How to Prepare and Cook Lentils

How to Prepare and Cook Lentils

Behold, the magic of lentils!

When I say lentils, what do you see? Is it the khaki-brown of a hearty lentil soup? The deep yellow of an Indian dal (aka daal), with a dollop of yogurt? Tiny, dark, and delicious black lentils — the caviar of legumes — in a lentil salad? The world of lentils is vast and varied, and chances are there’s still much for you to explore.

Why lentils?

Martha Rose Shulman, the New York Times food columnist, once wrote, of lentils, “This is one legume you should always have in your larder.” And there’s good reason. Lentils cook quicker than most other beans — and without soaking (a note about that, later). They’re chock full of good things like fiber, protein, iron, calcium, folic acid, and polyphenols, and are naturally gluten free. And lentils are so versatile — with a mild, earthy flavor — they can basically take you around the world in delicious dishes, vegetarian and otherwise.

A rainbow to choose from

There are a few main types of lentils, which you can easily sort by color. It’s worth having a couple varieties of lentils on hand.

Red. These dusty orangey-red lentils, sometimes called Egyptian lentils, cook up quickly, and turn right into mush.

Yellow. Yellow lentils are common in Indian recipes. These are also quick-cooking and disintegrate easily. Hello, dal. 

Green. French green lentils, also known as Puy lentils, have a stronger flavor and heartier exterior, which means they tend to keep their shape. That also means they require a slightly longer cooking time.

Brown. Brown lentils are the most widely available and often the least expensive.

Black. The aptly named Beluga lentils are harder to find, small and super flavorful.

White. To be honest, I’ve never seen these in person. But, like the albino alligator, white lentils do exist! Technically, they’re black lentils without the skin, and are common in Indian dishes. In an Indian store, they're labeled urad dal.

How to buy lentils

When buying lentils, look for whole, firm, clean beans. Discolored, broken or dull beans might be old, and should be avoided. Beans which have shiny, bright and unbroken outer shell are ideal. When you get home from the grocery store, transfer them to an airtight container for storage, and don't mix your new lentils in with the old, as age is a factor in cooking time. (Older lentils take longer to cook, just FYI). 

Soaking lentils

Soaking is hotly debated. Some cooks believe soaking lentils before cooking drains them of certain nutrients, color, and flavor — and is, in general, unnecessary, since they cook relatively quickly. Others believe soaking speeds up the cooking process, makes them easier to digest, and prevents the outer shell from disintegrating while cooking. 

I’m not taking sides here. To soak or not to soak is a personal choice. If you soak, you can do so for anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 hour prior to cooking. But really, you don't have to, especially for quick-cooking lentils without shells such as red, white, or yellow lentils.

Tips for cooking lentils

Making lentils is pretty straightforward, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Rinsing dry lentils in a strainer under running water before you cook them will remove any dust and debris — if you didn't soak them, don't skip this step!

  • If you’re using canned lentils (not recommended, but acceptable in a pinch), be sure to rinse before cooking as well to remove excess sodium.

  • Simmer gently; do not boil.

  • Add aromatics: Throw in a bay leaf, or use stock to add flavor.

  • Check to see that your cooked lentils are "al dente" (soft but with a little bite) — not mushy. Cook times can vary from 30 minutes to 2 hours depending upon the size, age, and texture of the lentils.

  • Add salt at the very end to avoid prolonged cooking times. Ditto acids like tomatoes or lemon juice.

Ready to get cooking? Here are a dozen of our favorite lentil recipes — from hearty vegetarian mains to zesty starters and side dishes — for you to make tonight!

Hearty Lentil Soup

A classic way to use brown lentils, from Yummly. This is a great base recipe that allows you to riff to your heart’s delight. Vegetarians, skip the bacon.

Hearty Lentil Soup by Yummly

Italian Lentil Soup

This Italian version, from Gimme Some Oven, features fire-roasted tomatoes and collard greens, and can be made with any variety of lentil (though do watch the cooking time). Don't skimp on the Parmesan, parsley, and basil!

Italian Lentil Soup by Gimme Some Oven

French Lentil Soup

As a third option, this French lentil soup from Bon Appetit, by way of Epicurious, includes a dash of balsamic vinegar at the end to bring it all together. 

French Lentil Soup by Epicurious

Greek Lentil Power Bowl

If soup isn't your thing, perhaps this gorgeous Mediterranean salad from Nutrition a la Natalie? If you batch cook your lentils at the beginning of the week, this meal-in-a-bowl comes together in no time.

Greek Lentil Power Bowl by Nutrition a la Natalie

Lentil Chili

A hearty plant-based chili with quick-cooking legumes? Win-win. This lentil-based chili from Another Table Spoon also includes canned black beans and frozen corn for a delicious, healthy chili that takes less than an hour. Omnivores can add their favorite ground meat, no problem.

Lentil Chili by Another Table Spoon

Favorite Indian Lentils and Spinach (Dal Palak)

Lentils really shine in Indian cuisine, and this dal palak recipe is, as the Yummly recipe says, Indian comfort food at its best. Use the red or yellow type of lentil here. And if you can find asafetida, add it. One-eighth of a teaspoon really does make a difference.

Favorite Indian Lentils and Spinach (Dal Palak) by Yummly 

Spicy Ethiopian Lentil Stew

The traditional berbere spices make this recipe from Connoisseurus Veg stand out from other lentil stews out there. It’s a riff on misir wat, a traditional Ethiopian dish of spiced red lentils, but one that includes spinach and potatoes, because... why not?! Traditional injera bread to eat with it is optional.

Spicy Ethiopian Lentil Stew by Connoisseurus Veg

Creamy Coconut Curry Lentils with Spinach

Lentils and curry play well together. This delicious, cost-effective version, from Budget Bytes, uses widely available brown lentils and costs just $6.29 per recipe. 

Creamy Coconut Curry Lentils with Spinach by Budget Bytes

Mujadarra (Middle Eastern Lentils and Rice with Caramelized Onions)

I love me some mujadarra. And this easy, incredibly popular recipe from Kalyn’s Kitchen does not disappoint. It’s all about the caramelized onions. 

Mujadarra by Kalyn’s Kitchen

Lentil Bolognese

Lentils make for a great plant-based substitute for ground meat. In this recipe, from I Heart Eating, red lentils add “meaty” texture to a classic bolognese, which starts with a traditional mirepoix and diced tomatoes. Serve over spaghetti squash for a low-carb, veggie meal.

Lentil Bolognese by I Heart Eating

Lentil Burger

Pureed brown lentils sub for ground beef in this straightforward “burger” recipe from Food52. Reviewers add everything from egg and tomato paste to nutritional yeast to make it their own.

Lentil Burger by Food5

Crispy Red Lentil Nuggets

This recipe, from One Green Planet, turns red lentils into vegan nuggets alongside carrots, potatoes, and onions. Anyone expecting a replacement for chicken nuggets will be disappointed, but for something healthy, snackable, and dippable, this recipe won't disappoint. You can spice them almost any way you please.

Crispy Red Lentil Nuggets by One Green Planet

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