What are Pinto Beans?

J. Beam

Pinto beans are spotted legumes that belong to the scientific family Phaseolus vulgaris, a wide classification that also includes navy, kidney, and black beans. Pintos are believed to be native to Central and South America, and are a popular part of many Mexican dishes. The United States consumes more of these beans than nearly any other country, but they are eaten — and widely available — in most parts of the world.

A plate of cooked pinto beans.
A plate of cooked pinto beans.

Defining Characteristics

The word “pinto” means “painted” or “spotted,” which refers to how the bean looks before it is cooked. Most are tan or cream colored with splotches of reddish brown, which has led some to call them "painted" or "mottled" beans. Many people believe that they were named for the pinto horse which has similar coloring. The spots make the legume interesting to look at, but they are usually lost in cooking — once prepared, they are usually solid brown or possibly a bit pink.

Cans of pinto beans can be purchased at supermarkets.
Cans of pinto beans can be purchased at supermarkets.

Buying Options

Pintos can typically be purchased fresh from farmers and local markets, but it is more common to find them either canned or dried. Canned beans are often pre-cooked or preserved in such a way that they do not really look all that spotted. These are by far the most convenient to use, as all that a cook must do is open the can, drain and rinse the contents, then carry on with the recipe at hand. Some people say that the canning process detracts from the beans’ taste, though, and the use of chemical preservatives and salt water solutions for packing can be concerning to people on low-sodium diets or who otherwise try to avoid additives.

Assorted beans, including pinto beans on the center left.
Assorted beans, including pinto beans on the center left.

Using dried versions is usually the closest way to get the taste of fresh produce without heading to the farm, though the process can be more time consuming. Cooks typically begin with an overnight soak, followed by slow boiling for an hour or more. People who have had beans both ways often notice a distinct taste difference between those that are canned and reheated and those that are reconstituted through soaking and boiling. Innovative cooks often favor the boil method for no other reason than that it allows them to influence the overall taste with other additives, such as spices and cured meats, that would be all but impossible with ready-to-eat versions.

Some chefs flavor pinto beans with salt-cured meats.
Some chefs flavor pinto beans with salt-cured meats.

Traditional Recipes

Pinto beans are very popular in many Mexican and Central American dishes, and feature heavily in the American “Tex-Mex” style of cooking. When mashed they can be used as a burrito filling, and also serve as the main component of refried beans. They feature widely in a range of stews and chilies, too.

Of course, the beans are often enjoyed on their own as well. Cooks will often make up a pot of pinto beans, sometimes throwing in extras like bacon or garlic, to serve as a side dish or light meal. Corn bread is a common accompaniment.


Creative cooks have used the pinto in a number of interesting ways. Blending with other savory ingredients like tomato and onion can make a delectable spread for bread and crackers, for instance. Whole beans can also be used as a base for cold salads or as a topping for nachos, rice, or most any dish with spicy, contrasting flavors.

Nutritional Value

Pinto beans are very high in both dietary fiber and protein, and are also a good source of vitamin B1, potassium, and iron. They are low in fat and cholesterol, which makes them an ideal meat substitute for those who are vegetarian; they are also a good way to perk up the nutritional content of traditional meat-containing meals. So long as they aren’t prepared with a lot of salt or butter, they are usually seen as a healthful addition to nearly any meal.

Mashed pinto beans are a common burrito filling.
Mashed pinto beans are a common burrito filling.

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Discussion Comments


@anon161366: FYI, protein is made up of a variety of amino acids. Yes, they are the building blocks that make up meat, but are not "meat" in themselves. How do you think protein gets into cows? Also, what about textured vegetable protein (TVP), made from soy beans? I'm married to a veggie and so have had to learn about non-meat protein sources.


pinto beans aren't protein because protein is meat and pintos aren't meat.


One of my favorite recipes is to make Mexican chili with pinto beans. All you have to do is take your beans and soak them overnight to soften them, then put them in your pot.

Then you add in some diced tomatoes, onions, chopped peppers, and black olives. I like to put in a little bit of meat too, but it goes just as well vegetarian.

Cook it all together for a few hours, and voila -- the best Mexican chili with pinto beans you've ever tried.


Can I use a slow cooker for pinto bean soup? I've always wanted to try and make some, but I wasn't sure if you could only do it in a regular pot, or if a slow cooker would do.

Any advice, pinto bean enthusiasts?


My grandfather always used to make us pinto beans and ham for Christmas -- I guess it was just his thing.

They always tasted so good, and I can still remember the smell of a crockpot of pinto beans with ham slices frying on the side.

He would take the dry pinto beans and soak them overnight beforehand, just to make them extra soft, and then put them in the crockpot for a day -- that smell still reminds me of Christmas whenever I encounter it.

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