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For a number of years, Emily and I frequented a restaurant with one of the most vegetarian-friendly menus I’ve encountered at any Mexican restaurant. In addition to standard options like huevos rancheros and chiles rellenos, it also offered vegetarian options for chimichangas and tamales — things typically found only on carne menus.

The best thing on the menu, though, was the rich, delicious refried beans. Silky smooth and wonderful alone or with chips, the beans were an outstanding comfort food. And the best part? They were made with oil rather than lard.

Though that restaurant is now closed, Emily and I have lots of fond memories of going there, and their lard-free refried beans inspired me to make my own version. It should be said my beans are less rich and smooth, and my heavy hand with cumin gives them a more Tex-Mex feel, and eventually I’ll perfect a recipe that approximates something closer to what that restaurant served. Until then, these simple beans suffice whenever I have a craving for refried beans.



refried beans

If using cheese, we recommend using Chihuahua if available, though Muenster or Monterey are good substitutes. While using cheese adds richness, it’s hardly necessary, and some may prefer these beans without it.

  • 2 tablespoons safflower oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoons white onion, minced
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 4 15-ounce cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ounce shredded cheese (optional)

Heat oil over medium heat. When warm, add garlic clove, onion, and cumin. Cook for 30 seconds, or until fragrant.

Add water, beans, and salt and cook over medium high heat until the beans are just barely covered by water, about 30 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and mash beans with a machacadora or potato masher until a majority of the beans have been crushed. Return pan to stove and cook on low heat, stirring as needed.

When the beans have thickened, remove from heat and stir in cheese. Salt to taste and serve.