What are Pulses and Why Are They Important

close-up of chickpeas in a bowl
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The popularity of pulses has been rising in recent years—2017 was even declared the year of the pulse by the United Nations—but the name itself might not ring a bell with most home cooks. So what exactly are these suddenly trendy ingredients? In short, a pulse is the edible seed of legumes and includes all types of beans, peas, and lentils.

While they've suddenly coming into the spotlight, pulses themselves are not new: They were first grown in the Middle East over 10,000 years ago. The annual crops are always harvested as dry grains as opposed to vegetable crops, which are picked while green. Currently, almost 200 countries grow and import pulses and growing them promotes sustainable agriculture since they help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase soil health, and use up less water.

The flavors of various pulses vary widely, but all share a few common characteristics They're low in fat, but high in lots of good stuff (folate, potassium, iron and other vitamins). As a great source of plant-based protein, pulses are a good option for vegetarians and vegans, but meat eaters benefit from eating them as well. Pulses will keep you feeling fuller for longer and can help with weight management, plus the risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization officially recognizes that pulse crops fall into 11 different types: chickpeas, dry beans, broad beans (fava beans), lentils, dry peas, cow peas, pigeon peas, bambara beans, vetches, lupins, and a group called pulse nes, which includes several smaller categories.

In the U.S., chickpeas, beans, peas, and lentils are probably the most popular and familiar to home cooks. They're easy to make and there are a wide variety of recipes that showcase each one—below are just a few delicious options using those recognizable pulse crops.

  • 01 of 08

    Sea Bass with Fava Beans and Mint

    Sea Bass with Fava Beans and Mint

    This Spain-inspired meal pairs wild sea bass with creamy spring fava beans (broad beans) that are slow poached in extra virgin olive oil with onions and mint.

  • 02 of 08

    Vegan Lentil Meatballs

    Vegan Lentil Meatballs

    The "meaty" texture and earthy flavor of lentils make them the ideal substitute for beef and pork in meatballs. With the added bonus of being nutrient-rich as well as delicious, this vegan recipe uses mushrooms, flax seeds, lentils, and gluten-free flour to bind everything together.

  • 03 of 08

    Creamed Peas with Eggs

    Creamed Peas with Eggs

    Creamed peas are amazing on their own as a side dish to meat or fish. But served in eggs or spooned over toasted English muffins, they can double as a hearty and healthy meal of their own.

  • 04 of 08

    Chickpea and Brussels Sprouts Salad

    Chickpea and Brussels Sprout Salad with Tahini Dressing
    Anita Schecter

    If you're a fan of coleslaw, but think you don't like Brussels sprouts, it's possible you're still traumatized by the school cafeteria's mushy, overcooked version. It turns out the little cabbages shred into a great base for slaw. Give them a spin in your food processor to get nice thin strips and serve them with naturally creamy chickpeas tossed in a lemon tahini dressing and a generous sprinkling of za'atar. Meet your new favorite side salad or lunch.

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  • 05 of 08

    Crock Pot Black Bean Chili

    Crock Pot Black Bean Chili

    This hearty black bean chili is loaded with tomatoes, cumin, onions, and garlic for a robust flavor.

  • 06 of 08

    Puerto Rican Rice with Pigeon Peas

    Puerto Rican Rice with Pigeon Peas

    Any special occasion Puerto Rican meal is likely to include rice with pigeon peas, or arroz con gandules. Pigeon peas have a nutty flavor that pairs well with the diced ham and sofrito in this dish. Serve it on its own or with a variety of sides like pollo guisado (a braised chicken stew), tostones, or a light salad.

  • 07 of 08

    Country Style Baked Navy Beans

    What's more comforting on a cold day than a big pot of country style baked beans? These navy beans are baked in a slow oven with salt pork or bacon and brown sugar. Serve them with hot dogs or as a side dish to some succulent pulled pork. Baked beans freeze beautifully, so make extra and you'll always have a stash for dinner.

  • 08 of 08

    Cuban White Bean Soup

    Easy yet hearty Cuban white bean soup melds the flavors of the legume with pork, onions, garlic, and seasonings such as cumin and oregano to make a delicious and satisfying meal.