Super-simple to make, you can have your pot of beans simmering away on the stove while you're doing other things. I make a big batch and freeze some so I've always got beans handy for whatever. Use them as the starting point for refried beans.
2 cups dried pinto beans
10 cups cold water
2 Tablespoons olive oil, bacon fat, or or other oil/fat (for a more traditional taste, you can use lard or bacon fat in place of olive oil)
2 tsp coarse salt, plus more to taste if needed (or half this amount if using table salt) (see notes)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into chunks
Optional (but encouraged): a fresh jalapeno or serrano chile, or a dried chile such as a guajillo or ancho (see notes)
Optional toppings: queso blanco, cotija, or a melty cheese such as colby or Monterrey jack; a few sprigs fresh cilantro (see notes)
1. If using a chile, keep it whole (stem intact) and toast it in a non-stick or cast iron skillet like this:
Warm the skillet over medium-high heat. Once the skillet is hot, lay the chile in the dry skillet to blister the skin. A dried chile (such as guajillo or ancho) will blister slightly (the skin will separate in places from the chile) and may become slightly lighter in color. You may need to press it into the pan to blister it evenly all over. A fresh chile, such as a jalapeno or serrano, should blacken. Whether fresh or dried, turn the chile frequently with tongs to blister/blacken the skin evenly over the surface of the chile, and release the chile's aroma.
2. Rinse the beans in a colander and pick through them to be sure there are no small stones or clumps of dirt. Put them in a large pot and cover them with the water. Throw out any beans that float. Add the oil, salt, onion and optional blackened chile, and turn the heat to high with the lid askew.
3. With the lid askew, allow the beans to come to a boil. Once boiling, turn the heat to medium so the beans continue to cook at a strong simmer for 2-3 hours. As the beans cook, the onions will gradually soften and break down somewhat into the beans, which is great! Give the beans an occasional stir and enjoy the delicious aroma as it fills your home.
4. When you think the beans are ready, remove one or two from the pot to test them like this:
Test for doneness: If your beans are fully cooked (and they probably are by now), the skin will break and curl away as you blow on them. When you eat them, they should be easily smashed by your tongue.
Test for brothiness: The broth will be somewhat clear, but will have picked up color from the beans and should be thickened a bit. (See the picture for what newly-made bean broth looks like.) And it should be delicious! If the broth seems too watery and bland, boil the beans with the lid off for 15 minutes to a half-hour (depending on the strength of your stove and the wateriness of the beans), to allow the broth to become a bit thicker and more flavorful.
Test for flavor: The best beans are just as flavorful as the broth they are swimming in. If the flavors seem a little bland or out of balance, try boiling the broth down a bit (as described above). If the broth is the right consistency but the beans themselves still lack flavor, add a few pinches of salt. Stir it in and give it about 15 minutes before you taste again. Note that it will take time for the additional salt to penetrate the beans. When the beans and broth are so good you just want to keep eating them, you are done!
5. When ready to serve, you can either leave the chile in or remove it (see notes). Serve the beans hot with cheese and/or cilantro leaves on top if desired (I often desire both).
In Mexican cooking, an olla (pronounced "oh-yah") is a tall, earthenware pot with a narrowed neck, traditionally used for beans and also for Cafe de la Olla (Mexican-style coffee with piloncillo sugar and canela cinnamon). But I've also heard Mexicans use the word "olla" to refer generically to any cooking pot. So, "frijoles de la olla" roughly translates to "pot of beans," which is exactly what this is.
I don't soak my beans, but if you want to, go for it. It seems completely unnecessary to me. And, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats agrees with me! If you decide to soak your beans anyway, start checking for doneness after about an hour or hour and a half (and know that they may have lost some flavor in the soaking).
Adding a chile to your beans will add more complexity and depth to the flavor, and maybe a hint of spice, but not a lot. In other words, the chile is there for flavor, not really for heat. I listed it as optional here because if you don't happen to have one on hand, you should not let that stand in the way of you making a big beautiful pot of beans! They will still be great. But if you do have one, please throw it in. (And if it's easy enough to run to the store for one, just do it.)
The heat of a chile is inside, mainly in the seeds and pith. So since the chile in this recipe is kept whole, it releases flavor before heat. You drop the whole chile into the pot, and as it swims around through the cooking, it shares its flavor with all those beautiful beans.
So how long do you leave the chile in? I leave the chile in the pot during serving and scoop around it. If I'm getting to the bottom of the pot and the chile is still intact, I'll include it in my husband's bowl (he likes heat). If you are storing the beans in the fridge or freezer, keep the chile in the beans through storage so it can continue to share its flavor.
If you leave the chile in long enough (or if it was aggressively blistered in the first step), it will gradually begin to fall apart in the pot. At this point, it will start contributing heat as well as flavor. In our home, this is fine. And if you're using a very mild chile (like guajillo) this will not be a problem at all. But just in case, I keep an eye on the chile through cooking, and if I see the stem detach, or the chile break into pieces, I start tasting for heat. One chile is usually enough to give the beans a hint of heat, but not to turn them aggressively spicy. I regularly make this for children and include the chile, removing it only when it begins to fall apart. And they love it!
What happens to the onions? Just leave them in. If you're serving all the beans the day you make them, you'll notice the onion pieces dancing around your bowl with the beans. But if you're storing them to serve another time, the onions will gradually begin to break down and fall apart into the beans, which is also great!
I like to serve a bowl of beans with a couple cilantro leaves on top, as well as a little cheese, but this is totally optional. If you are using cheese, you could use a shredded, melty American-style cheese like colby or Monterrey jack, or you could use a Mexican-style cheese like queso blanco or queso fresco (not as melty). Whatever you choose should be mild.
This recipe is easily doubled or tripled (I usually make at least double the amount called for). But as you move into bigger batches, keep an eye on the volume of liquid. Ideally, your beans will look about as brothy as the beans in the picture. And season carefully to taste. Don't be afraid to add more salt as needed. Beans love salt and it brings out lots of flavor.
You can easily make this ahead and store the beans in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for months. If you used a chile, leave it in the beans during storage so it can continue to contribute flavor. The beans may fall apart a bit more after freezing, which isn't really a problem since this is intended to be a rustic dish. But if that bothers you, you might want to use frozen beans to make refried beans rather than eating them as-is.