Every Which Way to Cook Lentils
The versatile pantry staple you’ve been missing
Lentils are humble yet mighty, perfect for throwing together quick side dishes, fridge-clearing soups, and robust salads. But they seem to be shrouded in mystery, hidden in the shadow of their more popular cousin, the chickpea. While they can be intimidating—varying in both size and color, and sold whole or split, with skin or without—lentils are hearty, easy to make, and most definitely delicious.
So, let’s demystify and get acquainted with the world of earthy, protein packed lentils—from common varieties to basic cooking techniques that will have you keeping them aplenty in your pantry all year round.
What Exactly Are Lentils?
While lentils are part of the legume family, they are technically ‘pulses’—legume crops that are harvested solely for the edible seeds. Dating back nearly 13,000 years, lentils are the seeds of the Lens culinaris, one of the first known domesticated plants in the world. Originating in the Fertile Crescent (a region that stretches from Egypt to Iran), these plants are now cultivated all over the globe, from Canada to Nepal, Turkey to Australia.
Low in fat and high in protein, lentils have remained a part of the diet of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries from whence they first came, and have become staples for many West Asian and African countries as well. Found all over India, dal is a thick stew of starchy split red lentils spiced with fragrant turmeric and cumin and typically served with rice. Egypt’s national dish, koshari, combines cooked brown lentils with rice and macaroni, and is topped with a spicy tomato sauce, chickpeas and fried onions. In Ethiopia, yellow lentils are used to make a mild paste that is often one of the first real foods babies eat.
Types of Lentils
As you can see, cooked lentils can transform in texture, and be used in a variety of ways. From black beluga lentils that glisten like caviar when cooked to orange-red lentils that can take on an almost creamy consistency, how do you know which type of lentil to use?
Luckily, nature made it easy for us to categorize lentils and their various uses by color—the darker green and brown varieties are known for their distinct earthy flavor and for retaining their shape after cooking, whereas the lighter red and yellow varieties are more delicate in taste and nearly disintegrate when cooked.
The Basics of Preparing Lentils
No matter what type of lentils you’re using, you always want to start by sorting them for any stray pebbles that might be hiding out in the mix. Due to the rocky soil that most Lens culinaris plants are grown in, it’s not unheard of for small rocks to get picked up during the harvesting process and make it all the way through to your bag. While it’s relatively uncommon, you don’t want to crack any teeth, so it’s best to give your lentils a once over just in case.
Spread them out on a flat surface to make sorting easy. Then, store them in an airtight container for up to one year, or rinse them in cold water until the water runs clear before cooking.
Cook green, black, and brown varieties in plenty of water or stock using at least a 1:3 ratio of lentils to liquid. Bring the liquid to a boil, add your rinsed lentils, turn down the heat and let them just barely simmer for anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes—depending on the type of lentil and texture you’re looking for: firmer for a salad or side dish, and softer for a soup or stew (to cut down the cooking time by half, soak the lentils in cold water overnight). Once they’re done to your liking, strain the remaining liquid and use them in a casserole or stuffing, toss them in a vegetable soup, or mix them up into a salad.
Red and Yellow Lentils
You’ll want to approach red and yellow lentils with a different technique than their darker siblings. After sorting and rinsing, put the lentils in a pot and cover them with cold water or stock using the same 1:3 ratio of lentils to liquid (at this point you can toss in a few smashed cloves of garlic, a roughly chopped onion or shallot, or a few sprigs of fresh thyme to add more flavor – just remove them before serving). As you bring the lentils to a boil over high heat, use a spoon to skim off any ‘scum’ that accumulates on the top of the water. Once they’ve reached a boil, reduce the heat and let them simmer until they’ve lost their shape and have a thick texture. Add curry roasted vegetables, canned chickpeas and serve with Basmati rice for an easy weeknight meal, or mix in a food processor with garlic, tahini and olive oil for a lentil-y take on hummus.
We wish we could cover all the glorious ways in which to use lentils, but with nearly endless possibilities—that would be a tall order. However, we’ve unmasked the mystery by arming you with a bit of insight into the types of lentils you may come across in the super market, plus easy, back pocket techniques that are sure to turn you into a lentil lover in no time.
Published on January 6, 2018