Lentils are a delicious legume that, if you’re not currently incorporating into your diet, you need to start eating, stat.
Healthy, affordable and often quick-cooking, lentils can be added to a variety of dishes, including salads and soups. They even can be used as a meat replacement, making a meaty dish (from chili to sloppy joe’s) vegetarian or vegan-friendly.
What are Lentils?
Lentils are a legume, placing them in the same family as beans, peanuts and chickpeas. However, one thing that sets them apart from these legumes is their relatively small size, which not only makes them faster to cook, but also eliminates the need to soak them overnight ahead of cooking.
Lentils originated in West and Central Asia and, as such, you’ll find them popping up in all kinds of traditional Middle Eastern recipes. However, cooking with lentils has become popular worldwide and they are currently grown in Europe and North America as well.
Lentils come in several varieties.
Green lentils (sometimes called French lentils) take a bit longer to cook compared to some other lentil varieties, depending on your cooking method about 30 to 45 minutes. They have a nutty flavor and are good as both a side dish and a mix-in to salad dishes.
Red and yellow lentils are on the sweet side and are most commonly found in Middle Eastern dishes. They’re quicker to cook than the green variety (taking as little as 15 minutes), but also can become mushy if you’re not careful. Because of this, many times you’ll find red and yellow lentils are processed down during cooking, incorporated into a thick stew or soup.
Black lentils (also called beluga lentils) are relatively rare and you’re not as likely to see recipes calling for them. They take less than a half-hour to cook and have a stronger flavor, making them capable of standing on their own as a side dish.
Brown lentils are the ones you’ll see most often on store shelves in the United States and, thanks to their resilient texture, they make a great meat replacement and can be swapped out for ground protein in many recipes. They can take as little as 20 minutes to cook.
Lentils are packed with beneficial nutrients and minerals. They’re high in both protein and fiber, as well as iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, zinc and potassium.
If you’ve been wondering how to cook lentils, then you can simply stop, because the answers are endless. Cooking with lentils is like painting on a blank canvas.
There are simply so many ways to do so and, like many legumes, lentils are a wonderfully diverse ingredient that lends itself easily to just about any type of cuisine. While some of the most popular uses are in Middle Eastern cuisine, soups and salads, your options hardly stop there.
How to Cook Lentils
When you look at how to cook lentils, it’s a pretty cut-and-dry process that doesn’t necessarily require a recipe.
Since you do not have to soak dried lentils to cook them, as you would beans, you can rinse them right out of their packaging and then throw them in a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Then, bring the water to a low simmer.
Cook your lentils, uncovered, according to the type of lentils on hand, but don’t be afraid to give them a taste if you think they’re about cooked. You’re looking for a tender texture like you’d experience with just about any cooked legume (think of the consistency of a kidney bean or chickpea, for reference).
Tips for Cooking Lentils
Again, don’t soak your lentils as you would dried beans. This is unnecessary. However, don’t skip the rinsing process. Occasionally, a small pebble or other bits of debris will wind up in your bag of dried lentils and you want to make sure that it’s removed (and not accidentally consumed!).
Also, don’t get ahead of yourself and try to rush the process. Cranking up the heat won’t help matters. You want to cook your lentils at a low simmer, slowly. Just keep a close eye on them and you’ll do fine.
Lentils not softening, no matter how long you cook them? Then you don’t need to turn up the heat, necessarily. It could be a matter of your lentils’ age. Old lentils won’t cook the same way as fresh lentils. Because of this, try to use your lentils up within a few months of purchase.
Another reason your lentils might not soften? If you added salt or other ingredients to the pot too quickly. Wait until your lentils have cooked to begin adding your seasoning (though feel free to cook them directly in some stock).
Popular Lentil Recipes
Lentils are such a diverse ingredient that sometimes it can be difficult knowing where to start with them. Here are a few recipes to try out if you’re stumped for next steps.
This lemony lentil soup packs a punch and is not only tasty, but healthy, too. It’s naturally gluten-free and vegan and can be made in your slow cooker, Instant Pot or right on the stove.
As lentils are a popular Middle Eastern and Asian ingredient, you’ll often find them in curry recipes. This coconut lentil curry comes together in half an hour and is a quick, plant-based dinner, perfect for busy weeknights.
Lentils as a Protein Replacement
Because of their texture, brown lentils are a great meat replacement. Swap them out with ground beef for yummy, flavorful tacos; form them into a loaf for a new take on everyone’s favorite classic, meatloaf; or whip up a pot of chili, with lentils as the star.
Still Wondering How to Cook with Lentils?
Don’t! Cooking with lentils is easy for anyone to master, no matter how much experience you have in the kitchen.
Once you begin using it, this versatile ingredient will become your go-to for rounding out flavorful meals, adding nutritional value to your favorite dishes and swapping out meat for your family and friends leading plant-based lifestyles.