Typical Costa Rican Gallo Pinto
Gallo Pinto is a traditional Costa Rican dish, typically served at breakfast with fried plantain, toasts, fresh fruits and, traditionally, a couple of fried eggs.
I first heard of Gallo Pinto a few years ago, when one of my very good friends visited Costa Rica. While there, he totally fell in love with this traditional dish of theirs, and it was only a matter of time before he had me discover it and fall in love with it, too!
Back then, I’d studied many a recipe and came up with my own version of it, but having never visited Costa Rica myself, I could only imagine what the true, typical dish actually tasted, or even looked like.
Now that I got the chance to spend a few months here, I can assure you that I’ve had my share of the real deal. In fact, I think that I’ve had gallo pinto practically every day. I’ve had a chance to analyze the recipe first hand, ask questions, and replicate it for myself, time and time again. I think that I’ve now truly mastered it and can make it with my eyes closed. Heck, I could probably apply for a job at a local soda! I honestly feel that the recipe I am sharing with you today is as close to the real deal as will ever be.
However, I think that Gallo Pinto is one of those dishes for which there are as many different versions as there are people making it. One thing that they all have in common though is that they all call for cooked white rice, preferably leftover rice that’s been cooked the day before and fully chilled, cooked black beans, although some will use red beans, and Salsa Lizano!
That last ingredient, the Salsa Lizano, would be the one secret ingredient, the key ingredient that every one agrees on. It’s said to be practically mandatory when making authentic Gallo Pinto.
But me, I find that the absolute game changer really is to take the time to cook your own beans from scratch. Canned beans just don’t cut it. The beans play a major role in the flavoring, as well as in the coloring of the dish. Indeed, the rice will take its notorious black color from the liquid the beans have been cooking in.
For that reason, I don’t even rinse my beans after they’ve soaked, but rather cook them directly in their soaking liquid. This results in the darkest, blackest beans, and that color then transfers to the rice.
So your first course of action when making Gallo Pinto should be to soak your dry black beans in a large bowl – make sure they are covered with at least 4 inches of water – then let them sit overnight.
When ready to cook the beans, transfer them along with their soaking liquid to a large pot, making sure that they are still covered with at least 2 inches of water; add more if necessary. Add the onions and garlic, but don’t add any salt just yet.
Note that if you follow my recipe, you will end up with way more cooked beans than you need to make this batch of Gallo Pinto, but trust me you’ll be glad to have leftovers. The beans reheat and freeze really well, so you can either reheat and serve them with fresh cooked white rice (you have cassado right there, another typical Costa Rican dish!) or freeze them and keep them to make another batch of gallo pinto later (or sooner!)
Bring to a boil, then cover loosely and reduce the heat; simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes.
That’s when you want to add the salt… adding salt too soon in the process sometimes will prevent your beans from cooking properly and they will remain tough. Adding it later in the game, when the beans are almost cooked but not quite will allow the beans to still absorb some of that salt while they finish cooking, but prevent them from getting tough.
Be careful not to add too much salt, as this liquid will still evaporate some and you won’t be draining it once the beans are cooked.
Now let your beans cook uncovered until they are completely tender and the liquid has thickened and reduced to a point that it just barely cover the beans. If you find that too much liquid evaporates during the cooking process, feel free to add more.
Once cooked to your liking, remove your beans from the heat, adjust seasoning and allow them to cool completely. The cooking liquid will continue to thicken as it cools. You could even let those beans chill in the fridge overnight, right next to your rice…
Cuz yeah… When making Gallo Pinto, you should totally be cooking your rice the previous night, (white rice is preferred here but feel free to use your favorite kind) so it has ample time to chill before you add it to the dish. This will allow it to absorb more flavor and will prevent it from getting mushy…
Indeed, if you were to use rice that’s freshly cooked and still warm, it would invariably go mushy on you, rather than give you the desired separate, chewy grains that you are after.
If you didn’t have any day-old rice on hand and still badly wanted to make gallo pinto, you could always cook some fresh, spread it across a baking sheet as soon as it’s ready and then flash-cool it in the freezer for about 30 minutes before using it.
Gallo Pinto definitely qualifies as slow food, because the rice and the beans take a fairly long time to cook and chill. But once that’s out of the way, the rest of the prep goes crazy quick. So you can totally whip up a fresh batch for breakfast, providing that you made your rice and your beans ahead of time.
Once your those have been dealt with, simply heat some olive oil in a large saute pan set over medium heat, then add the onion, garlic, bell pepper, thyme sprigs, salt and pepper and cook until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Add 2 cups of the cooked beans in their cooking liquid, Salsa Lizano and hot sauce, if using.
Now about that Salsa Lizano, should you have had no luck locating it, substitute Worcestershire sauce for it and add a half teaspoon or so of ground cumin to your dish. While this won’t give you the true, traditional flavor of Gallo Pinto, it’ll at least get you as close as it’s gonna get…
As for the beans, while home cooked are ALWAYS preferred, if there was really no time for that, you could substitute a can of black or red beans and their liquid. Just go ahead and add the whole can, without draining first!
Stir to combine and simmer for a few minutes, until practically all the liquid is evaporated.
Add 3 cups of cooked rice, stir well until the rice is completely coated and continue cooking until heated through, about 3 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat source, fish out those sprigs of thyme and stir in chopped cilantro.
That’s it, you’re done!
Serve your Gallo Pinto immediately, garnished with a few lime wedges,
Like I said, this goes good with just about anything… in Costa Rica, they traditionally eat Gallo Pinto at breakfast, and usually will serve it with fresh fruits, fried plaintain, toasts and a couple of fried eggs.
As for myself, I like to have mine with fresh, creamy avocado and a few slices of tomatoes! Perfect combo!
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 5-6 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 2 cups cooked black beans*, from recipe below
- 2-3 tbsp Salsa Lizano, or Worcestershire sauce + 1/2 tsp ground cumin**
- 1 tsp hot chili sauce, optional
- 3 cups day old cooked white rice***
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
FOR THE COOKED BLACK BEANS
- 14 oz dry black beans
- 1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- Enough water to cover the black beans
- Salt to taste
To make the cooked black beans
- Place the dry black beans in a large bowl and add enough water to cover the beans with at least 4 inches of water. Cover and let sit overnight.
- When ready to cook the beans, transfer them along with their soaking water**** to a large pot, making sure that they are still covered with at least 2 inches of water; add more if necessary. Add the onions and garlic, but don't add the salt just yet.
- Bring to a boil, then cover loosely and reduce the heat; simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes. After this time, add the salt and let your beans cook uncovered until they are completely tender and the liquid has thickened and reduced to a point that it just barely cover the beans. If too much liquid should evaporate during the cooking process, feel free to add more.
- Remove from heat, adjust seasoning and allow your beans to cool completely.
- Note that this recipe yield more cooked beans than needed to make a batch of gallo pinto, but trust me you'll be glad to have leftovers. The beans reheat and freeze really well, so you can either reheat and serve them with cooked white rice (you have cassado right there, another typical Costa Rican dish!) or freeze them and keep them to make another batch of gallo pinto later (or sooner!)
TO MAKE THE GALLO PINTO
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan set over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, bell pepper and thyme and cook until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
- Add the cooked beans in their cooking liquid (if using canned, add beans and liquid – do not drain), Salsa Lizano (or Worcestershire and cumin), and hot sauce if using. Stir to combine and simmer for a few minutes, until practically all the liquid is evaporated.
- Add cooked rice, stir well until the rice is completely coated and continue cooking until heated through, about 3 minutes.
- Remove from heat, fish out thyme sprigs and stir in chopped cilantro.
- Serve immediately, garnished with a few lime wedges, if desired.
*Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2018 and has since been completely revamped. A few modifications to the original recipe have been made.