The Best Ways To Liven Up Your Refried Beans

Authentic refried beans are simple to make; you just need beans, salt, and liquid (typically water or vegetable oil). Well, a heat source is required for cooking, too, but that's likely a given for most people. Garlic and onion are also common ingredients, but refried beans are a tasty side dish or dip, even in the simplest form. Still, there are plenty of ways to make the basic recipe even better so it exceeds expectations and bursts with flavor. From substituting water for decadent fatty ingredients to adding creamy elements to extra spices, there's really no limit to what you can do with refried beans.

In addition to researching reputable chef recommendations and popular ingredient upgrades, I also considered all the different ways I've enjoyed refried beans in the past to help compile a thorough list of tasty additions. These are the best ways to liven up your refried beans and make them truly shine, so the next time you make them, they are sure to be a crave-worthy dish. 

1. Substitute milk for water to make refried beans creamy

A basic refried beans recipe typically calls for about ½ cup of vegetable oil. Some cooks use water to reduce fat, but a lack of fat can make refried beans somewhat bland. With this in mind, milk makes a much better alternative than water. Whole milk, in particular, has a good fat content that makes refried beans creamier and smoother overall. The fat in milk also brings out the other flavors of the dish in a surprising way. Heavy cream also makes an excellent substitution. It has even more fat than whole milk, so the creamy effect takes center stage.

If you are cooking for a vegan, dairy is off the table. However, plant-based milks are still a viable option. Oat milk, rice milk, soy milk, almond milk, and hemp milk all make great choices. Coconut milk can also be used, and it actually has the highest fat content when it comes to plant-based milks, but it tends to have a bold coconut flavor, so it alters the overall taste of your refried beans, and not necessarily in a good way. Soy milk has the next-highest fat content compared to other alternative milks, providing a creamy result similar to cow's milk. Whichever option you try, make sure it is a plain, unsweetened flavor. The last thing you want to add is vanilla-flavored plant-based milk and wind up with a yucky, inedible form of refried beans.

2. Butter makes everything better

Vegetable oil may be the standard fat used to create a classic refried beans recipe, but it can easily be swapped out for butter. Butter has a rich taste that lends itself to refried beans in expert fashion. It adds a deep flavor and has just the right amount of fat to make the dish extra delicious while simultaneously creating a decadent texture perfect for dipping or enjoying alongside your favorite Mexican foods.

When adding butter to refried beans, you have two options. The first is to simply substitute the oil for a similar amount of butter. The second method involves mixing a pat of butter into your refried beans in addition to the other ingredients. Either way, the result is smooth, fatty, and perfectly scrumptious. Thanks to butter's agreeable flavor, it won't change the taste so much that it can't be paired with all your favorite Latin American foods. However, it won't go unnoticed, either. Give it a try, and you may never look back.

3. Use lard instead of vegetable oil for a traditional taste

Lard is considered a traditional refried bean ingredient in many Latin American cultures because it adds a rich, savory flavor and a touch of creaminess. Many restaurants in the United States serve refried beans with a bit of lard mixed in as well. Lard is a versatile fat that chefs have been using in place of shortening for a long time. It makes cookies, cakes, and other baked goods rich and flavorful. Don't believe us? Ask your grandmother.

Today, lard is not quite as popular in baked goods, but it is still widely used in Latin American cuisine, especially refried beans. It easily pours into refried beans when heated up, just like vegetable oil. If you don't heat it first, you can toss some into your recipe while it cooks, and it will liquefy, making it simple to stir in. Still, we recommend adding it when already melted because it makes measuring much simpler and more accurate.

Unfortunately, many people who practice a vegetarian diet have been tricked by refried beans with lard because it isn't easily identifiable by sight. So, if you opt to put it in your beans, make sure not to feed it to any vegans or vegetarians.

4. Try adding duck fat for a rich flavor

Rich in flavor and texture, duck fat refried beans are practically a guaranteed show-stopper. Substituting duck fat for the traditional fatty elements used in refried beans, like vegetable oil and lard, puts a fun spin on the dish. It makes it rich and delicious beyond belief and adds a refined touch that won't go unnoticed. If you want to take your refried beans to new heights, we strongly urge you to try it out.

Duck fat may be tasty, but the deep flavor and decadent results it brings will cost you. It is more expensive than lard or vegetable oil, but we think it is worth it. Fortunately, you only need about ½ to one cup of duck fat to make a sizeable batch of refried beans. While you'll likely have to buy more than is necessary for your refried beans, there's plenty you can do with the rest of it, like make duck fat fries. You may not want to use duck fat in your refried beans every time due to the elevated cost, but it won't let you down when you're in the mood for something special.

5. Add bacon fat for a potent change in flavor

Similar to other animal fats, bacon grease is a surefire way to pack your refried beans with tons of flavor. Bacon fat is so potent there's no way you won't notice it in a simple dish like refried beans. It gives them a distinct smoky taste and an ample amount of fat, which we know is essential when it comes to making tasty refried beans. When done right, what you get is a yummy dish layered with complex, savory flavors.

Bacon grease is a full-bodied ingredient, so you definitely want to start by adding a very small amount to your refried beans. Otherwise, it can easily take over the other flavors. In addition, if you add too much, your dish could become overly greasy. Don't worry, though. All you have to do is substitute equal amounts of bacon grease for oil, and you should be more than fine. Of course, adding bacon fat means your refried beans will no longer be suitable for plant-based diets, but that isn't a deal-breaker for most people. Just don't feed it to any unsuspecting vegans or vegetarians, and it is all good.

6. Mix in some cheese

Just like butter, cheese has a way of making everything taste better. It's salty, gooey, and sometimes nutty, all elements that pair perfectly with refried beans. The fat found in cheese also adds another vital component to refried beans. So, if you are short on oil or other kinds of fat, cheese can come to the rescue. Plus, we all know beans and cheese make an ideal pair, as evidenced by the numerous dishes that call for both — bean and cheese burritos, anyone?

Most everyday cheeses taste great when mixed into or sprinkled on top of refried beans. However, our top picks are Mexican cheeses like Oaxaca, cotija, or queso fresco. Since refried beans are a staple of Mexican cuisine, using Mexican cheese just makes sense. For an extra creamy, gooey upgrade, you can even add a bit of queso. It has all the right flavors and adds a touch of heat that is undeniably tasty. The only cheeses we would avoid using in refried beans are pungent options such as camembert, taleggio, and blue cheese because they drastically alter the desired flavor. 

7. Spice it up with Latin American seasonings

You really can't go wrong adding salt and pepper to just about anything you cook, and this includes refried beans. However, adding a touch of Latin American spices to your creation seriously amplifies the flavor in all the right ways. Even a small amount can alter the overall taste in a drool-worthy way.

If you enjoy spicy foods, spices like cayenne pepper and dried chiles are delicious in refried beans. They add a nice kick and a bit of warmth. If you prefer to keep your beans more on the mild side in terms of heat, you still have plenty of options. Try adding spices and herbs such as paprika, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, coriander, epazote (a Central American herb similar to oregano), or cilantro. They all offer a traditional Latin American taste that takes refried beans to the next level. If you don't feel like making your own mix of spices or are unsure of the perfect blend, a premade packet of taco seasoning has got you covered. Whatever flavors you choose, add small amounts, mix, and taste as you go to prevent accidentally going too far.

8. Turn up the heat with spicy peppers

Spicy peppers go hand in hand with Latin American cuisine, so it probably goes without saying, but they make a great addition to refried beans. If you love spicy foods, like many of us do, you most likely feel like you can add spicy peppers to everything you eat, and you're not wrong. With refried beans, they add an element of heat that brings out the onion, garlic, and savory bean flavor. That is, of course, if you don't overdo it. If you add too much, spicy peppers quickly smother other flavors, leaving nothing but a tingly hot feeling in your mouth. This may be desirable for some, but it's all about balance.

Jalapeños are the obvious choice for refried beans. They have a long-standing reputation for making an array of Latin American foods beyond delicious. Even so, hatch green chilis, habaneros, poblanos, and other types of spicy peppers also make your refried beans super tasty. If you want to add some extra heat and don't have any spicy peppers readily available, you can substitute hot sauce, enchilada sauce, or even green chili sauce to get a similar effect.

9. Swap out pinto beans for black beans

For a fun twist on the classic refried beans recipe, substitute black beans for pinto beans. This rendition isn't entirely unheard of, and chances are high you've tried it in a restaurant before, but it isn't always on people's radar. Pinto beans are generally accepted as the norm for refried beans, but many prefer black beans as a whole, so switching them out can be a welcome change. Black beans taste a lot like pinto beans but tend to have a somewhat sweeter flavor. They are still earthy, so they go well with the other ingredients used in refried beans. However, their sweetness counterbalances any spicy peppers or seasonings you use, leading to a well-rounded flavor overall.

Aside from swapping out the beans, there's no difference when it comes to making refried black beans. You can use your regular recipe and proceed like normal. The only real difference is that black beans aren't quite as soft as pinto beans, probably because pinto beans are higher in fat and black beans are higher in fiber. As a result, it may take a bit more effort to smash them and achieve the proper consistency. Still, the change is marginal at best, so don't let this minor detail discourage you.

10. Cook your beans in broth to add depth

Whether you use dried or canned beans, an essential step to making refried beans involves simmering them for a considerable amount of time. Simmering allows your beans to absorb flavor and break down so that they can easily be smashed to form the desired texture of the dish. While water is the standard, swapping it out for broth is a pro move. Broths and stocks are packed full of different flavors that taste amazing in refried beans. Just like with chili and other kinds of soup, cooking ingredients in broth gives the flavors a chance to permeate the ingredients from the inside out.

Thanks to the savory flavor of refried beans, any kind of stock or broth pairs nicely with the recipe. Chicken stock is a top pick, but vegetable broth also tastes great with beans. We recommend considering what you are serving your refried beans with and making your decision based on that. For example, go with chicken broth if you are making chicken enchiladas. Or, if you plan on adding pork fat, like lard or bacon grease, to your refried beans, opt for a pork bone broth. No matter what you choose, expect a rich burst of flavor that leaves you wanting more.

11. Brighten refried beans with a squeeze of lime

Lime is no stranger to Latin American foods, and this includes refried beans. Many Mexican restaurants serve their dishes with a lime wedge on the side, so there's a strong chance you've tried this flavor combination before, even if you don't specifically remember. Regardless, adding a touch of fresh lime juice to your refried bean recipe brightens the flavor considerably. The citrusy element helps the beans become lighter and adds a delicious complexity you are sure to fall in love with after a single bite.

We recommend adding a couple of squeezes of lime to your refried beans right before serving. You could cook the lime juice with the other ingredients, but it really is not needed. Besides, when you add it at the end, the flavor is more pronounced and brighter. So, you don't have to use much of it to get the desired taste. Fresh lime juice is best because it has a potent flavor that can't be matched by bottled lime juice. However, if you only have bottled lime juice, feel free to give it a try. You may just need to use a bit more than you would with a fresh lime.

12. Stir in sour cream or Greek yogurt for a silky texture and creamy taste

Sour cream is an extremely popular condiment when it comes to Latin American cuisine, at least in the United States. In Mexico, crema is the go-to, but it is pretty similar. It has a mild flavor and a creamy texture that complements almost anything you serve it with. While putting a spoonful of sour cream on refried beans is somewhat common, you can also stir it into the dish to smooth out its consistency and add a velvety mouthfeel. Mixing it into refried beans also ensures you get an even balance of creaminess and flavorful beans in every bite.

Greek yogurt is quite similar to sour cream. In fact, many people use it in place of sour cream in their recipes as a healthy alternative because it is high in protein and probiotics. It is also packed with nutrients like calcium, vitamin B12, and more. Aside from potential health benefits, Greek yogurt has a tangy flavor that adds a touch of zest to dishes like refried beans. You can spoon a dollop on top of your refried beans before serving or mix it to achieve a creamy texture, just like if you substitute milk for water.

13. Don't forget the sauteed garlic and onion

Any refried beans recipe worth its salt includes sauteed garlic and onion. Some recipes don't call for them, but we have no idea why anyone would want to skip adding these tasty ingredients. Without sauteed onion and garlic, most refried beans fall flat. Incorporating them into the dish adds depth and complexity that can't be attained with powdered onion and garlic. So, while it may seem like an extra step, it is definitely worth the additional time and effort.

Sauteing garlic and onion unlocks their flavor and helps them reach their fullest potential, regardless of what you put them in. If you have the patience to make caramelized onions – it takes about 45 minutes — they add a rich flavor to your refried beans that you won't soon forget. If you decide to go for it, make sure not to add the garlic until close to the end. Onions need a considerable amount of time to caramelize, but garlic cooks up rather quickly. Wait until the onions are just a couple of minutes away from being ready before tossing fresh garlic in the pan, or it will burn.

14. Make refried beans smoky and spicy with adobo sauce

If you've never heard of adobo sauce, now's the time to change that. It is a traditional Mexican sauce made from ancho and guajillo peppers, and it provides a deep, earthy flavor to an array of Latin American foods. It may resemble BBQ sauce in color and consistency, but trust us, they're nothing alike. Instead, it has a rich taste with lots of spice, making it an ideal addition to refried beans. In addition to ground or roasted chiles, it also contains garlic, salt, and other seasonings like cumin that taste phenomenal when mixed with refried beans. You don't need much, either. A small amount of adobo sauce stirred into your refried beans makes a huge difference in flavor.

Adobo sauce is sold ready-made in cans and jars, so it is a simple sauce to integrate into your refried beans. However, making a basic adobo sauce is not all that difficult, either. Simply toast some guajillo chiles, soak them in water for about 30 minutes, blend them with seasonings and fresh water, and it is ready. One of the best reasons to make adobo sauce yourself is that you will have more than you need for a single batch of refried beans, so you'll be able to experiment with it in other foods as well.

15. Top with salsa for enhanced flavor

Salsa is another classic Latin American condiment that tastes fantastic with refried beans. It has all the right ingredients to turn refried beans into something special, and everyone loves it. If you have trouble not filling up on chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants before your food arrives, you know what we are talking about. Salsa is zesty, sometimes spicy, citrusy, savory, and overflowing with fresh flavors, so it's no wonder we can't stop devouring it when it gets put in front of us. When you add it to refried beans, it only gets better. Salsa also comes in a wide range of flavors and styles, all of which taste great when paired with refried beans. From tomatillo or corn to black bean, fire-roasted, and traditional tomato, you'd be hard-pressed to find a salsa that doesn't liven up your refried beans.

While not quite as saucy as salsa, pico de gallo also goes great with refried beans. Many Mexican restaurants already garnish their plates and refried beans with it, so you know the flavors complement each other. Additionally, it gives refried beans a bright, fresh taste that they often lack. Pico de gallo also adds a bit of crunch, which we can all get behind.

16. Add chopped black olives for a unique twist

Black olives are by no means a typical addition to refried beans, but don't let that turn you off from the idea. At the very least, give us a chance to explain what makes them perfect for refried beans before making up your mind.

Traditional refried beans are well-salted to bring out the flavor of all the ingredients, and guess what? Black olives are pretty salty, so adding them to your refried beans makes sense if you think about it. It doesn't really matter what type of dish you are creating, salt is pretty much a given. Without it, foods wind up being bland. So, why not add some much-needed salt to refried beans with black olives? It may be unconventional, but it adds a fun texture and unique flavor that is simultaneously unexpected and familiar.

If you are still hesitant about trying this method to liven up your refried beans, start slowly. Chop up a small handful of black olives, add just a few, stir, and taste. If you like what you taste, add a bit more. Or, if you aren't immediately drawn to the new flavor, stop there. A small amount shouldn't overpower the dish so much that you have to toss it out. Additionally, you may want to wait and add regular salt until after you incorporate the chopped black olives so your beans don't become too salty.