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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.