Vegetarian Frijoles Charros – Mexican Cowboy Beans with Smoked Onion – Recipe

Frijoles Charros
Vegetarian Frijoles Charros – Mexican Cowboy Beans

Frijoles charros are a classic way of serving beans in Mexico. Unlike refried beans, the pinto beans are served whole, in a broth redolent of smoke and tomato. Traditionally, that smoke flavor comes from bacon.

NOTE: I no longer recommend jury-rigged stovetop smoking. I’ve since learned that creating smoke in a low-oxygen sealed environment like this creates unnecessarily high levels of carcinogens. See my Smoked Tofu Buns recipe for a safer alternative if you don’t have your own method of smoking.

My first thoughts for creating the smoke in a vegetarian version revolved around using chipotle or chile moro (smoked jalapenos without the adobo sauce), and I’m sure that would be good. But those ingredients can lack the freshest top-note flavors of smoke. It turns out that quickly smoking a diced onionin an improvised setup on the stovetop is an amazing way to get those bright, volatile smoky elements. You may want to temporarily disable your smoke detector and run your vent fan while doing this step. Don’t forget to put your smoke detector back immediately afterwards. Please make sure you have adequate ventilation before generating smoke, and only undertake this recipe if you know how to do it safely.

The section on smoking in Modernist Cuisine taught me some things I never new about smoking. For instance, you are much better off not soaking your wood chips. The best flavors come out in smoke between about 400 and 750 degrees Fahrenheit. When you soak them, that keeps them cooler and you tend to get more acrid, off flavors.

This recipe will come out much better if you cook your own beans at home, whether on the stovetop, or in a pressure cooker. The beans will have a better texture, and you’ll have their flavorful cooking liquid available to make the broth. In a pinch, you could probably do it with canned beans that have been thoroughly rinsed, and substitute a good, clear vegetable broth for the bean-cooking liquid.

Try these beans as an alternative to refried beans with any Mexican meal. They would go great with any of these dishes: Arroz Verde, Arroz a la MexicanaGrilled Pepper and Tofu Tacos, Swiss Chard, Onion and Monterey Jack Enchiladas, Achiote-Rubbed Butternut Squash Tacos, Bocoles, and Nuevo León Style Tamales.

Vegetarian Frijoles Charros – Mexican Cowboy Beans with Smoked Onion
Serves 4 / Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free

  • 1 cup hickory or mesquite wood chips
  • 1 large white onion, small dice
  • 2 pasilla oaxaca or other whole dried chiles of your choice
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon Kosher salt (if using Diamond Crystal; start with half as much if using Morton’s)
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup canned crushed tomato
  • 4 cups unsalted home-cooked pinto beans, and 2 cups of their cooking liquid
  1. Put the wood chips in a medium-sized saucepan that you don’t mind discoloring. Place a folding steamer basket on top of the wood chips, and put the onion on it. Put the lid on the pot, and place it on high heat. Cook for seven minutes, then turn off the heat. See note on safer smoking above. Carefully taste a piece of onion and confirm that it has a good level of smoke. If not, cook for another couple of minutes.
  2. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, press the pasilla oaxaca chiles down onto it with a spatula, just for a few seconds on each side. Wearing disposable gloves, remove the stems and seeds from the peppers and crush them into very small pieces.
  3. Add the oil to the same skillet, over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the crushed chiles, smoked onion, garlic and salt and cook, stirring occasionally until the onion is softened, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook until it darkens, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the crushed tomato, the beans, and 1 cup of the bean liquid. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to maintain. Cook for about 15 minutes, then taste and adjust seasoning. Add more of the bean liquid to find the desired brothy consistency. Serve hot.
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Posted by Michael Natkin on Monday, July 11th, 2011 in Gluten-Free or modifiable, Recipes, Side Dishes, Vegan or Modifiable.

20 Responses to “Vegetarian Frijoles Charros – Mexican Cowboy Beans with Smoked Onion – Recipe”

  1. Reply
    July 11, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    Have you ever used liquid smoke? It seems that would give a similar result with much less work…

  2. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    July 11, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Hey TJ – liquid smoke is definitely an option. It tends to have more of a one-dimensional flavor compared to fresh smoke, but clearly has a convenience advantage. Some folks may be concerned about health issues, though that could be a concern for fresh smoke as well. By the way, there are more professional versions of liquid smoke than the grocery store types. See the discussion in Modernist Cuisine (link to for more info on that. I think you can order them online.

    Michael Natkin

    Find me:

    The latest from my blog, Herbivoracious: Vegetarian Frijoles Charros – Mexican Cowboy Beans with Smoked Onion – Recipe

  3. Reply
    July 11, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    For this kind of thing, I often do the smoking on the gas grill outdoors — it works well, avoids the need to disable the smoke-detectors, and keeps even the residual smoke outside the house.

  4. Reply
    July 11, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    This is a wonderful idea! My parents, when they ate meat, loved beans like this. Now that they are vegetarian it is difficult to get the smoky elements that the bacon imparts. I love the idea of smoking the bacon. I bet this would work great for other bean soups that use bacon to add a smoky complexity. I agree with you about the unidimensional quality of store bought liquid smoke. I have used it in the past, but never found it to be entirely satisfying. Thank you for the recipe.

  5. Reply
    July 12, 2011 at 4:34 am #

    These look gorgeous, i love pinto beans, very few mexican restaurants serve them these days! could i use barlotti beans instead, they’re not readily available where i live.

  6. Reply
    July 12, 2011 at 4:34 am #

    These look gorgeous, i love pinto beans, very few mexican restaurants serve them these days! could i use barlotti beans instead, they’re not readily available where i live.

  7. Reply
    July 12, 2011 at 6:15 am #

    I can’t wait to try these Mexican beans, recipe is calling to me to make. Thanks so much, they look great!

  8. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    July 12, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    Hi Jess – I'm not that familiar with borlotti beans to be able to tell you whether they would make a good substitute. If you try it, please let me know!

    Michael Natkin

    Find me:

    The latest from my blog, Herbivoracious: Vegetarian Frijoles Charros – Mexican Cowboy Beans with Smoked Onion – Recipe

  9. Reply
    July 12, 2011 at 7:49 am #

    Sounds so appealing to me! I have been looking for new ideas with beens. Thanks!

  10. Reply
    July 12, 2011 at 8:21 am #

    I’ve been dreaming of making my own healthy vegan bean dish for a while now…..and you have showed me such a gorgeous photo…I know I will be making some soon! Thanks for the inspiration!

  11. Reply
    July 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    Thank you for this delicious recipe! I made these with just chipotle peppers (1 and a half to be exact) and a bit (~1 tsp) of adobo sauce. I wanted to comment b/c at first I didn’t think it would turn out well, and it’s changing the recipe a lot. They lend a subtle smokiness and can be easier than smoking chips. They turned out really spicy and delicious. Pinto beans prepared like these have been a favorite! I served these with your arroz verde recipe. Will add to my future cooking lists!

  12. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    July 27, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    Thanks, Nilam! Chipotles are a nice option if you don't have time to do the fresh smoking.

    Michael Natkin

    Find me:

    The latest from my blog, Herbivoracious: Hongos en Escabeche – Mushrooms Sauteed with Sherry Vinegar – Recipe

  13. Reply
    May 31, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    I do a lot of Indian cooking, which has introduced me to sooo many amazing spices and pulses and beans…one thing I’ve found that I quite like to lend smokiness to food is the black (or brown) cardamom. It’s an entirely different animal from green cardamom (my favorite flavor of all time!!) – a savory addition to the spice cabinet. Check it out!!

  14. Reply
    July 16, 2012 at 5:00 am #

    Thanks for posting this! I have not been able to perfect my refried bean recipe (can’t get them to come out as good as grandma’s), but maybe I can make this my dish instead.

  15. Reply
    July 29, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    I made these verbatim. Flavor was very good, but they were way too salty with 1TBL. salt. I would start with 1 tspn. and go from there. Other than that, I will definitely make these again.

    • Reply
      July 29, 2012 at 8:10 am #

      Hey Scott – sorry about that! I suspect the issue is that i use Diamond Crystal kosher salt, which weighs around 3 grams / teaspoon, and I’m betting you used Morton’s, which is nearly twice as dense. I’ll update the recipe to clarify this.

  16. Reply
    February 1, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    I shared this one on my Facebook food page, Occupy My Plate, to make this weekend with enchiladas (which I’ll be doing a variation on your swiss chard and onion recipe so I might put some smoked onion in there too). My husband is a meat eater so whenever he has the smoker going I always experiment with throwing some of my veg recipes in for a bit. I definately want to try this stovetop method. My favorite smoked veggie recipe recently was finishing off my ratatouille in the smoker. Came out awesome!

  17. Reply
    July 2, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    My mum uses a good alternative to bacon in vegan mexican recipes; fry 100g mushrooms in a 1 TBP Canola Oil, 1/4 tsp Hot Smoked Paprika, 1/8 tsp All Spice and 1/4 tsp Table Salt. It provides a ready-to-go alternative to bacon that can be stored in the fridge for 3-4 days.

    Awesome recipe.

    • Reply
      July 3, 2013 at 5:45 am #


  18. Reply
    September 11, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    My husband made this dish tonight and it came out wonderfully! The smokey taste of the beans really complemented the spicy enchiladas he made with them. We will be making these again!

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