What Are Lentils?
Learn what these tiny protein-packed power houses really are.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
As plant-based meals become more popular, lentils are playing a leading role. Yet they have been around for centuries in many cultures. High in protein and low in fat, lentils are a fantastic pantry staple to keep on hand that'll provide loads of meal options - a classic bowl of lentil soup, two or three Indian-inspired bowls of red lentils, a veggie-lentil burger with lettuce, tomatoes and all the fixins’ and everything in between. Below, we get into a number of lentil-related questions, starting with: what is a lentil?
What are Lentils?
Lentils, sometimes referred to as pulses, are a type of plant called a legume. Beans, chickpeas, fresh peas, sugar snap peas and snow peas are also legumes. Known for their high levels of protein compared to beans, lentils bring a lot to the plate. While some legumes (think soybeans) are high in fat, lentils are very low in fat.
Moreover, lentils and all legumes are true heroes out in the fields where they’re grown because they “fix” nitrogen. What that means is that they, along with the bacteria that live with them in the soil, not only grow without taking nitrogen from the soil, but also actually return extra nitrogen to the soil in the fields. It’s a win-win for farmers and the environment. A field planted with legumes for a year or two will need less fertilizer the next time a crop of corn is sown.
Are Lentils Beans? Are Lentils a Vegetable?
Lentils and beans are both types of legumes. So while a lentil isn't a bean, they both belong to the same family. And legumes are a type of vegetable, so yep, lentils are a type of vegetable too.
What are the Different Types of Lentils?
When shopping for lentils, you're likely to see several different varieties in the supermarket. When cooked, they're likely to have differing textures and therefore different uses.
Flat Green Lentils and Brown Lentils
These two varieties are commonly available at most large national supermarkets in the U.S. They’re the largest and flattest variety and have a mild flavor. When cooked, they absorb water, soften in texture and shape but don't lose their shape completely. They're commonly used in dishes like lentil soup and lentil burgers.
French Green Lentils
French green lentils, also called Puy lentils, are smaller and rounder than flat lentils. They maintain their crisp shape when cooked as well as a tender but al dente texture, making them well-suited to tossing in salads, using as the base of a grain bowl or mixing with other herbs or veggies as a side dish.
These lentils are the most nutritious of the bunch, and have a strong, earthy flavor (a bit like black beans). They're often called beluga lentils due to their striking resemblance to beluga caviar. Like French Green lentils, they maintain their round shape and al dente texture when cooked, making them a fantastic choice for mixing into salads or side dishes.
Red and Yellow Lentils
Red and yellow lentils are much smaller and milder in flavor than other lentil varieties. Red lentils tend to be slightly sweeter than yellow lentils. These two varieties are commonly used in Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. They lack skins, so when they're cooked, their texture and shape break down into a creamy consistency, making them suited for dishes like dahls and curries.
How to Cook Lentils
Uncooked lentils have a very long shelf life - they can last for years when stored in an airtight container away from sunlight, making them a fantastic pantry staple to stock up on. Lentils cook quickly, and that’s one of the reasons they’re so popular. When cooking lentils, you can go straight to the stove without soaking to soften them first. Here, we dive into how to cook lentils in general - but for a more specific guide on how to cook every single variety of lentil, see our guide on How to Cook Lentils.
1. Rinse the Lentils
It’s generally a good idea to give lentils a rinse in cold water and go through them looking for non-lentil stuff: sometimes a tiny pebble, a clump of dirt or the random morning glory seed.
2. Add Lentils to a Pot and Cover with Liquid
Place rinsed lentils in a pot and add cold water or broth to cover them by about three inches. Add a big pinch of kosher salt (salt making lentil or bean skins tough is a myth).
3. Bring to a Boil, then Simmer Until Are Cooked Through
Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer. Green and brown lentils take about 20 to 30 minutes to cook. Red and yellow lentils cook in 15 to 20 minutes, while round, French green lentils and black beluga lentils can take 30 to 35 minutes to cook. Check the lentils five minutes before they should be done, tasting them with a spoon, to determine how much more cooking time they need
If you’re using the lentils in a salad, it’s best to take them off the heat when they are just cooked through so they keep their shape when tossed with other ingredients and a dressing. When cooking lentils for a soup or to make veggie burgers, a little extra time is fine: it makes them easier to smash. Do be sure they are cooked thoroughly, as undercooked lentils can cause a bit of gastric distress.
4. Drain the Lentils
When they're done cooking, remove the lentils from the heat and strain the lentils through a fine colander or a strainer.
5. Store Cooked Lentils for up to five Days
Transfer cooled, cooled lentils to an airtight container and store them in the refrigerator for up to five days.
How to Cook Lentil Soup
Lentil soup is one of the easiest soups to make from scratch because the lentils cook so quickly. Like most soups, you'll start making lentil soup by sautéing some aromatic vegetables: carrot, celery, onion, a few herbs and garlic. You can also add meat at this step, typically bacon or ham. Then cover the aromatics with water or broth, bring the mixture to a boil and reduce to a simmer. If you want a chunky soup, it will be ready as soon as the lentils are cooked. If you want a pureed soup, be sure to cool it before putting it in a blender: if it’s too hot you’ll blow the top off the blender and could be burned.
This is the quintessential lentil soup, made with a classic aromatic combo of onion, carrot, celery, garlic, herbs and spices. It’s warm and comforting and the best bowl of nourishing comfort food you could dip into.
Masoor Dal refers to red lentils. This quick-cooking soup can be customized, depending on your personal heat tolerance: ginger, mild curry, and Fresno chile peppers added to each bowl at the end.
Seafood and lentils are a classic combo in the Mediterranean, so it’s no surprise they’re popular here too. The lentils for the salad can be made ahead of time, so dinner can be on the table in a flash.
Lentils are the logical choice to be the prime source of protein in a vegan burger. After they’re cooked and mashed, sautéed veggies and breadcrumbs are added and then the patties are refrigerated so they keep their burger shape when cooked.
Arctic char is a relatively fatty fish that is related to salmon and trout and is well-suited to being sautéed. Serving it on a warm lentil salad makes it a company-worthy meal. To make it even more special, you can swap the French green lentils for black beluga lentils.
This lentil chili recipe gets its protein from white beans and brown lentils. To make it weeknight-friendly, it uses canned white beans to cut down on the cook time. It has all the chili flavors and add-ons to make it seriously hearty.
These Spiced Lentils with Leeks are an elegant side dish that you can pair with any simple sauteed chicken or pork entrée. Swapping the star anise for a couple of mashed garlic cloves switches it up so you can serve it next week too.