The lowly lentil is a pantry staple and a real star on the health front; knowing how to cook lentils will make your soups, salads, and side dishes all the more healthy and delicious. And they cook in just 20 minutes!
There is much to love about the lentil. It’s inexpensive, sustainable, easy to cook, and so, so, good for you. I keep several jars of different varieties of lentils in my pantry and add them to soups, stews, salads, or just eat them plain as a side dish.
They don’t need much, either! Just a little water and about 15 minutes. You can cook up a big pot of lentils for soup, or make an elegant, savory lentil salad for lunch. I bet you’ll fall in love with their earthy, nutty flavor.
Need to make a lentil side dish for twenty for under five dollars? Click and slide the number next to “servings” on the recipe card below to adjust the ingredients to match how many you’re feeding—the recipe does the math for you, it’s that easy.
What are lentils?
Lentils are something in the pulse family: the dry, edible seeds of plants. It’s a category of superfoods that includes other legumes like chickpeas, lentils, dry peas, and beans.
Lentils are the smallest and quickest cooking of all the pulses, which is good news for healthy weeknight meals and busy cooks.
How do lentils grow?
How lentils grow is pretty interesting. Lentil plants are short, bushy plants with pods containing one to three lentils in each pod. Canada is the world’s leading producer of lentils— there are over 5,000 active lentil farmers in Canada.
It’s a pretty fast growing crop, too; lentils are usually planted in May and harvested in August. Growing lentils restores a lot of nutrients back to the soil, and delivers a lot of nutrients to us, too.
Be sure to always sort through your lentils before you cook them to pick out any stones that may have gotten mixed in!
Types of lentils:
- Split lentils: Split lentils have had their seed coat removed and the inner part of the lentil has been split in half. Split lentils cook much quicker than whole lentils and are excellent in curries, as a thickener in soups, and for purées.
- Whole lentils: Whole lentils are ideal for salads, soups, and side dishes of all kinds; they add lots of texture and protein to whatever you put them in. I love making Mediterranean Lentil Salad for a quick yet hearty lunch, or simmering a big pot of Ham and Lentil Soup to ward off chilly days.
Some varieties of lentils:
- Brown lentils: Brown lentils are one of the most common varieties of lentils and the easiest to find. They hold their shape nicely once cooked. Brown lentils have a mild, earthy flavor and can be a natural thickener in a soup or veggie burgers.
- Green lentils: Another common type of lentil, with a slightly peppery flavor and firm texture. These have a slightly longer cooking time than other varieties. Lentils de Puy are just green lentils which are grown in France.
- Red lentils: Red lentils are tiny split lentils that cook in no time at all. They’re commonly used in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian recipes, and have a very soft texture when cooked. Great for use in soups, purées, and stews.
- Yellow lentils: This sweet and nutty lentil is very similar to red lentils. Yellow lentils are a main feature of Indian cuisine, flavored with spices in a creamy Indian dal.
- Black or Beluga lentils: Named because this type of lentil resembles caviar, black lentils have a deep, earthy flavor, firm texture and are the most nutritious out of all the types of lentils. They’re also a bit more money.
Benefits of lentils:
No matter what color you choose, it’s hard to find a healthier, more nutritious legume. Lentils are low in calories, rich in iron, potassium, and folate, and an excellent source of protein. They pack health-promoting polyphenols and may reduce several heart disease risk factors. A half cup of dry split red lentils has more potassium than a large banana.
Lentils contain virtually no fat and are naturally high in fiber, too. As a result, eating lentils is recommended if you’d like to lose weight.
Are lentils carbs? Are lentils protein? Yes and yes! They do provide a healthy dose of complex carbohydrates, as well as protein.
Other lentil nutrition facts, right here, if you’re curious…
One half cup of cooked lentils provides:
- 19g carbohydrates
- 0g fat
- 8g fiber
- 9g protein
- 110 calories
Lentils vs. Beans
Finding new and delicious ways to incorporate legumes and pulses into your diet is fabulous, and so is eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. When eating healthy, the only way to stay on track and not get bored is to mix it up, try new things, and “eat the rainbow.”
I think it’s perfectly okay to eat beans and lentils, if you enjoy them, and not worry too much about the finer points.
If you wanna break it down, here are some comparisons:
- Lentils have more fiber than beans, but not by much. One half-cup serving has 7.8g fiber vs. 5.2g for beans.
- In contrast, lentils are slightly lower in carbs than beans. One half-cup serving has 20g carbs vs. 27g for beans.
Are lentils gluten-free?
Lentils do not contain gluten; in fact, lentil flour is a common gluten-free substitute for flour. Anyone who needs or wishes to eat a fully gluten-free diet can be confident that lentils – red, green and brown varieties alike – are fine to eat.
However, the lentils you buy may be processed in a facility where wheat or soy are also processed, so I would always check the packaging for a “gluten-free” label, just to be on the safe side.
Lentil cooking tips:
No need to soak lentils. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to soak lentils before you cook them. They cook quickly no matter what.
Lentils cook with a 3:1 ratio of liquid to lentils. No matter what lentil you’re cooking, just add three times the amount of water or stock.
Add aromatics: A really nice way to add an extra layer of flavor to the lentils is by cooking them with aromatics. Think about what you’ll be using the lentils for, and consider making a complimentary bouquet garni, filled with herbs, peppercorns, and some leafy celery greens. Add a couple cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, carrot, lemon peel, or an onion. The aromatics will infuse your lentils with tremendous flavor as they cook.
Some cooks swear by cooking lentils with a fresh turnip in the water, as well as a whole onion studded with a few cloves. The turnip and clove work magic on lentils!
You can also cook your lentils in vegetable stock, chicken broth, or beef broth instead of water.
Finally, don’t salt until the lentils are cooked. Like beans, salting can toughen the outer skins of the legumes and make them tough. Flavor the cooking liquid all you want, but keep the salt away until they’re finished cooking.
How to Cook Lentils:
- First, rinse your lentils with fresh water before boiling to remove any dust or debris, and give them a good going-over, in case there’s a pebble in with them.
- To cook on a stovetop, using 3 cups of liquid (water, stock, etc) to 1 cup of dry lentils. Be sure to use a large enough saucepan as the lentils will double or triple in size.
- Now’s the time to add any aromatics you want.
- Bring to a boil, cover tightly, reduce heat and simmer until they are tender. That’s all there is to it!
- Be sure to season with salt after cooking – lentils get tough if salted while cooking.
Lentils cooking time:
Above all, I love cooking lentils because of their speedy cooking time.
- For whole lentils, cook time is typically 15-20 minutes. Green lentils may require a bit more time, though.
- For split red lentils, cook time is typically only about 5-7 minutes.
Easy Brown Lentils Recipe:
Do you have some leftover lentils in the fridge? Here’s an easy, delicious way to cook them.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- ½ cup chopped celery
- ½ cup chopped carrots
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 cups cooked lentils
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- fresh herbs, for garnish, optional
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil until shimmering. Add onion, celery, and carrots and cook until softened, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Stir in garlic until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add lentils and stir until uniformly combined and heated through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with herbs if desired.
Can you cook lentils in an Instant Pot?
You can, if you’re busy and don’t want to watch the stove. They take about as long or longer in the Instant Pot, including warm-up, cooking, depressurizing, and venting.
- Once you combine the lentils, water, and any aromatics, just select the Manual or Pressure Cook button and cook for the 6 to 8 minutes. Allow to depressurize for at least 10 minutes.
- Then, move the Venting knob from the Sealing position to the Venting position and release any remaining pressure. Season to taste.
Can you cook lentils in slow cooker?
Yes! Place the lentils, water, and any aromatics such as onion, carrot, garlic, or bay leaf, in the crock of a large slow cooker. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours, until the lentils are tender. Season to taste.
How to store lentils:
Packaged lentils (dry or canned) keep easily on your cupboard shelf or pantry in a dry, dark, cool location for up to one year. If you purchase lentils in bulk or have open packages, transfer them to an airtight container.
Cooked lentils and prepared lentil purée freezes well and is best used within three months, or refrigerated for one week. Be sure to store in airtight containers or plastic freezer bags.
How to Cook Lentils
- 1 cup lentils
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, optional
- 3 cups water
- Rinse lentils in cold tap water to remove any dust or debris.
- Add lentils and water to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover, and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Do not salt lentils until they're finished cooking.
- Drain well. Season to taste with salt and pepper if desired.