How to Cook Tender, Non-Mushy Lentils for All Kinds of Recipes
The small but mighty lentil is a nutrient powerhouse that's great in soups, salads, side dishes, and more. Our tips and techniques will show you how to cook lentils to just-right doneness. Plus, get our favorite lentil recipes and tips for choosing and storing dried lentils.
Lentils are the small dried seeds of a shrub that’s native to Africa and regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea. These little legumes are always cooked before eating. Nutritionally, lentils are an excellent source of folate and a good source of fiber, protein, iron, and potassium. One advantage of cooking lentils over dried beans is that they require no soaking and cook in 5 to 30 minutes, depending on the variety and your desired doneness. Lentils are delicious in a comforting bowl of soup, a healthy salad, and can even turn into a tasty vegetarian burger. But those incredible lentil dishes wouldn't be nearly as good if your lentils are all mushy. Here you'll learn how to cook lentils (and whether you should drain lentils after cooking) as well as different types of lentils and ways to use them.
Types of Lentils
Three common varieties of lentils are shown above and described here, but there are other varieties, too, including yellow, green, and black lentils.
- Black Lentils: Also called beluga lentils, these legumes make a hearty addition to salads and vegetarian dishes. In addition to being rich in protein and fiber, black lentils contain anthocyanins, which are known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Brown lentils: These are inexpensive and easy to find in most grocery stores. They hold their shape well after cooking, so consider them for soups, salads, side dishes, and meatless main dishes.
- 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 finding them might require a visit to a specialty market.
- Red and yellow lentils: This thin-skin variety tends to cook quickly and break up while cooking. They 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 cuisine.
How to Cook Lentils
How long does it take to cook lentils? That depends on the lentils variety. The following instructions apply to any lentils you wish to cook, just the timing changes.
Note that one pound (16 ounces) of dry lentils yields about 7 cups cooked (and ½ cup dry is about 1 cup cooked). In general, use 2½ to 3 cups of water for every cup of lentils. Remember, no soaking is required for cooking lentils and to keep an eye out for any debris to remove from your lentils.
- Add lentils to a colander ($12, Crate & Barrel) or sieve, and rinse with cool running water; drain.
- In a large saucepan or Dutch oven ($60, World Market) combine 5 cups cool water and the 1 pound lentils (or 2½ to 3 cups water for 1 cup lentils). Bring to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until tender, stirring occasionally.
- How long to cook yellow, black, or brown lentils: 25 to 30 minutes
- How long to cook green lentils: 25 to 30 minutes
- How long to cook split red lentils: 5 to 10 minutes to cook red lentils.
- After cooking, drain any excess cooking liquid and use as desired.
- To store cooked lentils, place in a covered storage container and keep refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Test Kitchen Tip: To add a little flavor to your lentils recipe, replace some of the water with chicken broth or vegetable broth. For additional flavor, consider adding ½ cup chopped onion, minced garlic, ½ tsp. salt, a bay leaf (don't forget to remove before serving), and/or ½ teaspoon dried thyme to the cooking liquid along with the lentils.
How to Cook Lentils for Lentil Salad
Cook green lentils or brown lentils for a lentil salad 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 balsamic vinaigrette, to moisten. If desired, toss in crumbled feta cheese, sliced olives, and fresh snipped fresh basil. Cover and chill up to 24 hours before serving. For recipe inspiration, try this delcious caramelized veggie lentil salad.
How Long to Cook Lentils in Soup
When using green or brown lentils in soup, add the uncooked lentils to the soup and cook about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. To cook red lentils in soup, add the uncooked red lentils and cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until the lentils are tender.
How to Buy and Store Lentils
Lentils are most often 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 in your pantry, no more than 1 year is recommended. Longer storage can cause the lentils to fade and become drier, which can require extended cooking times. Store dry lentils in an airtight container ($14, Target) in a cool, dry place out of direct light. You can also find pre-cooked, ready-to-use cans and packages of lentils. Be sure to rinse well and drain before adding to your lentil recipes.