Lentils have long been essential to cuisines in the Middle East and India and popular in Europe as well. Now these legumes are being recognized in the United States for the super food that they are. Nutritionally, lentils are an excellent source of folate and a good source of fiber, protein, iron, and potassium. One of the advantages of lentils over dry beans is that they require no soaking and cook in 5 to 30 minutes, depending on the variety and desired doneness.
Three common varieties of lentils are shown above and described here, but there are other varieties, too, including yellow, green, and black lentils.
- Dry brown lentils: These are inexpensive and easy to find in most grocery stores. They hold their shape well after cooking, so think of them for soups, salads, side dishes, and meatless main dishes.
- Dry French green lentils: Also called du Puy lentils, these dark slate-green lentils hold their shape especially nicely when cooked. Their peppery flavor and texture make them a good choice for many dishes, including soups, salads, side dishes, and main dishes. French lentils tend to be more expensive and might require a visit to a specialty market to find them.
- Dry red lentils: This thin-skin variety tends to cook quickly and break up while cooking. The lentils are small and often sold split, revealing an orange-red color. Consider red lentils for thickening soups, making purees, and using in recipes where their softer texture is desired. They are commonly used in Middle Eastern and Indian dishes.
How to Buy and Store Lentils
- Lentils are sold dried. They are available year-round in bulk or packaged. When buying in bulk, make sure the bins are covered to ensure freshness. While dry lentils can be stored almost indefinitely, six months is recommended. Longer storage can cause the lentils to fade and become drier, extending cooking times. Store dry lentils in an airtight container in a cool, dry place out of direct light. You can also find cooked, ready-to-use packages of lentils in some markets.
How to Cook Lentils
- One pound (16 ounces) of dry lentils yields about 7 cups cooked. Remember, no soaking is required.
- Place the lentils in a colander or sieve, and rinse with cool running water; drain.
- In a Dutch oven or large saucepan combine 5 cups cool water and 1 pound lentils. Bring to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until tender, stirring occasionally. For brown, French, and yellow lentils, allow 25 to 30 minutes for cooking time. For red lentils, allow 5 to 10 minutes. Drain any excess cooking liquid and use as desired.
Tip: You can replace some of the water with chicken broth or vegetable broth. For additional flavor, consider adding 1/2 cup chopped onion, minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, a bay leaf, and/or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed, to the cooking liquid along with the lentils. If using, remove the bay leaf before serving.
- To store cooked lentils, place in a covered storage container and chill for up to 3 days.
For Lentil Salad: Cook brown or French lentils as directed until just tender (do not cook too long or the lentils will be mushy in the salad). Cool completely. Toss with desired vegetables, such as chopped tomatoes, sliced green onion, sliced and quartered cucumber, and/or chopped carrot. Toss with enough vinaigrette, such as bottled balsamic vinaigrette, to moisten. If desired, toss in crumbled feta cheese, sliced olives, and/or snipped fresh basil. Cover and chill for 1 to 24 hours before serving.
For Lentil Soup: When using lentils in soup, add the uncooked lentils to the soup and cook about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender.