Lentils are an edible pulse or seed that belongs to the legume family. They are delicious in soups, stews, curries, or salads, and also taste great as a healthy side dish on their own.
The History of Lentils
Thought to have originated in the Near East or Mediterranean area, lentils have been a source of sustenance for our ancestors since prehistoric times. They are the oldest pulse crop known to man and one of the earliest domesticated crops.
The word lentil comes from the Latin lens, and indeed, this bean cousin is shaped like the double convex optic lens that took its name from the lentil.
Lentil artifacts have been found on archeological digs on the banks of the Euphrates River dating back to 8,000 B.C. and there is evidence of the Egyptians, Romans, and Hebrews eating this legume.
Seasonality and availability
The popular kinds of lentils include black lentils, red lentils, brown lentils, mung bean, yellow split peas, yellow lentils, macachiados lentils, French green lentils, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, soya beans, and many more varieties. Each country has its own group, which is more or less similar and provides the same benefits.
Lentils are consumed much more often in Asian countries, particularly India. India has the largest number of vegetarians and lentils can be a substitute for meat in supplying the required protein.
Lentils grow best in cool weather. If you are growing your own lentils, sow them in spring as early as 2 to 3 weeks before the average last frost date. Most lentil production in North America takes place in the Pacific Northwest, Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, and up into Western Canada, where it has been grown since the 1930s as a rotation crop with wheat.
Different Types of Lentils
There are a variety of lentils widely available on the market, each with its own flavor profile and texture. Often, the answer to “How do you cook lentils?” or “How long do you cook lentils” is based on the variety you choose.
There are four main categories of lentils: brown, green, red/yellow, and specialty. Brown lentils are the most common variety.
Red, Orange, and Yellow Lentil
These sweet lentils are all beautifully-hued variations of one specific variety. They’re ideal for thick soups, sauces, curries, or Indian daal. You can find them in Indian or Middle Eastern markets labeled as masoor (red lentils) or channa (yellow lentils). Since they get mushy easily, it's important to know how long to cook red lentils. As a rule of thumb, remember that they generally take about 30 minutes on the stovetop.
This is the most common variety of lentils, and what you'll see most often at your local grocery store. They generally have a mild, earthy flavor, cook quickly in about 20 to 30 minutes, and hold their shape fairly well. Common varieties include Spanish Brown, German Brown, and Indian Brown. The blackest and tiniest lentils are called Beluga lentils. If you're cooking black lentils, start checking for doneness after 15 minutes.
Green Lentils are much-loved for their hearty and peppery flavor, and they also stay firm after cooking, which makes them perfect for salads and sides. How long to cook green lentils? Slowly, for 45 minutes, to preserve that firm texture. Varieties include Lentilles du Puy, Puy Lentils, or French Green lentils.
How to prepare
Whether you want to learn how to cook lentil soup or how to cook lentils for a variety of dishes, once you’ve chosen the type of lentil the steps are the same. Here’s a summary of how to prepare lentils:
- Buy the freshest lentils possible (look for a date on the package). Older lentils require much longer to cook and sometimes don’t soften at all.
- Rinse lentils in a colander and sift through to remove small rocks and debris.
- Add flavor to lentils while cooking by simmering in a vegetable broth infused with aromatics like onions, garlic, fresh herbs, or spices.
- Skip the salt and acidic ingredients like vinegar and lemon juice while cooking lentils—they slow cook and may toughen the skins.
- Don’t overcook your lentils and wait to season them with salt when finished.
How to Cook Lentils
Cooking time is based on the variety of lentils you choose and the method you choose to cook them. When deciding how to cook lentils consider these three main techniques:
A simple way to cook perfectly tender lentils is on the stovetop. This technique is great for when you want total control over how firm or soft your lentils become.
- Place lentils in a large pot with at least 2” of unsalted liquid covering them.
- Bring to a rapid simmer.
- Reduce heat to very low, so only slow bubbles appear.
- Cook your lentils uncovered on low heat for 20-45 minutes (based on the variety) to plump them up while avoiding split skins and mushy results.
- Add more liquid as needed until the lentils are done. A good ratio to start with is 1 cup of lentils to 2½ cups of liquid.
- If you have any liquid left, strain lentils through a mesh sieve.
Cooking lentils in a slow cooker is a wonderful way to let them tenderize and allow their flavor to meld with other ingredients. A slow cooker is also fantastic for making soups and stews where it’s okay if your lentils get very soft such as in Red Lentil Daal. The final texture of the lentils is based on how much liquid you add and how long/what temperature you set your slow cooker to. Here’s how to cook them:
- Add all ingredients to the slow cooker and set on low or high.
- Set the time based on the type of lentil you’re cooking. It’s helpful to refer to recipes or your slow cooker’s instruction manual for more precise ratios of lentil to liquid as well as exact cook times by type.
- A great starting point is 1 cup of lentils to 2½ cups of liquid.
Like a slow cooker, pressure cookers slash cook time, making for super speedy meal prep! Just be sure to stick with brown or green lentils; red, yellow, and orange lentils will turn to mush under high pressure. Here’s how to cook lentils in a pressure cooker:
- Place lentils and seasoned liquid in the pressure cooker. A good ratio to start with is 1 cup of lentils to 2 ¼ cups of liquid.
- Cook for 6-15 minutes on high pressure depending on the type of lentil.
- Allow the pressure cooker to release pressure naturally for about 10 minutes to finish the cooking process.
Lentil: Nutrition Content
Lentils contain the highest amount of protein originating from any plant. The amount of protein found in them is up to 35%, which is comparable to red meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products.
Raw lentils contain carbohydrates (15-25 grams per 100 grams). They are a good source of dietary fiber and also have a low amount of calories. Other nutritious components found are molybdenum, folate, tryptophan, manganese, iron, phosphorus, copper, vitamin B1, and potassium.
Lentils are also another source of phytochemicals and phenols. Both of these organic chemicals are known to provide health benefits, but the mechanism behind their work is yet to be determined.
Often, lentils and meat are compared for their effectiveness and many people vote for meat as the best source of protein. It is true that lentils do not contain all the amino acids, but they do have less fat content when compared with meat. However, lentils can be paired with rice for a complete source of amino acids. The Mexicans and Indians did this in many of their traditional dishes.
One very good way to have lentils is after they have sprouted because they contain methionine and cysteine. These two amino acids are very significant in muscle-building and strengthening our body. Methionine is an essential amino acid that is supplied through food, and cysteine is a non-essential amino acid that can then be synthesized.
Health benefits - Are lentils good for you?
Lentils, cultivated ever since the advent of early agriculture, have been a part of our diet for quite a long now. They provide multiple health benefits, including the following:
As lentils contain high levels of dietary fiber, they improve digestion if consumed regularly. They also help in easy bowel movements, resulting in decreased constipation. Although lentils tend to cause bloating and gas, consuming soaked or sprouted lentils makes it easy for you to digest them.
Lentils, with their negligible amounts of fat, are an ideal source of protein without adding any extra fat to the body, thereby promoting a healthy heart. Lentils contain magnesium and potassium, both of which help in relaxing cardiovascular muscles and lowering blood pressure levels.
A comparative study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that in the various categories of foods, dietary fiber was found to be high in the case of the legume family. Lentils, along with beans and peas, belong to the legume family.
Dietary fiber-filled food such as lentils helps in controlling blood sugar levels. Dietary fiber also slows down the rate at which food is absorbed by the blood and thus maintains the sugar level constantly.
Our organs and muscles need a constant supply of protein for the repair and growth of the body. Lentils, especially sprouted lentils, contain all the essential amino acids that are needed by our body for good muscle-building and smooth functioning of the body.
My favourite Lentil recipes
Learn all about the different types of lentils and how to use them in various recipes
Interesting Lentil Facts
- Lentils have been found in Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 2400 BC.
- In India, the lentil is known as dal or daal.
- Lentils have been eaten by humans since Neolithic times and were one of the first domesticated crops.