The Lentil: Types and How to Cook

Lentils

Brown, Red and Yellow Varieties
Brown, Red and Yellow Varieties | Source

From Prehistory to Today

Lentils were one of the earliest cultivated crops. The earliest date that archaeologists have found their remains is in the Paleolithic and Mesolithic layers of Franchthi Cave in Greece (11,000 to 7,500 B.C.E.) as well as from the end of the Mesolithic era at Mureybit, and Tell Abu Hureya in Syria, and about 8000 B.C.E. in the Jericho area of Palestine. Other remains also come from Çayonü, Turkey dated at 6700 B.C.E and dozens of other sites in the Asia Minor region. (In other words, lentils have been around as long as cavemen!) Aristophanes mentions them in his plays, and lentils are commonly thought to have been the "mess of pottage" (what Esau sold his inheritance for) mentioned in the Bible. These pulses were the principal staple of the ancient Iranians, in a stew that was served over rice. Apicius also mentions them in his cookbooks, and the Greek and Roman writers describe them in many works.

Today these delicious and healthy legumes come in a wide variety of colours (some colours being produced by removing the skin from the bean) and at least a few varieties are easily found in most grocery stores. A wide variety can be found at Indian groceries or online.

Lentils are commonly classed by colour, and come in brown, French green (Puy), green, Eston green, Richlea, Laird, Macachiados (large Mexican yellow) yellow or tan (red inside), red (yellow without the skin), Petite Golden (no skin), Masoor (brown skin, red inside), Petite Crimson (Masoor without the skin) and black (the black ones are usually called Beluga, after their resemblance to the caviar) varieties.

Lentils were not common where I grew up, but when I moved to Europe I quickly discovered their wide variety, and many ways in which people used them, and I fell in love with the delicious soups, stews, and rice dishes that contain this healthy food. I introduced them to my family, who also turned out to love them—so I am sure that you will, too!

If You Can't Find the Lentils You're Looking For

Bob's Red Mill Red Lentils, 27-Ounce Units (Pack of 4)
Bob's Red Mill Red Lentils, 27-Ounce Units (Pack of 4)

Bob's Red Mill is one of the most trusted brands.

 

Masoor Variety

Masoor lentils have brown skins, and are red on the inside. This kind is very often used in Indian cooking, especially for dishes called Dal, because they cook down to a mushy texture on their own and do not have to be pureed; because of this quality, these are also good for thickening soups, stews, and sauces.

Red lentils are the Masoor variety with the skins removed. In many cases they come already split as well. Red lentils cook in about twenty minutes, and do not require presoaking.

Good for You!

Colorful Healthy Lentils in Mortar-And-Pestle
Colorful Healthy Lentils in Mortar-And-Pestle | Source

Green Variety

Green lentils are very desirable for garnishes, salads, and other dishes where you want them to remain distinct. This variety can take up to thirty minutes or more to cook, so try cooking them with brown rice. Green lentils are a different kind from the famous Puy lentils, which are speckled.

Brown Variety

This kind mostly comes from the United States, and if you see a package just marked "lentils," this is probably the kind you will get. They keep their shape well when cooked. Cooking time is about thirty to forty minutes. They have a nutty taste and can easily be grown (the plants will take about four months to produce a new batch of lentils). They are yellow inside their thin skin.

This variety works very well in soups where you want to keep the lentils distinct and the broth clear, for salads, and for garnishing.

Puy Variety

The "celebrity" of lentils, this variety is one of the very few vegetables to win the coveted AOC (Appellation d'Origine ) designation in France, which is an assurance of the origin and purity of strain of French food. They are a beautiful speckled green and keep their shape. If you have ever had a lentil dish in a really upscale restaurant, you were probably served this variety, which is a favorite with famous chefs!

Golden Variety

These beautiful lentils wow any dish and make a great contrast with other types of lentils, as well as any foods where you want the other ingredients to really pop! This variety is very popular in soups and dals (dal is a kind of traditional Indian dish), because they easily lose their shape as they cook, turning to a delicious mush.

Petite Golden lentils keep their shape when cooked, but cook very quickly. They are great for adding as a garnish to a summer salad, or for cooking in soup or stew where you want to see them whole.

Black or Beluga Variety

Normally not available in grocery stores, the black lentils are another variety that keep their shape well. They need about twenty-five minutes to cook (simmer them rather than boil them so they won't split). In my house, we serve them as part of our traditional Hallowe'en menu of orange and black foods! The picture below shows their resemblance to beluga caviar, which is where they get their name.

Beluga Lentils

Black lentils in foreground; beluga caviar in background
Black lentils in foreground; beluga caviar in background | Source
Green (Eston) Lentils, 25 Lb Bag
Green (Eston) Lentils, 25 Lb Bag

This is a lot of lentils, but the "Green Eston" variety is the kind that will eventually lose their shape and turn into a mush, which makes them a great thickener for soups or stews where you don't want them to be recognizable. Lentils stay good for years, so you don't have to worry about waste, although over time they will dry out and take a bit longer to cook.

 

Nutritional Value for 100 grams

Item
Amount
Energy
353 kCal
Carbohydrates
60 g
Sugars
2 g
Dietary Fiber
31 g
Fat
1 g
Protein
26 g
Thiamine
0.87 mg (67 %)
Folate
479 μg (120 %)
Iron
7.5 mg (60 %)
Nutritional information percentages are relative to U.S. recommendations for adults.
Dry Peas & Lentils
Dry Peas & Lentils

One of the problems that vegetarians and vegans face is getting enough protein. This book solves that problem by giving you hundreds of delicious recipes that will never leave you wondering what to cook, and whether you are receiving enough protein in your diet.

 

Nutritional Information

Lentils, like all pulses (pulses are a general term for all kinds of legumes, including beans and peas), are a wonderful source of iron and protein, and they are very high in fiber (one cup provides one hundred per cent of your recommended daily allowance of fiber) as well. Like most pulses, lentils have the benefit of helping to lower high cholesterol. Lentils also provide thiamin and folate, two important B vitamins, and a cup of lentils, cooked with only herbs and spices, can be as low as 230 calories.

Dietary Implications

Some Christians include fasting as part of their religious life, and for those on strict fasts (no meat, dairy, fish, oil or wine), lentils can provide an excellent addition to their diets. In addition, since they are Biblical, there should be no faith implications.

For those who keep kosher, lentils are parve, so they will go with either meat or dairy.

What About the Paleo Diet?

Although, strictly speaking, legumes are not included in the paleo diet, there is plenty of evidence (as demonstrated above) that lentils have been in the diet of humans for over ten thousand years. If you are following the paleo diet, you may want to experiment with adding pulses because of the archaeological evidence and the nutrition they provide.

Cooking and Eating Lentils

A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie's Kitchen
A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie's Kitchen

Although some of the recipes are flawed (such as using Worchestershire sauce as a shortcut), this book highlights the lovely Sephardic Jewish cooking traditions, with use of family recipes.

 
Pea and Lentil Cookbook: From Everyday to Gourmet
Pea and Lentil Cookbook: From Everyday to Gourmet

Most cooks already have their favorite recipes. However, when adding new ingredients, it can sometimes be hard to incorporate them into already-existing recipes. This cookbook does a wonderful job with adapting famous gourmet recipes to include lentils in them, allowing cooks to get a feel for how to incorporate lentils into their own family recipes, too!

 
Not Just a Load of Old Lentils: Ideal Introduction to Vegetarian Cooking (Essential Rose Elliot)
Not Just a Load of Old Lentils: Ideal Introduction to Vegetarian Cooking (Essential Rose Elliot)

Over 400 recipes featuring all kinds of beans and pulses, and a host of other features including seasonal planners, recipes for weight loss, and many others. If you are vegetarian or vegan for even part of the year, keeping kosher, or fasting, these recipes make keeping your meals that way so much easier!

 

How to Cook

Lentils can be used in a variety of casseroles and other dishes, and take about the same amount of time to cook as rice or wild rice, so the two are very often paired and even cooked together. In addition, brown rice and lentils, served together, provide a complete protein for vegan or vegetarian meals, another reason to cook and serve them together. (Split lentils cook much faster than whole lentils.) In addition, lentils can easily be sprouted and the lentil sprouts added to salads, where they provide a lovely spicy flavour much like black pepper. Another way to use them might be to add them to already-cooked dishes as a garnish; they go quite well with many different types of cuisines. They form the cornerstone of many culinary traditions in Asia Minor, and are eating during times of mourning by some Jews, because their shape represents the circle of life), and by the Italians for New Year. The earliest published recipes historians have found include recipes for these pulses, and now you can add them to your family's diet! In addition to traditional dishes, lentils can perk up many modern recipes,too.

To cook, simply add 1¼ to 1½ parts of water to one part of lentils in a pot, then simmer. You may add herbs or spices at the beginning, but don't add salt until the end, because salt will react with the starch in the lentils to toughen them. They are also great cooked in a slow cooker, especially the varieties that will puree on their own.

To sprout lentils, pour them into a jar until it is half-full, fill the jar with water, and cover the jar. Change the water every day by partially unscrewing the jar lid, draining out the water, then removing the jar lid and adding new water. The beans should sprout within a day or two, and can be eaten either when the seeds first sprout, or you can let them grow an extra day or two, for longer roots, such as the alfalfa sprouts you buy in the store. The sprouts themselves are one-quarter protein!

Some varieties might have been treated with chemicals that may inhibit mineral absorption; to be safe, soak them overnight and then rinse. The chemicals are water-soluble and will be washed away with the soaking and rinsing water. In addition, overnight soaking will greatly reduce their cooking time of almost all legumes (just don't add salt to the water or you will mess up the ability of the starches to absorb water, so if you're adding premade bouillon mix, save it for towards the end, or be prepared to cook them much longer).

Lentils in Baby Food

Because of their high protein content and dense nutrients, lentils in baby food are highly desirable. Exposure to many different foods at a young age help with a number of developmental issues, and children may be less picky eaters when they have experimented with many different foods. Paired with brown rice, this provides a complete protein, which is important if your infant, for whatever reason, doesn't want to or cannot eat meat.

Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, Rice & Lentil Dinner, 4 Ounce (Pack of 12)
Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, Rice & Lentil Dinner, 4 Ounce (Pack of 12)

The high protein and nutrient density makes this organic baby food a healthy and nutritious addition to your infant's diet. The reviews on Amazon that are complaining mostly have to do with other flavors produced by the same company, and the "shredded plastic" turns out to be cellulose (what plants are made of).

 
Plum Organics Baby Training Meals, Red Lentil Veggie, 4-Ounce Pouches (Pack of 12)
Plum Organics Baby Training Meals, Red Lentil Veggie, 4-Ounce Pouches (Pack of 12)

Children grow up to be picky eaters because they are not introduced to a wide enough variety of foods early on. These training dinners are a wonderful way to introduce your child to lentils. The ingredients are organic and the packaging is BPA-free, and the negative reviews are for other flavors--the red lentil veggie has good reviews. However, check the sodium content to be sure you are happy with the level.

 

Try Before You Buy

If you are not sure about lentils yet, before buying some that you will never use, try a can of soup or a snack with lentils in it. You can test out the taste a little before you commit to cooking them yourself, or you can simply add to your already-existing repertoire of prepared foods and add a little variety and a different source of nutrition.

Mirch Masala Boondi 12 Oz
Mirch Masala Boondi 12 Oz

If you want to try lentils but don't have time to cook them or are unsure of your cooking technique, this snack will certainly convince you. You will never buy potato chips again!

 
Amy's Light in Sodium Organic Soups,  Lentil, 14.5 Ounce (Pack of 12)
Amy's Light in Sodium Organic Soups, Lentil, 14.5 Ounce (Pack of 12)

Oftentimes when I am busy or stressed, or pressed for time, I find that Amy's soups are good for filling in meals. This version is also low in sodium, and it's very comforting on those cold winter days. Since this soup is both vegan and kosher, it is good for people who are fasting for religious reasons.

 
Lentil plants seventy-five days after sprouting (before flowering).
Lentil plants seventy-five days after sprouting (before flowering). | Source
Lentil: An Ancient Crop for Modern Times
Lentil: An Ancient Crop for Modern Times

Although suitable for anyone, and quite interesting, this book is a must-have if you ever intend to grow lentils on a large scale, and certainly if you plan to commercially farm them.

 

Cultivation

Like many legumes or pulses, lentils are easy to grow and harvest yourself. A few lentils, sprouted and tended, will provide you with a bountiful harvest, and you can use organic gardening methods to ensure that you have a healthy crop you grew yourself. Locavore just doesn't get any more local than this! Simply pick the pods (there will usually be two lentils in a pod) and shell them. Dry on cheesecloth or newspapers and store in glass jars.

Organic Red Lentil Sprouting Seeds -2.5 Lbs - Handy Pantry Brand - Red Lentils- Perfect for Garden Seeds, Gardening, Salad, Soup, Sprouts & Food Storage
Organic Red Lentil Sprouting Seeds -2.5 Lbs - Handy Pantry Brand - Red Lentils- Perfect for Garden Seeds, Gardening, Salad, Soup, Sprouts & Food Storage

Although you can grow lentils simply by sprouting them in a jar, if you are planning on growing many lentils, you may want to consider this. Since these have not been treated, you can continue to grow them each year from the current year's crop. Whatever you don't plant, you can eat or save to plant for next year!

 

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How Do You Use Lentils? 2 comments

askjanbrass profile image

askjanbrass 6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I love lentils and they're integral to some of my favorite recipes. I especially love Indian cuisine where the dish includes lentil. Thanks for sharing this!


carol7777 profile image

carol7777 4 years ago from Arizona

After seeing the picture of the lentils I feel like painting them. Thanks for sharing all this information.

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