How to Cook with Lentils
Your veggie meals are about to get a lot more interesting.
Pictured Recipe: Mixed Greens with Lentils & Sliced Apple
What Are Lentils?
Lentils are considered "pulses" which are part of the legume family. They're the edible seeds of plants that grow in pods like chickpeas and dried peas. They're also one of the most sustainable foods you can eat––growing lentils can actually reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer which can sometimes deplete nutrients in the soil.
Health Benefits of Lentils
These little pulses are also a source of plant-based protein. A 1/4-cup serving contains over 8 grams of protein and a jaw-dropping 7 grams of dietary fiber, making them a boon to heart health as well.
Lentils also happen to be easy to prepare; they're a quick-cooking pantry staple you can turn to on a busy weeknight. If you're one to meal-prep, cooked lentils are a great addition to your rotation of recipes precisely because they can last up to a week easily, when stored in the fridge.
Try These: Healthy Lentil Recipes
How to Prepare Lentils
Pictured Recipe: Messer Wot (Spiced Lentils)
Lentils need a bit of extra attention before you toss them into a pot of water. When you're buying lentils, make sure you look for the freshest option. (The use-by date will be your best indicator.) Older lentils lose some of their flavor the longer they sit on a shelf; they also may not cook up as tender as fresher legumes.
Once you're home and ready to cook the lentils, give them a quick rinse under cool water. Use a colander or fine-mesh sieve to keep the petite pulses from slipping out of your basket. This rinse will help remove any lingering dirt, debris and tiny rocks.
Picking the type of lentil you need depends largely on what your intended end result is. A good rule of thumb for lentil liquid is 1 cup lentils to 2 1/2 cups liquid. Lentils are forgiving, so if you don't add enough liquid, you can always add more during the process. Like rice, lentils double in size in the cooking process, so these small powerhouse plants soak up lots of liquid.
How to Cook Lentils on the Stovetop
Pictured Recipe: Roasted Root Veggies & Greens over Spiced Lentils
Pick the aromatics you want to use before you start the cooking process. Popular options include crushed garlic cloves, thyme springs, rosemary sprigs, curry, cumin, peppercorns, bay leaf and more. Think about how you'll use the lentils, and let that guide your aromatics choice.
- Place 1 cup dried lentils in a large saucepan or pot with 2 1/2 cups water or broth. (Broth will impart a richer flavor but does add sodium.) Add desired aromatics and 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste.
- Bring to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, until just tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Check every 3 to 5 minutes for tenderness, and add additional liquid if the lentils are dry. Properly cooked lentils are tender with a bit of chew. The exact amount of time will vary depending on the type of lentil you're using.
- Drain and rinse the cooked lentils with cold water in a fine-mesh sieve.
- Discard any large aromatics; flavor as you wish and serve.
For even faster cooked lentils, try canned. A 15-ounce can yields about 1 1/2 cups. Rinse canned lentils before cooking with them to reduce the sodium by 35 percent. They're a fast option, but you can't control the sodium and flavors like you can with homemade, which are quick-cooking, too.
How to Cook Lentils in a Slow Cooker
Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker Moroccan Lentil Soup
Your trusted slow cooker is a wonderful tool for hands-off lentil cooking. Bonus: This is a great way to infuse lentils with loads of flavor. However, the long, slow cooking time lends itself better to recipes that call for soft or even mushy lentils, like daals, soups and stews. The final texture of lentils cooked in a slow cooker will depend on the type you use, how much liquid you add and how high you set the temperature.
- Add ingredients to the slow cooker. Start with 1 cup of lentils and 2 1/2 cups of liquid if you're cooking lentils alone. If you're adding other ingredients, it's smart to work with a trusted recipe that's been tested with all the ingredients so you don't make your lentils mushy or leave them too dry.
- Set your slow cooker to High or Low, depending on your recipe or how much time you have. High-temp cooking may speed up the process, but it could also leave you with split lentils that are mushy and gummy. Low-temp cooking gives you better control but requires more time.
- Cook until tender, about 4 to 5 hours on High or 8 to 10 hours on Low.
How to Cook Lentils in a Pressure Cooker
Pictured Recipe: Apple & Ginger Lentil Salad
Pressure cookers and multicookers (like this Instant Pot) are taking the weeknight cook's kitchen by storm. They can certainly shave off some minutes from the cooking time, but you do need to be more cautious with the type of lentil you use. Heartier lentils, like green and brown, will do better in a pressure cooker; red, yellow and orange lentils break down in the high-pressure environment.
- Place lentils, aromatics, liquid and any other ingredients in your pressure cooker. Pressure cookers require less liquid than slow cookers or stovetop cooking methods, so begin with a ratio of 1 cup lentils to 2 1/4 cups liquid if you're just cooking lentils. You may need more liquid if you're including other ingredients. Here again, it may be best to work with a recipe that's been tested so you can trust the results you'll get.
- Seal and pressurize your cooker; cook for 6 to 15 minutes at high pressure.
- Release the pressure naturally, letting the lentils finish cooking during this period.
Some pressure cookers have specific settings or guidelines for cooking lentils. Follow their recommendations and adjust as you learn more about using your machine.
Different Types of Lentils
There are a few varieties of lentils. Each type has its own unique flavor and texture. Each is also better suited to certain types of recipes as main dishes or side dishes. Learn more about the different kinds of lentils so you can know which to pick for your meal.
Red, Orange & Yellow Lentils
Pictured Recipe: Ethiopian-Spiced Chicken Stew
The most colorful of the lentil options, red, yellow and orange lentils typically boast a delicately sweet flavor. They also cook down to a very tender texture, so they're ideal for soups, sauces, dips, curries and Indian daal-any dish where a mushy texture isn't off-putting.
When you're shopping for these lentils, hit the aisle of your local Indian or Middle Eastern market. They're often sold in bulk there, at incredibly good prices. Red lentils may be marked masoor; yellow lentils may be marked toor.
Cook these warm-hued lentils for no more than 30 minutes. Check their doneness after 15 minutes, and again every 3 to 4 minutes to make sure they don't overcook. Don't use these in a slow cooker or pressure cooker.
Pictured Recipe: Lentil & Roasted Vegetable Salad with Green Goodess Dressing
Green lentils, sometimes called French lentils, are hearty and tender when cooked properly. These lentils stay firmer after cooking, which makes them great for salads, sides and grain bowls. Known for a slightly peppery flavor, green lentils need to be cooked slowly to make sure they don't split and to preserve their firm texture.
In ethnic markets, green lentils may be sold as Puy lentils, lentilles du Puy or French green lentils. Be sure to check labels carefully.
Pictured Recipe: Quick Lentil Salmon Salad
Brown lentils are the most widely available and often the most affordable. Their mild, earthy flavor is a great addition to any number of salads, sides, soups, egg scrambles and more. Like green lentils, brown lentils hold their shape and maintain a heartier texture when cooked. Just be sure to watch them closely after the 15-minute mark so they don't turn mushy.
In the grocery store, you may see brown lentils listed as Indian brown, German brown or Spanish brown lentils.
Related: Top Vegetarian Protein Sources
How to Buy Lentils
Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker Dal Makhani
When shopping for lentils, look for the freshest dry lentils available. In some stores, you can buy from a bulk bin. This lets you get just what you need and prevent waste.
Make sure you buy lentils that appear clean, firm, dry and unshriveled. You want to avoid any that look misshapen or have an unusual color. This may indicate they're old.
The flavor of lentils will degrade over time, and old lentils won't get tender as quickly as fresh ones, if at all. If you buy a bag, be sure to eat them within a year for the best flavor and texture.
How to Store Lentils
Pictured Recipe: Squash & Red Lentil Curry
Dry and uncooked, lentils can stay fresh in a cool, dry, dark place for up to one year. Once cooked, lentils can last up to a week in the refrigerator if they're sealed in an airtight container. Cooked lentils can also be stored in the freezer for up to six months. Take care to reheat frozen lentils carefully so they don't split.