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What Are Lentils?
Lentils are a small, oval-shaped member of the legume family, sometimes referred to as “pulses.” Incredibly rich in protein—the third highest of all legumes after soybeans and hemp—lentils are fantastic on their own or as a side dish to fish or roasted vegetables, but they also make a nutritious, gluten-free addition to salads and hearty soups.
Which Cuisines Cook With Lentils?
Lentils are a predominant ingredient in many cuisines across the globe, most notably throughout the Middle East, and across the Mediterranean. Ethnic markets and grocery stores will usually carry a wider variety.
Because they’re so flavorful on their own, lentil recipes are usually very simple.
- Lentil salad with fresh herbs and lemon juice. Combine 1 cup cooked lentils with a handful of fresh herbs like parsley, mint, and scallions with the juice of half a lemon, and ¼ cup finely chopped red onion or shallot. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve alongside seared fish, or alongside a yogurt sauce like tzatziki or raita.
- To make Indian dal, simply cook 1 cup red or yellow lentils normally. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, saute 1 small diced onion, 4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced, and ½ inch fresh ginger, finely chopped in ghee or olive oil over medium-high heat (you can also add one small green chili, finely chopped, if you’d like). Add ½ tsp kosher salt, ½ tsp ground cumin, ½ tsp ground turmeric, ¼ tsp ground coriander and 1 bay leaf and cook until fragrant. Add 1 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes, and reduce heat to low, cooking until thickened and well-combined, 4 minutes. Add this mixture to the cooked lentils and mix well. Season to taste.
4 Different Types of Lentils
There are many different kinds of lentils to look for. Here’s a brief primer:
- Red lentils, orange lentils, and yellow lentils. Red or orange lentils are simply yellow lentils that have been hulled and split, and are a reliable quick-cooking option as a result. These softer lentils bring a very mildly sweet and nutty character to any dish. Because they break down so well, they’re best used as a thickener in things like stews or cooked down to a smooth almost-puree, as seen in Indian dal.
- Green lentils. Typically interchangeable with the smaller, darker Puy lentils, or French green lentils, green lentils are firm with a deep peppery flavor. They take a little bit longer to cook as a result, about 45 minutes, but won’t break down when stirring into other dishes.
- Brown lentils. The most commonly found in grocery stores, brown lentils are the everyday hero of the bunch: soft and earthy in character—somewhere between the mild red lentil and the hearty, firm green lentil—with a quick cooking time.
- Black lentils. Also known as Beluga lentils thanks to their resemblance to caviar, black lentils are small and pearl-shaped with a dark black hull and light flesh.
Tips for Cooking Perfect Lentils
- Rinse them first. Packaged lentils may occasionally be hiding small rocks or debris leftover from the soil in which they grew, so do a quick sift through after rinsing under cold running water.
- Fresh is best. Dry lentils have a long shelf life (up to three years, properly stored in an airtight container) but aim for the freshest sell-by dates on the package for better texture. Older lentils may have tougher hulls.
3 Different Ways to Cook Lentils
If you’re short on time, a pressure cooker will cook lentils to tender perfection in under 10 minutes. If you have time to spare, cooking lentils in a slow cooker or on the stove top will result in a more complex overall flavor.
- Stovetop. To cook lentils on the stovetop, place lentils in a large pot with enough cooking liquid (water, or stock/broth if you prefer) to cover them—at least 2 inches. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to a very low simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 15-45 minutes (depending on varietal). When tender, remove from heat and drain thoroughly.
- Slow cooker. To cook lentils in a slow cooker, add lentils and cooking liquid (though it depends on type and desired result, a good starting place is 1 cup of lentils to 2 ½ cups liquid). Cook on low for specified time according to type.
- Pressure cooker. Avoid red, yellow, or orange lentils with this technique—the high pressure turns them to mush. Place lentils and cooking liquid of choice to the pressure cooker. Cook for 6 minutes on high, and allow the pressure cooker to release pressure naturally for about 10 minutes.
Easy Lentil Soup RecipeEMAIL RECIPE
- 1 cup red/orange/yellow lentils
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 leek, thinly sliced (white and light green parts only)
- + carrot, sliced crosswise at an angle
- + celery, sliced crosswise at an angle
- 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- ½ bunch Tuscan kale, destemmed and torn into bite-sized pieces
- Juice of half a lime
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
- Heat olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the garlic and leeks, season with salt and pepper, and saute until just beginning to soften.
- Add carrots and celery to the pot, and stir well to combine. Cook for 3-4 minutes.
- Add lentils, and stock, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot. Simmer until lentils are cooked to preference, 20-25 minutes.
- Add kale and stir into soup until wilted and bright green. Remove from heat, add a squeeze of lime juice, and season as needed.
Serve with crusty sourdough bread.