How to Cook Lentils

Cooked lentils in a bowl.
Jules/Flickr/CC 2.0

Although lentils are perhaps most commonly associated with South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, they're also traditional staples in French and Italian cuisine—hence the famous Lentils du Puy, or French lentils farmed in France's Auvergne region. Lentils are documented to have been consumed in biblical times, and have a significant place in Roman history. They continue to be used around the world today.

Lentils are often served alongside meat in western and Middle Eastern cuisine, shining in a Spanish lentil soup or mujadarra side dish. In vegetarian-friendly South Indian cuisine, by contrast, they are often served as the main dish, utterly satisfying and rib-sticking in a comforting dhal. (Dhal, sometimes spelled dal, is a word in several Indian languages that refers to both raw lentils and the resulting prepared dish.)

Lentils are extremely forgiving to cook. Once you have the technique down, you don't need to follow a recipe. Boil some green lentils and dress them with blue cheese, a spritz of lemon, a splash of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and perhaps some torn herbs. You now have yourself a superb meal, perfect when served with crusty bread. With the following guidelines, you can experiment and come up with recipes of your own. Cook up whatever lentils you have, and then add toppings to make them a side dish—or add some extra vegetable broth, carrots, and onions, for a comforting Sunday soup.

Types of Lentils

Yellow lentils

  • Yellow lentils (like moong dhal) are the starchiest of all lentils. They are commonly used in South Asia for thick, creamy dhal. Because of this, they're not ideal for salads or dry dishes. They break down to a luxuriously soft consistency while still having meaty mouthfeel and satisfying body.
  • Average stovetop cook time, unsoaked: 20 to 35 minutes, depending on age and desired consistency.
  • Average Instant Pot cook time, unsoaked: 5 to 10 minutes, depending on consistency. Additional time required to preheat and release pressure.
  • Average slow cooker cook time, unsoaked: 7 to 8 hours on low.

Red lentils

  • Ideal for Indian dishes like dhal, these lentils break down to a comforting stew. Red lentils tend to have less body and starch than yellow lentils. They're great for soups as well. Ideally served with a more structural carb, like white rice, brown rice, naan, or crusty French bread. Not ideal for salads, as they're too creamy.
  • Average stovetop cook time, unsoaked: 20 to 35 minutes, depending on age.
  • Average Instant Pot cook time, unsoaked: 5 to 10 minutes on high pressure, additional time to build pressure and release it afterwards.
  • Average slow cooker cook time, unsoaked: 4 hours on high setting, or 7 to 8 hours on low.

Green lentils (including French lentils)

  • Green lentils (like lentils du Puy) are similar to brown lentils. They are ideal for salads, as they keep their structure quite well without being gritty or mealy. They're also great for soups, although odds are you will have to puree them in a blender for that luscious, silky consistency.
  • Average stovetop cook time, unsoaked: 30 to 45 minutes, depending on age and desired consistency.
  • Average Instant Pot cook time, unsoaked: 10 to 15 minutes on high pressure, additional time to build pressure and release it afterwards.
  • Average slow cooker cook time, unsoaked: 8 to 9 hours on low setting, 4 to 5 hours on high setting.

Black lentils

  • Similar to green lentils and brown lentils, black lentils retain their structure and are ideal for salads and soups, as well as Indian dishes like dhal. Beluga lentils are the most famous variety of black lentils. Thus named for their similarity to beluga caviar, they're prized for their taste and texture.
  • Average stovetop cook time, unsoaked: 35 to 50 minutes, depending on age and desired consistency.
  • Average Instant Pot cook time, unsoaked: 15 to 30 minutes, depending on consistency. Additional time required to preheat and release pressure.
  • Average slow cooker cook time, unsoaked: 7 to 8 hours on low.

How to Prep Lentils for Cooking

Rinsing, sorting, and soaking your lentils is not necessary. Depending on the quality of lentils you have (how old they are, if they were packaged with any sediment or small rocks—rare these days), these additional steps will most likely not result in any perceptible difference to your final product. However, for that once-in-a-blue-moon moment that you do find a rock in your lentils, these extra steps are good practice if you can spare the extra five minutes. And while it's true that soaking lentils does cut down on cooking time, the difference isn't as marked as it is with beans. Your lentils will taste just as tender without it.

Rinsing

Give your lentils a rinse in cold water to remove any dust, bugs, or other debris that could have crept in. A mesh strainer is ideal for this, but a regular pot will work too. A couple swishes of your hand under cold running water will do the trick.

Draining

If you have a mesh strainer, great. If not, just do it with your hands, slowly pouring the water out between your fingers so as not to lose any lentils.

Sorting

Again, this step is optional. You're looking for any shriveled old lentils, or any rocks that might be too big to have been drained out in the previous step. Thanks to modern packaging and production facilities, rocks really are rare these days to find in your bag of lentils—but if you have the extra time, it can't hurt to look.

Soaking Lentils

Again, this step is not necessary. However, if you are planning ahead, soaking any type of lentil for about 2 hours is a good rule of thumb. You can leave them out on the counter with a lid on top, given that the ambient temperature isn't too hot. Nothing bad will happen if you forget about them and leave them overnight (about 12 hours). Try not to leave them for longer, however, unless you're going for sprouted lentils.

How to Cook Lentils on the Stovetop

Lentils are extremely forgiving to boil on the stovetop. Green, brown, and black lentils can be boiled as you would pasta; just throw them in a pot with a good amount of water, and drain whatever you don't need.

This method doesn't quite work with red and yellow lentils, because their starch content causes them to disintegrate. If you try to get rid of extra water after cooking, you'll end up discarding a good amount of lentils as well. That said, as long as you add the minimum required amount of liquid required to cook, you really can add as much extra as you want. You'll notice that recipes for dhal and lentil soup vary greatly in the amount of liquid they call for because consistency is a matter of personal preference.

Other factors, like the surface area of your pot, altitude, and age of your lentils will also affect cooking time.

  1. For red and yellow lentils, you'll need at least 2 cups of water per one cup of lentils. For green lentils, you’ll need 2 1/2 cups of water for every one cup of lentils. And black lentils, you’ll need 3 cups of water for every one cup of lentils. Place the lentils and water in a saucepan.
  2. Bring the water to a rolling boil, the reduce the heat to low. Place a lid on top, and allow them to simmer for 20 minutes. Feel free to add any herbs and spices at this point, but be careful to not add salt, as that's going to lengthen cooking time.
  3. Do a taste test to see if they're tender. If so, go ahead and drain the lentils, if necessary. Salt to taste.

How to Cook Lentils in the Instant Pot

  1. If adding herbs, spices, or alliums (like onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, etc.), add oil and set the pot setting to sauté. Once any additions are sufficiently flavorful and cooked, add lentils.
  2. Add twice the amount of water as you have lentils. When in doubt, add a splash more water. You can cook the lentils in chicken stock or vegetable stock for extra flavor. Set the Instant Pot to the high pressure setting, and cook for 15 minutes.
  3. Let pressure release. Check for doneness and seasonings.

How to Cook Lentils in the Slow Cooker

  1. Add lentils, seasonings, and any garlic or onion to the slow cooker; avoid salting at this step, as it will delay cooking time. You'll want three to four times the volume of liquid. So if you're cooking one cup of lentils, add 3 to 4 cups of water. Slow cooker lentils are best for soups and stews when you're looking for a creamy, broken down final product.
  2. Depending on the type of lentil, cook on high for 3 to 4 hours, or low for 7 to 8 hours. It is possible they'll take even longer.
  3. Be sure to stir every once in a while, especially if you're cooking on the high setting, as lentils can stick to the bottom. Even a small amount of burnt lentils can permeate the flavor of a large soup.

How to Tell If Lentils Are Done

Use a fork to remove a few lentils from the simmering water. Taste the lentils to test the texture. The lentils should be tender and somewhat firm, but not crunchy, gritty, or mealy. If the lentils are not yet to your desired level of doneness, allow to cook a little longer and test again. Repeat this until the lentils have reached the texture you desire.

Remember that green and black lentils tend to keep their shape. Red and yellow lentils will break down quickly during cooking and form a creamy purée.

Tips

  • Be sure to not salt your lentils until the very last stage of cooking, as this will lengthen cooking time.
  • Acidic ingredients like tomatoes, wine, vinegar, sour cream, and yogurt will also lengthen cooking time. However, that doesn't mean they need to be reserved until the end. Many recipes call for the addition of these ingredients—especially tomatoes and wine—towards the beginning, so the flavors can sufficiently infuse into the lentils.
  • You always want to be sure to bring your lentils to a full rolling boil before you reduce the heat if you're cooking on a stovetop. Like when cooking rice, bringing your lentils to a boil is an essential step in having a well cooked final product.
  • If your lentils are fully cooked (creamy, not gritty) but not quite as broken down as you'd like them, go ahead and crush them with a back of a ladle. Or even better, take a handheld blender and purée your lentils to make them soupier.
  • Cook your lentils in chicken stock, vegetable stock, or even with a parmesan rind thrown in to make them more flavorful.