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Why are black beans used in Mexican cooking?

Black beans, also known as frijoles negros, have been a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine for centuries. They are used in many classic Mexican dishes like frijoles charros, enfrijoladas, sopes, and of course, tacos. But why exactly are black beans so integral to Mexican cooking? There are several key reasons.

Reason 1: Black Beans are Native to the Americas

Black beans originated in South America and were domesticated thousands of years ago. They were one of the main crops grown by ancient civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayans. Spanish colonizers then brought black beans to Mexico in the 16th century. So black beans have a very long history in Mexican and Latin American cuisine. They were a traditional food source for the region long before Europeans arrived.

Reason 2: They are Nutritious

Black beans are highly nutritious, which helped them become a dietary staple. One cup of cooked black beans contains:

  • 15 grams of fiber
  • 15 grams of protein
  • 80% of the recommended daily value for folate
  • High amounts of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, thiamine, potassium, and zinc

With their combination of high protein, fiber, and mineral content, black beans provided sustenance for ancient civilizations and continue to be nutritious today. The vegetarian protein and fiber keep you full and satisfied. Their abundance of folate, iron, and antioxidants are great for heart health.

Reason 3: They Store Well

Being a dried bean, black beans store very well compared to fresh produce. When kept in a cool, dark place, they can be preserved for months. This made them a reliable food source for ancient cultures when fresh ingredients were scarce. Even today, it’s convenient to keep bags of dried black beans ready to be cooked anytime. Their long shelf life and availability drove their popularity in Mexican cuisine.

Reason 4: They are Affordable

Compared to other sources of protein like meat, black beans are very affordable. Dried black beans cost just pennies per serving. This made them accessible even to lower income populations historically. Beans helped provide sustenance even with limited resources. The affordability and accessibility of black beans is a key factor in their use in Mexican food today. They continue to be a frugal and economical ingredient.

Reason 5: They are Versatile

Black beans have a soft, creamy texture and earthy flavor that complements both savory and sweet dishes. Their versatility makes them easy to incorporate into tacos, soups, dips, rice dishes, salads, desserts, and more. They take on the flavors of aromatics and spices very well. This versatility enabled Mexican cooks to use black beans creatively in many types of recipes.

Reason 6: They Complement Corn

Corn was another staple crop for ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Beans and corn form a complete protein together. The nitrogen in beans complements the amino acids in corn to provide a balanced protein source. So black beans were often prepared alongside corn as a nutritional powerhouse. This traditional pairing continues to be key in dishes like tacos that bring black beans and corn tortillas together.

Some Classic Mexican Dishes Using Black Beans

Here are just some of the many delicious Mexican specialties that highlight black beans:

Frijoles Charros

This is a hearty black bean stew made with tomatoes, chiles, sausage, bacon, herbs, and vegetables. It’s a flavorful, protein-packed dish.


Corn tortillas dipped in a black bean purée then cooked with cheese, onion, and cream. A delicious combination of corn and beans.


Thick corn masa cakes topped with refried black beans, shredded meat, onion, cheese, and other garnishes.


Black beans are one of the most popular taco fillings, often paired with rice. Their creamy texture and flavor contrast nicely with meats.


Spiced black beans and rice are used to make vegetarian tamales wrapped in corn masa and banana leaves.


Crisp fried corn tortillas topped with black beans, lettuce, cheese, crema, and avocado. A classic appetizer or light meal.

Burritos and Quesadillas

Burritos and quesadillas are often stuffed with spiced black beans and cheese for vegetarian versions.

Sides Dishes

Simple boiled or refried black beans are served as sides for tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, grilled meats, and more.

Pairings and Flavorings Used with Black Beans

Here are some of the main herbs, spices, and ingredients used to complement and season black beans in Mexican cuisine:

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Cilantro
  • Epazote
  • Jalapeño
  • Chipotle chiles
  • Cumin
  • Oregano
  • Bay leaf
  • Cilantro
  • Lime juice
  • Salt
  • Rice
  • Cheese like cotija or queso fresco
  • Sour cream or Mexican crema
  • Corn
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Avocado

These ingredients add layers of flavor that complement the earthiness of the black beans.

Reason 7: Cultural Significance

Beyond culinary reasons, black beans hold cultural and symbolic importance in Mexican culture. They represent an integral part of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic history and connection to the land. Beans were believed to be a gift from the Aztec gods and were an important part of rituals and ceremonies. The phrase “frijoles de la olla” meaning “beans from the pot” is used to describe home cooking and nostalgia for mother’s traditional dishes. So black beans are interwoven into Mexican heritage and identity.

How Black Beans Spread Across Cuisines

While black beans originated in the Americas, they have spread to cuisines around the world over centuries:

Cuisine Popular Dishes Using Black Beans
Cuban Moros y cristianos, black bean soup
Puerto Rican Arroz con gandules, mofongo
Brazilian Feijoada

As black beans were traded globally, their use spread to traditional cuisines in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia as well. Today, black beans are beloved worldwide!

Nutritional Information

Here is the nutritional profile of 1 cup (172g) of cooked black beans, according to the USDA:

Nutrient Amount DRV%*
Fiber 15g 60%
Protein 15g 30%
Folate 356mcg 80%
Iron 5mg 25%
Magnesium 120mg 30%
Phosphorus 241mg 25%

*DRV% is Percent Daily Value based on a 2000 calorie diet.

How to Cook Black Beans

To prepare dried black beans:

  1. Rinse the beans and remove any stones or debris.
  2. Soak the beans in water for at least 4 hours or overnight.
  3. Drain the beans and rinse them.
  4. Place beans in a pot and cover with fresh water. Bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 1-1.5 hours until tender.
  6. Flavor the beans as desired with onion, garlic, cilantro, chili powder, cumin etc.
  7. Mash some of the beans against the pot to thicken the liquid if desired.

Quick tips for cooking black beans:

  • Adding a pinch of baking soda to the soaking water can help soften beans faster.
  • Do not add salt until beans are tender, as early salt can toughen skins.
  • Canned black beans can be substituted for convenience.
  • Prepared beans keep refrigerated for 4-5 days or frozen for months.

With their rich history, versatility, flavor, and nutrition, it’s easy to see why black beans became a staple of Mexican cuisine. Their importance continues today in many delicious dishes!


Black beans have been an integral part of Mexican cooking for centuries. Their ancestry can be traced back to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. They became ingrained in the cuisine due to their nutritional value, affordability, storage abilities, and versatility. Black beans also form a complete protein when paired with corn. Their creamy, earthy flavor and texture complement Mexican seasonings and ingredients perfectly. Beyond just being delicious and useful, black beans hold cultural and symbolic importance in Mexico. They represent home cooking, history, and identity. While originating in the Americas, black beans have spread across the world’s cuisines over time. But they will always have an essential place in Mexican food tradition.