preference. Whether you like a mild kick or enough heat to make cartoon steam blow out of your ears, you can tailor the amount of hot sauce to suit your taste. We also love that there are countless brands and varieties of hot sauce available. You can experiment with different types of hot sauce and see what they bring to the party.

We appreciate the fact that hot sauce is a super simple upgrade to canned refried beans. You can just splash some in while you're reheating the beans, so it's not an upgrade that takes much time or effort. You can also easily combine it with many of the other upgrades on this list, such as adding onions for flavor and texture or adding dairy or broth to thin out the beans.

11. Add chiles

An alternative way to add more heat to your canned refried beans is by adding chiles. They can improve the taste of boring, subpar store-bought beans, providing spiciness, and sometimes smoky or fruity tasted depending on the variety you use. They also add heat to the dish, which is great if you like things spicy.

Depending on how you use them, chile peppers can add texture to the beans. If you don't like overly smooth beans, this is a great choice. Fresh chiles and pickled chiles bring a crunchy texture to the mix, while roasted or cooked chiles add chunks of a softer consistency.

You can incorporate chiles into canned refried beans in a whole range of ways. You can add sliced fresh chiles for a burst of freshness and heat, mix in pickled jalapenos for a tangy kick, roast chiles and add them for a deeper flavor boost, or even make your own chile paste and stir it through the beans for a concentrated flavor infusion.

When you add chiles to your refried beans, you can customize the flavor profile according to your preferences. You can experiment with different types of chiles and preparation methods for a new take every time. Whether you prefer a subtle heat or a bold kick, chile peppers can add flavor, texture, depth, and complexity to your beans.

12. Roast some garlic

Often the problem with store-bought refried beans is a lack of flavor. Flavors can be one-note and not particularly complex. While garlic in general is a good add-in for canned refried beans, roasted garlic is an even better upgrade. While still garlicky, it has a milder flavor profile than raw or sautéed garlic that won't overwhelm the beans. It also brings sweet, caramelized notes and has a complexity that other garlic lacks. Luckily, roasting garlic is super simple. You can roast a whole bulb at once — or roast multiple bulbs and save the extras for other dishes.

So how do you roast whole bulbs of garlic? To begin, you'll want to preheat your oven to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Take a whole head of garlic and slice off the top portion to expose the cloves. Drizzle some olive oil over the exposed cloves, ensuring they're well coated. Then, wrap the head of garlic loosely in aluminum foil. Place the foil-wrapped garlic on a baking sheet or in a baking dish and let it roast in the oven for about 40 minutes.

Once roasted, let it cool for a few minutes before handling. Then you can squeeze the cloves out of their skins. We'd recommend adding ½ to a whole bulb of garlic to a can of refried beans. The flavor is milder, so you can use much more without the flavor overwhelming the dish. Mash the cloves and mix them through your beans as you reheat them.