What Are Lentils?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

what are lentils

Lindsay Kreighbaum / The Spruce Eats  

Lentils, small, lens-shaped legumes, range from yellow and red to green, brown, and even black. They are inexpensive, highly nutritious, and can be stored for a long time without refrigeration. These features have made lentils a staple food in many cultures across the globe.

What Are Lentils?

Lentils grow in pods, making them part of the legume family along with beans, peanuts, and peas. The dried seeds of legume plants, such as lentils, are also referred to as "pulses." They can be used for soups and stews, salads and side dishes, and feature prominently in Indian cuisine, especially as the main ingredient in a dish known as dal. In the United States, they are frequently associated with vegetarian cooking as a non-meat protein source.

How to Cook Lentils

Unlike many dried beans, you do not need to soak lentils before you cook them. Using the method similar to all beans and grains, simply cover them with liquid, bring the pot to a boil, then cover it and simmer until the lentils absorb the liquid and soften. This takes about 20 to 40 minutes depending on the variety.

You can add dried lentils straight to a pot of brothy long-simmering soup, or add pre-cooked lentils to salads, protein bowls, casseroles, pasta, pilafs, and other sides. Season them as the non-meat base for a shepherd's pie or slip them into everything from meatloaf to tacos.

What Do They Taste Like?

The taste of lentils depends on the color, although all varieties might be described as earthy. Red lentils have a sweeter note while green or black lentils impart a bit of a peppery flavor to a dish. The mild flavor leaves plenty of room for seasoning.

Lentil Recipes

Inexpensive lentils add flavor, bulk, and nutrition at breakfast, lunch, and dinner to a wide range of dishes coming from cuisines that span the globe.

Where to Buy Lentils

Lentils can be purchased in bags like dried beans, but are also a popular offering in bulk bins. Because lentils are a staple food in most of the Middle East, India, and Asia, check ethnic markets for a greater selection and lower prices. Most grocery stores stock the common brown, green, and red lentils, but you may need to go online for the French and black varieties. You can also purchase ready-to-eat canned lentils, but beware of the high sodium content; rinsing canned lentils before you use them washes away some of the salt.

Storage

Dried lentils have an extremely long shelf life. Store them in an airtight container away from light, heat, and moisture. An airtight container also keeps insects out, which easily infest improperly stored dried grains and legumes. Cooked lentils stay good stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to three months, making them a good ingredient for a weekend meal prep plan.

what are lentils
The Spruce Eats / Hugo Lin

Nutrition and Benefits

Lentils contain the third highest amount of protein of any legume, behind soybeans and hemp seeds. The high protein content and low cost of lentils make them an indispensable food item in many developing countries and among vegetarian populations. Although lentils aren't a complete protein, coupling them with a whole grain such as brown rice or bulgur wheat provides all of the essential amino acids.

Lentils, as with many legumes, are also high in iron, potassium, manganese, and folate while low in fat and calories. Hulled lentil varieties, such as red and some black lentils, provide less fiber than varieties with the hull intact, but just 1/2 cup of cooked green lentils delivers 32 percent of the recommended daily allowance for fiber.

Varieties

Brown lentils hold their shape well but get mushy if you overcook them. This common variety cooks quickly (in about 20 minutes) and requires no soaking like most other beans. Use mild brown lentils in soups, stews, salads, pilafs, and more.

Green lentils are quite large (about 1/4 inch in diameter) and tend to be slightly flatter than other varieties. Green lentils are flavorful, remain fairly firm, and retain their shape with cooking. This makes them ideal for salads, pilafs, and other dishes with ingredients that get tossed, mixed, or stirred together.

French green lentils are smaller and darker than common green lentils and appear slightly speckled on the surface. This variety of lentil remains especially firm and requires an extended cooking time of approximately 40 minutes. Puy lentils are grown in a specific region of central France and have a notable mineral flavor.

Yellow lentils are sweet and nutty and have a reddish interior flesh. These lentils break down when you cook them and work well in dips, purees such as Indian dal, and dishes that require thickening.

Red lentils are yellow lentils that have been hulled and split. They are a light red to orange color, small in size, and create a very smooth puree when cooked. Because they have been hulled and split, red lentils are also the quickest cooking variety.

Black/beluga lentils are small and quite round in shape. They are often called beluga lentils because they resemble beluga caviar when cooked. Although the hull is dark black in color, the flesh is light and creamy. Black lentils are available whole, hulled, or hulled and split.