I always thought my refried beans were missing something. I tried all sorts of spices and add-ins. They were okay. Fine as a bite with dinner. But not enticing me to eat on their own or with a chip. That annoyed me, because I'd had beans that were worth coming back again and again for another nibble.
I just couldn't figure out what was missing. More spices, different fats, more salt, pepper ... and still, I wasn't impressed.
And then I was talking to a woman who told me her mother-in-law's method for making beans, and I had to give it a try. Basically, I cooked the beans until they were drying out and sticking to the pan, then added bean liquid, cooked them down again until they were dry and sticking to the pan, then added bean liquid to hydrate then again. Sort of like risotto.
Well, those beans were good, but it was a long, long, long process.
I've since streamlined the process a bit. Because, really, unless beans are the star of the dish, it's probably not worth spending forever making them.
Now, I start with bacon fat, if I have it. If not, I go with whatever fat or oil I've got that makes sense with the beans. You can make fat-free beans if you want to. But really, you don't need a whole lot of fat in the beans - just a tablespoon per pound is enough - and it helps carry the flavor and adds a nice richness.
Then I cook the beans in the oil, and mash and stir them until they're the consistency I'm looking for, adding bean liquid (or water) as needed to get them to the right texture. Most of the time, I want them with some texture rather than completely smooth. I've cooked then in a stainless steel pan, but a cast iron pan is my favorite for making these beans.
Now comes the secret. When the beans are the right texture, I stop stirring as much and keep cooking until they begin to dry and then they start browning on the bottom. I stir them around, add enough bean liquid or water to get them hydrated to the point I'd want them for serving, then I add seasoning, taste and adjust.
If the beans were cooked in salted water, you don't need as much salt. I also usually add cumin. I like cumin, so I add quite a lot. You can leave it out if you don't like it, but in any case, start with a small amount - let's say 1/2 teaspoon per pound of beans. Then adjust from there. Sometimes I add onions or garlic to the oil before I add the beans in, or different spices, but quite often it's just beans, salt and cumin. With the flavor that comes from browning the beans, they don't need much more.
After adding the spices, I cook it for a little longer to let the seasonings meld, adjust the liquid again before serving, and it's done. Usually I make a large batch of beans and freeze it so I've got it on hand when I need it.