You know Lentils make a great soup — but that’s by no means their only strong suit. Nutty, earthy and supremely versatile, these tiny lens-shaped seeds come in a broad spectrum of colors, sizes and textures — and they’re incredibly easy to cook. That makes them a great base for a wide range of dishes across a variety of cuisines. They also work well as a low-glycemic grain substitute in a variety of grain-based recipes.
A staple of South Asian, European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, lentils — like kidney beans and black-eyed peas — are harvested only for their seeds, making them a “pulse” crop.
Pulses are a type of legume. But unlike most other legumes, lentils don’t need to be presoaked, so they’re much quicker to prepare. Most require only about 10 to 20 minutes to cook. And, because they’re packed with protein, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals, they’re a fabulous choice for a quick and healthy meal.
- Sort dry lentils carefully to remove unwanted stones, which can easily sneak through the harvesting and packaging process.
- Unlike dried beans, lentils do not require presoaking. Just rinse them before cooking. Any suds you see are the result of lentil dust (from the seeds rubbing together), so no need to skim.
- For every 1 cup of lentils, bring about 2 cups of water to a boil (boiling water before adding lentils helps with digestion). Add lentils, reduce heat and cover. Simmer, on average, 10 to 20 minutes until tender — split lentils cook faster than whole ones.
- In general, lentils should be al dente soft, like pasta — whole and firm but tender when chewed. For firm, whole lentils, add a few drops of oil to the water to help keep the lentils separate. For softer lentils in dishes like Indian dahl, increase cooking time.
Shopping and Storage Tips
- Lentils are sold dried — whether whole, hulled or split. They can be purchased in packages or from bulk bins in the natural foods sections of most grocery stores.
- Lentils store extremely well for months, or even years. Just keep them in a cool, dry place. Dark storage is ideal because lentils fade more quickly when exposed to light. But even if they lose color, lentils keep indefinitely.
- If covered, cooked lentils will keep fresh for up to three days refrigerated or up to six months frozen.
- About 26 percent of lentils’ calories are from protein, so they are an excellent choice for vegetarians and those who want to cut down on meat consumption. Yet, as with other legumes, the protein found in lentils does not contain all of the essential amino acids the body needs (lentils contain 20 of the 22 amino acids needed to make a complete protein). Combining lentils with whole grains like rice or barley solves that problem.
- Another way to get a complete protein from lentils is to sprout them. When lentils start to sprout, they develop the extra two amino acids needed for a complete protein. Sprouted lentils can be used in salads, stir-fries and soups.
- Lentils are full of phytonutrients called isoflavones. Phytonutrients (a term that simply means “nutrient from a plant”) function as antioxidants and boost immunity while helping to keep your heart healthy.
- Lentils are rich in soluble fiber, which helps detoxify the body, stabilizes blood-sugar levels, reduces inflammation and, ultimately, provides a steadier form of energy. This makes lentils an ideal choice for diabetics.
- A single serving (1 cup of cooked lentils) provides 90 percent of the recommended daily amount of folate, 22 percent of thiamin and 18 percent of vitamin B6, making lentils an excellent source of B vitamins.
- Lentils are rich in minerals: A single serving also gives the body 49 percent of its daily requirement of manganese, 37 percent of iron and 36 percent of phosphorous.
- Don’t eat undercooked (still crunchy) lentils. Like many nuts, seeds and grains, they contain phytic acid, which binds minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron, rendering them unavailable for absorption into the body. Undercooked lentils are also hard to digest and may cause gastric distress.
- Because lentils contain purines, naturally occurring crystalline compounds that can be broken down into uric acid upon oxidation, people with gout or kidney problems should avoid them. (Research on uric acid suggests that this waste product may be an important bellwether for cardiometabolic health. Learn more at “Uric Acid: A New Metric for Heart Health.”)
A quick overview of several common types of lentils and how to use them.
- Black beluga lentils are small, round and black, and they glisten when cooked (resembling beluga caviar). They have a rich flavor and hold their shape well. That makes them perfect for salads and side dishes. Use in non-lentil soups when you want added body. Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes.
- Brown and green lentils are classic lentils, and they are readily available in most grocery stores. They hold their shape well (but will get mushy if overcooked), and are ideal as a pantry staple. Use them for salads, stuffing, casseroles, soups and dips, or mixed with whole grains for pilafs. Cooking time: 15 to 25 minutes.
- Puy green lentils (also called French or Italian) have a delicate, peppery flavor. These small, speckled green lentils are especially good for salads because they hold their shape well. For a classic French dish, sauté diced bacon and simmer with lentils and fresh herbs in stock. Finish with heavy cream. Cooking time: 20 minutes.
- Macachiados are yellow lentils from Mexico. They are larger than traditional brown lentils and are great for making hearty stews and soups (perfect for chili!). Because of their size, they take longer to cook. Cooking time: 34 to 45 minutes.
- Red lentils are revered in Middle Eastern cooking. With a pink color that changes to gold when cooked, they soften quickly, in about 15 minutes. They’re ideal for Indian dahl, a stew flavored with garlic, onion and cumin that is traditionally served over basmati rice. Also great in purées or as a thickening agent for soups. Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes.
- Yellow lentils have a mild flavor and are a favorite in both India and Pakistan. In India, yellow lentils, like red lentils (above), are often used for dahl. They are also ground into flour and used to make breads. Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes.
6 Low-Maintenance Ways to Make Lentils
- For a simple main dish or side, mix cooked lentils and rice, and add your favorite spices. You can easily cook lentils and rice together in the same pot: Bring 1/2 cup brown rice, 1/2 cup lentils and 2 cups liquid to a boil and then simmer until rice has absorbed all the liquid. Lentils are mild, so they pair best with strong flavors like garlic, turmeric, chilies, cumin or cardamom; finish with lemon juice or yogurt.
- To make a bright-flavored cold salad, combine cooked lentils with chopped peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables. Season with orange juice, olive oil, fresh basil, cilantro, oregano, ginger, and a dash of cayenne, chili or other hot spice.
- For a rich stuffing, sauté vegetables like zucchini, squash, peppers or cabbage, and combine with cooked lentils and a cooked whole grain such as millet or quinoa.
- Transform vegetarian chili by adding red, green and black lentils to your pot instead of beans. Or substitute lentils for half the meat in your favorite chili recipe.
- For Mexican dishes, cook lentils with garlic, cumin and chili powder. Add them to your favorite salsa, make them into burritos with sautéed vegetables, or use instead of meat or refried beans in tacos.
- Try a new twist on dip by replacing the chickpeas in your favorite hummus recipe with extra-soft cooked lentils puréed in a food processor. You can experiment with different-colored lentils and alternate flavorings to create all kinds of great dips to serve with crackers and vegetables, or as a spread on your favorite sandwiches or wraps.
Warm Citrus Black Lentil and Quinoa Salad
Black beluga lentils are a perfect base for a quick, light salad. As an alternative to citrus, you can try other fruits, such as unsweetened dried apricots, raisins or dates.
Makes | 10 servings
- 1 cup black beluga lentils, sorted and rinsed
- 1 tbs. garam masala curry powder
- 2 cups vegetable stock (or water)
- 1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed
- 1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
- 1/4 cup finely chopped carrot
- 1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
- 1 cup vegetable stock
- 1 cup mandarin oranges, cut in half
- 2 tbs. chopped fresh mint
- 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tbs. rice wine vinegar
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- Pinch of white pepper
- Bring the lentils, curry powder and stock to boil in a medium saucepan, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes or until lentils are al dente. Strain through a fine mesh strainer.
- Stir quinoa in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until dry and light brown. Add onion, carrot and bell pepper and cook one minute. Add vegetable stock, bring to boil, turn heat to simmer and cover until all the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes.
- In a mixing bowl, gently toss the cooked lentils and quinoa with the oranges, mint, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.
Lentil and Millet Burgers topped With Lemon Yogurt Sauce
These Greek-inspired lentil and millet burgers work best if you form them a day earlier and then refrigerate overnight, and cook when ready to serve.
Makes | 9 burgers
- 1/2 cup millet, rinsed
- 3 1/2 cups water
- 1 cup brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
- 1 tbs. ground cumin
- 1 tbs. ground coriander
- 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking burgers
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 3/4 cup finely chopped carrot
- 3/4 cup finely chopped celery
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
- 1/2 tsp. minced garlic
- Pinch of sea salt
- For the burgers: Place millet in large saucepan, stir constantly over medium heat until light brown. Add water, lentils, cumin and coriander. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until lentils are very tender, about 20 minutes.
- Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat and coat the bottom of the pan with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic; cook to soften the onions, about three minutes. Remove from heat and add to lentils. Mix in cayenne, parsley, eggs, salt and pepper. Form the mixture into 1/2-cup-size patties, about 1 inch thick, and place on a baking sheet lightly rubbed with olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. Add three patties at a time. Brown on each side for five minutes, until golden brown and crispy. (Be sure to flip the burgers gently, since they are delicate.)
- For the yogurt sauce: In a small bowl, mix yogurt with lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic and salt.
Red Lentil Dal With Spinach
Serve this creamy mixture of red lentils, curry spices and caramelized onions with steamed basmati rice, chopped fresh tomatoes, cilantro and — if desired — chopped jalapeño for extra heat. Adding in a handful of chopped dark greens boosts the nutrient value and the flavor.
Makes | 6 servings
- 1 cup dried red lentils, sorted, rinsed and drained
- 1 tbs. olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onions
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp. turmeric
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
- Pinch of cayenne (optional)
- 3 cups vegetable stock, homemade or low sodium (or water)
- 1 tbs. lime juice
- 2 cups chopped fresh spinach or julienned kale
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat the oil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onions have caramelized, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in turmeric, cumin, ginger and cayenne, then cook for one minute. Add the lentils and vegetable stock to the onion mixture. Bring to boil.
- Reduce heat, cover and simmer until lentils are tender, about 15 minutes.
- In a food processor, purée half of the lentil mixture, then return it to the saucepan with remaining lentils.
- Stir in the spinach and lime juice and simmer for five minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Ratatouille With Lentils
Add some great protein, flavor and texture to classic vegetable side dish. This ratatouille would be great served with a side salad, stuffed in peppers, or alongside roasted chicken. Experiment with black, red or brown lentils.
Makes | 8 servings
- 2 1/2 cups vegetable stock
- 1 cup brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
- 1/4 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup diced yellow onion
- 1/2 cup diced zucchini
- 1/2 cup diced yellow squash
- 1/2 cup diced eggplant
- 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
- 1/2 cup diced green bell pepper
- 1/2 cup diced portabella mushrooms, gills removed
- 1 1/2 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes (one 14 1/2 ounce can)
- 1 tbs. minced fresh garlic
- 1 tbs. balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 tsp. dried basil
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- Sort lentils to remove any stones or dirt; rinse under cold water. In a saucepan, heat the vegetable stock and lentils to a low boil, then cover, reduce heat, and cook until lentils have absorbed the liquid and are al dente, about 20 minutes.
- While the lentils are cooking, heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan.
- Add all the vegetables and garlic and sauté for five minutes, until the vegetables have started to soften.
- Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Gently stir in cooked lentils and serve.
This article originally appeared as “Lucious Lentils” in the March 2011 issue of Experience Life.