The lentil is native to Southwest Asia and is probably the oldest cultivated legume. Today, most lentils come from India, Canada, and Turkey. The lentil is a humble little legume that packs a punch in both flavor and nutrients, plus they're easy on the budget. Nutrition-wise, lentils are loaded with fiber and protein. With 12 grams of protein in 1/2 cup, lentils are an excellent meat replacement when combined with a whole grain item. Lentils are also high in folic acid (folate), potassium, and iron. As for versatility, lentils may be used in dishes, from omelets and salads to soups and rice dishes.
Lentils come in a variety of colors and sizes, including black, green, yellow, red, and brown. Some lentils are best for soups, while others shine as a side dish or salad item.
- Brown lentils are the most common variety—they're inexpensive and readily available. They don't hold their shape as well as French or black lentils. Use them in soups, curries, or use them as a meat replacement in a lentil loaf, sloppy joes, or casserole.
- Green lentils are similar to brown lentils with a slightly peppery flavor.
- French green lentils (de Puy) are a bit firmer than other green lentils, and they are grown in France. Because they hold their shape well, they are an excellent choice for salads and soups.
- Red and yellow lentils are often used in Middle Eastern and Indian Cuisine. You might find red and yellow lentils split or whole. The flavor of these lentils is slightly sweet, and they become quite soft when cooked. Their soft texture can act as a thickener as well. Use them in Indian dals, hummus, and as a thickener in soups and stews.
- Black beluga lentils hold their shape well and resemble caviar.
How to Buy Lentils
Look for the "best by" date on the packaging or look for them in the bulk food bins, where they may be fresher and less expensive. Like other dried beans, older lentils can take twice as much time to cook, and if they are very old, they may never soften.
The way the lentil crop was grown or stored can make a difference in the lentil's ability to absorb liquid as well. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, when dry legumes are grown in high temperatures, and the humidity and water supply are low, the outer coat of the seed can become water-resistant and take much longer to absorb water. Months of storage at warm temperatures and high humidity can also cause water-resistance.
How to Cook Lentils on the Stovetop
- Before cooking, rinse the lentils, and sift through them; discard any small stones, bad lentils, and other debris.
- Soak if you like, but since lentils cook so quickly, there's no need. Most varieties cook in 20 to 30 minutes. However, an overnight soak in cold water will reduce cooking time by half.
- To cook, cover the lentils with plenty of water or stock—about 3 cups for each cup of dry lentils. Lentils swell in size, but they don't absorb the extra water; just drain them when they're done. Once you bring the liquid to a boil, cover the pan and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Lentils cooked over low heat maintain their integrity; they will split and fall apart if boiled too briskly.
- Lentils lend themselves whatever flavors you add to the pot. Instead of plain water, cook lentils in vegetable or meat broth or stock, and add aromatics. Garlic, fresh herbs, some sliced browned onions or shallots, and a bay leaf can turn lentils into a fantastic side dish.
Basic Time Guide
- Brown Lentils and Green Lentils: 20 to 30 minutes
- French Green Lentils: 25 to 35 minutes
- Red and Yellow Lentils: 15 to 20 minutes
- Black Beluga Lentils: 20 to 25 minutes
Generally, the longer you cook lentils, the softer they will become. If you want your lentils to have some bite, as in a salad or side dish, check them early. For an Indian dal or hummus, or if the lentils are to act as a thickener, cook them longer. Cooking time and texture also depends on the variety and the age of the lentils. Water hardness and acidic ingredients can also make a difference. If your water is hard, add about one teaspoon of baking soda for each cup of lentils.
The Instant Pot is another excellent way to cook lentils because all you have to do is add the ingredients, set the timer, and walk away. Cook one cup of brown or green lentils in 3 cups of broth or water, plus any seasonings and aromatics. Cook under high pressure for 9 minutes and then do a quick release.