How to Cook Lentils

Cooked lentils in a bowl

Jules / Flickr / CC 2.0

Lentils are a type of legume that is small in size but big in flavor and nutrition. Available in a variety of colors, lentils are versatile, inexpensive, and extremely forgiving to cook. These dried legumes are a great addition to a vegetarian or vegan diet as they are high in protein and fiber, and are a common ingredient in Middle Eastern, South Asian, French, and Indian cuisines. Older lentils can take twice as long to cook, so it is ideal to buy the freshest available. Lentils have a long shelf life when stored in a cool, dry place, but are best when eaten within a year. Cooked lentils can be kept in the refrigerator for about a week.

Types of Lentils and Cooking Times

Lentils, also known as pulses, come in a variety of colors that range in size. Each type has its own characteristics and is best used in certain applications. Their different sizes also mean the cooking times will vary from variety to variety. Each method of cooking lists a time range; the older the lentil, the longer it will need to cook. For dishes where a firmer structure is desired, the shorter cooking time should be followed. Cooking times are based on lentils that have not been soaked beforehand. Lentils can be cooked on the stovetop and in an Instant Pot and slow cooker. The times for Instant Pot do not include additional time to preheat and release pressure.

Brown Lentils 

The most common variety, brown lentils are what are most often found at grocery stores and in lentil soup. They hold their shape well but get mushy if overdone. They cook quickly and can be used in soups, stews, salads, and pilafs, as well as substitute for meat in a vegetarian meatloaf or sloppy joes.

  • Stovetop: 15 to 20 minutes
  • Instant Pot: 6 to 12 minutes
  • Slow cooker: 4 hours on high, 8 hours on low

Yellow Lentils

Yellow lentils (called channa in Indian and Middle Eastern markets) are the starchiest of all lentils. They are commonly used in South Asia for thick, creamy dal. They break down to a luxuriously soft consistency while still having a meaty mouthfeel and satisfying body. Because of this, they're not ideal for salads or dry dishes.

  • Stovetop: 20 to 35 minutes
  • Instant Pot: 5 to 10 minutes
  • Slow cooker: 4 hours on high, 7 to 8 hours on low

Red Lentils

Ideal for Indian dishes like dal (also spelled dahl), these lentils break down to a comforting stew. Red lentils, sometimes labeled as masoor, tend to have less body and starch than yellow lentils, making them great for soups as well. Red lentils are served with a more structural carb, like white rice, brown rice, naan, or crusty French bread, but are not ideal for salads, as they're too creamy.

  • Stovetop: 20 to 35 minutes
  • Instant Pot: 5 to 10 minutes on high pressure
  • Slow cooker: 4 hours on high, 7 to 8 hours on low

Green Lentils (Including French Lentils)

Green lentils (like lentills du Puy) are similar to brown lentils and are best slow-cooked. They are ideal for salads, as they keep their structure quite well without being gritty or mealy. They're also great for soups but will most likely require pureeing in a blender for that luscious, silky consistency.

  • Stovetop: 30 to 45 minutes
  • Instant Pot: 10 to 15 minutes on high pressure
  • Slow cooker: 4 to 5 hours on high, 8 to 9 hours on low

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 dal. Beluga lentils, named for their similar appearance to beluga caviar, are the most famous variety of black lentils and are prized for their taste and texture.

  • Stovetop: 35 to 50 minutes
  • Instant Pot: 15 to 30 minutes
  • Slow cooker: 4 hours on high, 7 to 8 hours on low

How to Prep Lentils for Cooking

Thanks to modern packaging and production facilities, as well as the structure of the lentil itself, rinsing, sorting, and soaking lentils is not necessary; these additional steps will most likely not result in any perceptible difference to your final product. However, if you do find a rock in your lentils, take these simple extra steps.

Give your lentils a rinse in cold water to remove any dust or other debris. A fine-mesh strainer is ideal for this. Then look for and remove any shriveled old lentils or any rocks that might be too big to have been drained out in the previous step.

Soaking Lentils

When it comes to cooking dried legumes, soaking first is often a necessary step. While it's true that soaking lentils does cut down on cooking time, the difference isn't as marked as it is with beans. The lentils will taste just as tender without it. If you prefer to soak the lentils, about 2 hours is a good rule of thumb no matter the type of lentil. Let sit on the counter with a lid on top (as long as the kitchen isn't too hot). It is OK if they are left overnight (about 12 hours), but don't leave them for longer or else they may become sprouted lentils.

How to Cook Lentils on the Stovetop

Lentils are extremely forgiving when boiled on the stovetop and allow you to have complete control over their doneness. Green, brown, and black lentils can be boiled as you would pasta; just put them in a pot with a good amount of water, cook to the desired consistency, and drain whatever liquid you don't need. This method, however, doesn't work well with red and yellow lentils because their starch content causes them to disintegrate. Thus, when discarding some of the water after cooking, a good amount of lentils will be tossed out as well.

Recipes for dal 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 the pot, altitude, and the age of the lentils, will also affect cooking time.

For red and yellow lentils, use at least 2 cups of water per 1 cup of lentils; for green lentils, use 2 1/2 cups of water for every 1 cup of lentils. When cooking black lentils, use 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of lentils.

  1. Place the lentils in a saucepan with the water.
  2. Bring the water to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to low. Place a lid on top and allow it to simmer for the recommended time. 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. Add liquid as needed if the lentils become dry.
  4. Do a taste test to see if the lentils are tender. When done, drain the lentils if necessary and salt to taste.

How to Cook Lentils in the Instant Pot

Using the Instant Pot to cook lentils will cut the time dramatically. Take note, however, that brown and green lentils are best, as the other varieties will turn to mush when pressure cooked. The ratio of water to lentils should be 2:1.

  1. If using herbs, spices, or aromatics (like onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, etc.), add some oil and set the pot to sauté. Add the aromatics and cook until tender and flavorful, then add the lentils.
  2. Pour in twice the amount of liquid as there are lentils; use chicken stock or vegetable stock for extra flavor. Set the Instant Pot to the high-pressure setting and cook for the recommended time.
  3. Let the pressure release. Check for doneness and seasoning.

How to Cook Lentils in the Slow Cooker

Cooking lentils in a slow cooker will take the longest amount of time but allows all of the flavors to meld together and the legumes to tenderize. Slow cooker lentils are best for soups and stews when looking for a creamy, broken-down final product. Use three to four times the volume of liquid compared to the lentils. (So for 1 cup of lentils, add 3 to 4 cups of water.) The final consistency of the lentils is dependent on the amount of liquid and length of time cooked.

  1. Add the lentils and any seasonings and aromatics to the slow cooker. Avoid salting at this step, as it will delay cooking time.
  2. Depending on the type of lentil, cook on high for 3 to 4 hours or on low for 7 to 8 hours. It is possible the lentil can take even longer to cook to the desired consistency.
  3. Be sure to stir every once in a while, especially if 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

Depending on the final recipe, the texture of the lentil when it is done will vary. Use a fork to remove a few lentils from the simmering water and 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 them to cook a little longer and test again. Repeat this until the lentils have reached the required texture.

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

Tips

  • Don't salt the 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—toward the beginning so the flavors can sufficiently infuse into the lentils.
  • Make sure to bring the lentils to a full rolling boil before you reduce the heat when cooking on the stovetop. As when cooking rice, bringing the lentils to a boil is an essential step in having a well-cooked final product.
  • If the lentils are fully cooked (creamy, not gritty) but not quite as broken down as you'd like, go ahead and crush them with the back of a ladle. Or even better, take a handheld blender and puree the lentils to make them soupier.
  • Cook the lentils in chicken stock, vegetable stock, or even with a Parmesan rind thrown in to make them more flavorful.