A Guide to Cooking with Lentils
Lentils are a highly underrated food and incorporating them into your diet is a simple and inexpensive way to add a filling source of fibre and plant-based protein to meals. Lentils are considered pulse, part of the legume family along with beans, and come in a wide variety of colours and types. If you have never cooked with lentils, they can seem a little intimidating to use, but in reality, lentils are really simple to prepare and difficult to mess up! Be it split, whole, canned or dried, here is a complete and simple guide to cooking with lentils.
A Guide to Cooking with Lentils
Nutritionally speaking, lentils are a great source of fibre, plant-based protein, folate, potassium, zinc, iron, and B vitamins. Thanks to their nutritional benefits, lentils can help to balance blood sugar, support digestive health, and support satiety. Unlike beans, lentils require little to no soaking and can cook anywhere from 15-30 minutes depending on the variety, making them a great choice for a quick weeknight meal.
Common Types of Lentils
Lentils have been a staple food for cultures around the world for years and there are many different varieties available. Some of the most common include:
- Red Lentils: Red lentils come in a range of colours, from golden yellow to red. Most red lentils come in the form of small split lentils with a tendency to break down during cooking and are the sweetest and nuttiest of the lentils. Red lentils cook fairly quickly, typically 20-30 minutes, and are best used in soups, stews and curries to help provide a thick and rich texture.
- Yellow Lentils: Similar to red lentils, yellow lentils come as split lentils and have a sweeter flavour. They cook quickly and tend to get soft easily, making them ideal for dahls or curries.
- Brown Lentils: Brown lentils are some of the most common and can be found in most grocery stores. They are milder in flavour, often described as earthy, can hold their shape if not overcooked, but also work well as thickener or binder. Brown lentils are ideal for stews, curries or vegetarian burgers.
- Green Lentils: Green lentils are small in size, and hold their shape together very well during the cooking process. They have a firm texture and somewhat peppery flavour, and are great as a side dish or in cold salad. They generally take the longest to cook, up to 45 minutes to cook. Look for Lentilles du Puy, Puy lentils, or French Green lentils.
- Black Lentils (Beluga): Similar in shape to caviar, black lentils are small and nearly spherical in shape and glisten when they are cooked. Black lentils keep a slightly firmer texture when cooked and therefore make a great side dish alternative to rice.
Split Lentils vs. Whole Lentils
Split lentils are very similar to whole lentils, they have merely had their seed coat removed and have been split in half. Due to being split, split lentils cook much faster than whole lentils and tend to work better in dishes like soups, curries, and purees as they provide a thicker texture, while whole lentils tend to work better in salads or side dishes.
Dried Lentils vs. Canned Lentils
Most grocery stores will carry lentils in dried and canned forms. Similar to canned beans, canned lentils have been cooked and preserved in a can to help cut down on cooking time. Canned lentils can certainly be used as a quick alternative, but look for varieties with low sodium content, and be sure to rinse them well before use. Because lentils are so quick and easy to cook, using dried lentils is preferable and much more inexpensive to use as well. Dry lentils can be purchased in bulk and can be stored in an air-tight container for months to come.
How to Cook Lentils
Lentils are very easy to prepare and cook similar to rice or pasta and, fortunately, they are very hard to screw up! Here is a quick guide to cooking with lentils.
- Before cooking, take a minute to sift through your lentils. Although uncommon, small rocks can slip through the harvest and packaging process, so you a better safe than sorry.
- Unlike dried beans, dried lentils don’t need to be soaked, however they do need to be strained. Before cooking, add your lentils to a colander, rinse them with cold water and strain them well.
- Lentils can be cooked on the stovetop or in a pressure cooker. Lentils can be cooked similar to pasta; simply combine with water, bring to a boil, cook until tender, and strain off any excess liquid.
Cooking Tips for Perfect Lentils
- Lentils are pretty mild in flavour, so cooking them in a broth, or adding herbs, garlic or spices to the cooking process will help to enhance extra flavour.
- Be sure not overcook your lentils, because they can quickly turn into mush. For the best results, follow the instructions on the package and pay attention to them as they cook.
- Lentils aren’t rice, so they don’t cook exactly like it, they cook much more like pasta. Lentils are best cooked in an abundance of water or stock.
- Wait until the lentils are done cooking before seasoning with salt, not only will this help with flavour, but it will also help with texture as well.
- If you are going to serve lentils as a side dish, toss them in a dressing or sauce for extra flavour before serving.
Simple Lentil Recipes
Now that you know all about the different types of lentils, and how to cook them, here are some of my favourite lentil recipes to help complete this comprehensive guide to cooking with lentils.