How to cook lentils
A post all about how to cook lentils, including info about the different types of lentils, and how you can cook great lentil recipes!
Ahhh, lentils. One of my favourite ingredients in the world – perfect little discs that can be used in a million different ways (and that’s no exaggeration!). They’re one of those things that I always keep in the cupboard, ready for an easy, healthy dinner. If you’ve ever wondered how to cook lentils, read on to find out!
I’ll warn you in advance: this is a long blog post, with all sorts of information about how to cook lentils, different types of lentils, loads of lentil recipe inspiration, etc… so if you don’t want to have to read the whole thing, feel free to use the links below to jump to the sections you’re interested in:
How to cook lentils
– Do lentils need to be soaked?
– Picking over lentils
– How to boil lentils
– How long do lentils take to cook?
– How do you know when lentils are cooked?
– How can I add flavour to boiled lentils?
Different types of lentils
There are quite a few different types of lentils, but the most common are:
- red lentils (my favourite, and my most commonly used)
- brown and green lentils (which are pretty similar in a lot of ways)
- black (beluga) lentils
What are the differences between different types of lentils?
Different types of lentils are good for different things. To a certain extent, one type of lentil in a recipe can be swapped for another, but depending on the recipe, this won’t always work.
Red lentils (which are actually more of an orange colour, and almost yellow when cooked) are my favourite type of lentil to cook with. They cook down nicely, and they can end up quite mushy and soft if you continue to cook them. This is certainly not a bad thing, and in lots of recipes, it’s actually what you want to happen.
Brown / green lentils
Brown and green lentils aren’t identical, but I’ve grouped them together here since you can pretty much use them interchangeably. They keep their shape when cooked more than red lentils do, so they’re great to use when you want the shape of the lentils to be visible in the finished dish. Green lentils are a little larger than brown lentils.
Puy lentils are a type of green lentil that are specifically grown in the Puy region of central France. They tend to be thought of as a superior (and therefore more expensive!) lentil.
Black (beluga) lentils
Black lentils are the richest type of lentil, and have the most flavour. Just like brown and green lentils, they tend to keep their shape when cooked.
Unfortunately, they’re also the hardest to find, at least here in the UK. You may be able to find sachets of cooked beluga lentils in the supermarket if you’re lucky, but to find them dried, you’ll probably have to go online*.
Because of this, the remainder of this blog post will focus on the more common types of lentils – red, brown and green.
Tinned (canned) lentils
As well as dried, you can also buy green lentils pre-cooked in a tin, which makes lots of recipes even easier!
I tend to use dried lentils if I just want to throw a handful into a soup or something, but tinned lentils are a great time saver if a recipe begins with cooked lentils.
For example, when I made my cheesy lentil burgers, I needed to blend cooked lentils with the other burger ingredients, so it was really handy to start with a tin of lentils that were already cooked.
Just be aware that some brands of tinned lentils have added salt, so you may prefer to find lentils that are just tinned in plain water.
Are lentils good for you?
In short – yes!
I’m not a dietitian, but I do know that lentils are full of all sorts of good things. In particular, they’re rich in fibre, protein and iron – which are all important things for everybody to make sure they’re getting in their diet, but are particularly key for vegetarians to pay attention to.
They’re also packed with vitamins and minerals like magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins.
One cup of cooked red lentils (a reasonable portion, assuming the lentils are forming the bulk of your meal) contains:
- 230 calories
- 0.8g fat and 0.1g saturated fat (~1% of your recommended daily allowance)
- 15.6g fibre (~ 56% of your RDA)
- 17.9g protein
- 37% of your RDA of iron
- 20% of your RDA of potassium
- 17% of your RDA of magnesium
- 20% of your RDA of Vitamin B-6
Those are pretty impressive stats!
How to cook lentils
Once you’ve chosen which type of lentil you’re going to use, it’s time to get cooking!
Do lentils need to be soaked?
Nope! Unlike lots of other dried pulses, lentils don’t need to be soaked before cooking. This means they’re really quick and easy to use – you can decide you want to cook lentils when you’re already ready to start cooking, and they can be ready to eat twenty minutes later. Perfect for a quick and healthy meal.
Some people do choose to soak their lentils anyway, as it can make them cook a bit more quickly, and may also make the lentils easier to digest – but unless you find that lentils don’t always agree with you, I wouldn’t bother.
Picking over lentils
One thing you might like to do before you cook your lentils is to give them a quick picking over, to remove any non-lentil bits that have found their way into the bag. I don’t bother doing this every time because as a general rule I’m pretty lazy, but if you can be bothered, it is worth doing.
I have occasionally found tiny flowers, weird looking lentils, little seed pods, and even tiny stones in amongst the dried lentils in the packet. It’s inevitable when the lentils are being picked from lentil plants! I’ve circled a few non-lentils in the photo above.
If this sounds like a big job, don’t worry! You don’t need to look at every single lentil one by one – just a quick scan through them is fine. Chances are you wouldn’t notice any tiny bits in your lentils anyway once they’re all cooked up.
You can also rinse your lentils before cooking if you like, to remove any final bits of debris, but I personally never bother doing this.
How to boil lentils
Lentils need to be boiled in water to soften them up and make them edible – you won’t have much luck if you try to roast them!
Just place the dried lentils in a saucepan, and cover with plenty of water. Bring them to a simmer, and allow them to cook until soft. When the lentils are soft, drain away any excess water with a sieve or colander, and use them in your recipe.
Alternatively, you can throw a handful of lentils straight into a soup, stew, etc. – you don’t need to cook them separately, as long as there’s plenty of liquid to soften them up.
Especially with red lentils, I’ll often continue cooking them, stirring regularly, until any excess water has been absorbed or boiled off, rather than draining the water. This will give a wetter end result, but if you’re making something like dal or lentil curry, it works really well.
How long do lentils take to cook?
Cooking time will depend on which type of lentil you’re using, and how you’d like them to be cooked.
Red lentils cook the most quickly, in just 15-20 minutes. A slightly shorter cooking time will help them to keep their shape, while a longer cooking time will cause them to start breaking down.
Brown and green lentils take a little longer to cook – more like 30-40 minutes.
How do you know when lentils are cooked?
Fish a couple of lentils out of the pan with a fork, and give them a taste. There shouldn’t be any crunch – they should be completely tender.
How can I add flavour to boiled lentils?
A lot of the time, you’ll be using your cooked lentils within a recipe that already has plenty of other flavours going on, so it shouldn’t matter if the lentils are just boiled simply in water.
But if you do want to get some extra flavour into your lentils, like if you’re serving them on their own, you can boil them in vegetable stock instead of plain water – they’ll soak up all the flavour of the stock as they cook.
You can also add extra ingredients to the water to infuse into the lentils – a bay leaf or two, a couple of chunks of onion, some whole garlic cloves, etc. You can then remove these ingredients from the lentils once they’re cooked.
Or, if you don’t mind ending up with extra ingredients in your lentils, start by sautéing some onion and garlic in the pan, then boil the lentils straight on top.
How to use lentils
If I’ve inspired you to get cooking with lentils, check out my bumper collection of vegetarian lentil recipes!
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