How to Make Lentils Your Best Friend in the Kitchen

Updated 08/07/19

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Before I discovered my love for lentils, I deemed them complicated, elusive, a shabby second best to a chickpea or bean. But as I became more exposed to plant-based diets after moving from Minneapolis to the “vegan haven” that is Berlin, I started eating dishes like springy grain bowls studded with glossy black lentils, simple lentil salads, and Indian daals swimming with soft red lentils, growing accustomed to the humble legume as a satisfying source of protein. Curious to cook them at home, I did some research and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of digging up complexity or confusion, I found the preparation easy, the versatility, wonderful.

If you can boil pasta, you can make lentils. Here’s all you need to know about the various types and different ways to use them, plus a step-by-step guide on how to cook them.

Five Types of Lentils to Know and How to Use Them:

Before we dive into the details, first things first: Lentils—like chickpeas, beans, and peas—are part of the legume family. While they can be firm or creamy in texture, depending on variety, every lentil is full of protein and fiber, and most cook faster than a dried chickpea or bean. And, unlike most dried legumes, they don’t require an overnight soak, lending themselves to more spontaneous cooking.

Here are the common types of lentils you’ll find at the grocery store and their best uses.

Brown and Green Lentils

Brown lentils
The Modern Proper 

The “everyday” lentil, these medium-sized disks are the biggest, flattest variety. They’re commonly used in soups and stews, as they tend to fall apart when cooked—offering a great thickness and body. Distinctly earthy and vegetal in flavor, they have a creamy bite and take 20 to 30 minutes to cook. They also have a tendency to become mushy, so if you want them to keep their shape and some firmness (like in lentil burgers), keep an eye on them and err on the side of a shorter cooking time.

French Lentils (Lentilles du Puy)

french lentils
Liudmyla Chuhunova/Getty Images

Small and round-ish, French lentils are slate in color and smattered with dark speckles. They have the same earthy flavor as brown and green lentils but hold their shape when cooked—making them a better choice for a textural punch of protein in salads and grain bowls. Armed with thick skins, they have the longest cooking time of all common lentils at 40 to 50 minutes.

Black Beluga Lentils

Black Lentils
 Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

The smallest and most spherical of the lentils, black belugas are, as named, black in color. They have a robust meaty flavor and firm texture, making them another good choice for salads and the like. They have a thick skin, but due to their tiny size, cook in just 20 to 30 minutes.

Red and Yellow Lentils

Red Lentils
 Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash

Red lentils are small, orange-red in color, and have a subtle vegetal flavor and floral aftertaste. Yellow lentils are golden, about the same size as brown and green lentils and have a mild, starchy flavor. Unlike other varieties, red and yellow lentils are often sold split and without their skins. This makes it easier for them to cook down—in about 20 minutes they take on a thick, oatmeal-like texture. Most popularly used in Indian dishes like daal, they can also work in hearty sauces and soups to add body.

Canned Lentils

In many places, you’ll find canned brown, black, or green lentils. The only real benefit is convenience, so opt for these only on rare occasions as they’re more expensive per ounce and laden with unnecessary sodium. To prepare, rinse them well and drain completely before warming, adding to a soup, or tossing into a salad.

In short, use brown, green, red, and yellow lentils for soups, stews, and purées, as they soften and fall apart when cooked. Use French or black beluga lentils when you want the toothy texture of a whole lentil—this means in salads, bowls, sides, sandwiches, and wraps. Canned lentils can play both ways.

How to cook a basic batch of lentils:

These “recipes” call for 1 cup dry lentils which cooks up to about 2 1/2 cups (five 1/2 cup servings) that serve as a blank canvas. Lentils are destined to be your weeknight hero, so make a bigger batch than you think you need—leftovers make it simple to throw a quick meal together.

To add more flavor, use broth instead of water or toss in halved onions, shallots, crushed garlic, bay leaves, or sprigs of thyme before bringing to a boil—just remove before serving.

Brown, Green, French, or Black Beluga Lentils

French Lentils
 Half Baked Harvest

Add 1 cup dried lentils to a fine-mesh strainer and rinse with cold running water. Drain well by letting them sit in the sieve for at least 2 minutes.

Add rinsed lentils and 3 cups of water to a large pot set over medium heat. Once large bubbles break the surface of the water, reduce heat to low and maintain a simmer. Cook brown, green, and black beluga for 20 to 30 minutes, French for 40 to 50 minutes.

Use a spoon to carefully test a few lentils as they cook—it’s the best way to know when they’re done to your liking. Once they pass the taste test, drain well. Season with salt and they’re ready to use.

To save for later, cool, transfer to an airtight container, and store in the fridge. Use within five days.

Red or Yellow Lentils

red lentils
Half Baked Harvest

Add 1 cup dried lentils to a fine-mesh strainer and rinse with cold running water. Drain well by letting them sit in the sieve for at least 2 minutes.

Add rinsed lentils and 3 cups of water to a pot set over medium heat. Once large bubbles break the surface of the water, reduce heat to low and maintain a simmer—cook for 20 minutes, or until the lentils have nearly disintegrated.

Swirl in a spoonful of yogurt or coconut milk and season with salt.

To save for later, cool, transfer to an airtight container, and store in the fridge. Use within three days.

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