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A Comprehensive Guide to Lentils

A Comprehensive Guide to Lentils

Lentils are definitely one of my favorite vegetarian proteins. They’re unprocessed, they’re quicker to make than dried beans (no soaking required!), and they just have a nice, earthy flavor that works so well in a variety of dishes.

One of my go-to easy lunches is a bowl full of lentils and whatever veggies I have on hand, tossed with garlic, olive oil, and red wine vinegar.

And not only are lentils delicious in their own right, but they also make a great meat substitute–I often use them in place of ground beef in recipes.

A Comprehensive Guide to Lentils

All About Lentils – from The Essential Good Food Guide

Essential Good Food Guide

I recently received a copy of The Essential Good Food Guide and rather than write a review of the book, I thought I’d share an excerpt. An excerpt on lentils! You can purchase it online from Amazon. It’s a great resource for healthy eating!

Lentils are the world’s oldest cultivated legume, likely domesticated around 7000 BCE.

The botanical nomenclature Lens culinaris means “cooking lens.” And our word for the optical instrument no doubt comes from its similarity in shape to the small, round, flat shape that distinguishes all varieties of lentils.

Colors range from slate green, brown, and black to reddish orange, coral, and gold, with all varieties having unique, delicious flavors and textures but a similar nutritional profile.

One of the easiest beans to digest, lentils also rate as a favorite because of their short preparation time and versatility. Unlike other beans, no presoaking is required.

Pressure-cooking is not recommended for any variety of lentils, as the foam that they create during the cooking process can clog pressure vents. Nor is it generally necessary, as most varieties cook quite quickly using the boil and simmer method.

Varieties and Cooking Guidelines

Lentils are marketed in four general categories: brown, green, red/yellow, and specialty. In turn, within each category are several varieties, which makes for fun discovery and experimentation.

In general, the brown and green varieties retain their shape well (some more fully than others), whereas the hulled and, most particularly, split red and yellow lentils tend to disintegrate and, therefore, are best for soups or in applications where they’ll be pureed.

Specialty lentils, in which I place those that are especially distinctive in flavor, shape, and origin, largely fall within the brown and green categories.

Brown lentils sold in bulk or in a package that is labeled simply as “lentils” with no delineation of specific variety will typically be the “regular” lentil, also known as brewer lentils.

Those that are marketed just as green lentils will be in one of three classes according to size. If large, they may be the Laird lentil or one of several similar varieties. If the green lentil is medium in size, it will be the Richlea lentil or the like. The classic small green lentil variety is the Eston lentil.

Fortunately, when cooking, you won’t have to struggle with which is which as these basic brown and green varieties have similar cooking times and water-to-lentil proportions.

Still, learning more about each lentil’s characteristics enhances the enjoyment both in cooking and in dining.

Varieties of Lentils from The Essential Good Food Guide

Black Beluga Lentils

Use 2¼ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.

These are tiny black lentils that look remarkably like shiny, glistening caviar when cooked.

Their rich, earthy flavor and soft texture is perfect in salads and soups or featured with pasta, rice, or sautéed vegetables.

Not only does their deep black color present a dramatic, striking contrast when cooked with a variety of colorful green and red vegetables, but it also indicates they are high in the antioxidant anthocyanin.

You can buy black beluga lentils here.

French Green Lentils

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.

Known for their distinctive rich, peppery flavor, French green lentils are further distinguished by their slate green color with bluish black undertones, and their small size, about one-third the size of green lentils.

They are also rich in antioxidant phytochemicals similar to those in blueberries and black grapes and in minerals, particularly iron and magnesium.

While French green lentils are grown using the same variety of lentil as the famous Puy lentils, since they are grown in North America or Italy rather than the Puy region in central France, they are never referred to as lentilles du Puy.

Nonetheless, they can be substituted in any recipe that calls for Puy lentils, not to mention being less expensive, as well.

As French green lentils hold their shape well, use them as a side dish in accompaniment with vegetables and pasta, in salads, in a light soup, or as a focal point in a meal. They are wonderful in this Mushroom, Lemon, and Lentil Salad

You can buy french green lentils here.

Puy Lentils

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.

Also known as lentilles du Puy, these lentils are slate green in color with bluish black undertones and about one-third the size of green lentils.

Grown in the volcanic soils of the Le Puy district in the Auvergne in central France for nearly the past two thousand years, Puy lentils offer exceptional quality, flavor, and nutritional content, most notably mineral contents and particularly iron and magnesium.

As a source of anthocyanins, their dark color, similar to that as found in blueberries and black grapes, provides valuable antioxidants. Look for the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) label to ensure authenticity.

Known for their distinctive rich, peppery flavor, Puy lentils are traditionally served as a side dish, in salads, as a focal point in a meal, or even as a foundation for meat, fish, or game. They are perfect in this Mango Lentil Salad.

You can buy Puy lentils here.

Regular Lentils

Use 2½ to 3 cups water per 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.

When buying lentils and there is no other descriptor on the label, regular lentils—the name of an actual variety that is about as straightforward a name as it gets, otherwise known as the brewer lentil—is the most common type of lentil available in North America.

Distinguished from other lentils by their mottled khaki color, regular lentils have a mild, somewhat earthy flavor.

Commonly used to make hearty soups, stews, and side dishes to serve along with grains and pastas, this variety holds its shape well after cooking.

Still, these tender beans are also easily mashed, which is why they have long been associated with making vegetarian meat loaf and burgers.

Brown lentils and rice have similar cooking times, so they’ve long been cooked together, often with celery seed or other seasonings.

You can buy regular lentils here.

Lentil Recipes

Now that you know everything there is to know about lentils (and then some!), here are some of my favorite ways to use them:

Favorite Lentil Recipes

1. Lentil Mushroom Meatballs
2. Vegan Cincinnati Chili
3. Chard, Lentil & Potato Slow Cooker Soup
4. Herbed French Lentil Salad
5. Middle Eastern Lentil & Rice Soup
6. Lentil Mushroom Burgers
7. Butternut Squash, Lentil & Kale Salad with Tahini Dressing

A portion of this article is excerpted and reprinted with permission from The Essential Good Food Guide by Margaret Wittenberg, copyright (c) 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Photographs (c) 2013 Jennifer Martine

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  • Reply
    Heidi @ Food Doodles
    July 19, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Great post! I really need to branch out with lentils more. I have a huge supply of them and only a couple recipes I really like them in so I need to get trying some different things out 🙂

    • Reply
      July 21, 2013 at 7:28 pm

      There really aren’t very many lentil recipes out there, are there? Lots of salads and soups, but other than that, you don’t see them too often…

  • Reply
    July 20, 2013 at 12:15 am

    For some reason, I have steered away from any recipe that includes lentils. I really like them, but thought they might be too difficult to cook with. I am going to give the mushroom lentil burger a try this weekend!

    • Reply
      July 21, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      They are so easy! The trickiest thing about them is that sometimes they’ll start breaking down a little bit before the cooking time is up, so you have to keep an eye on them.

      • Reply
        January 3, 2020 at 3:09 pm

        I have a recipe for French green lentils. Can I use another type? I don’t know where to get them.

  • Reply
    Amanda Gilds
    July 20, 2013 at 9:38 am

    I really need to start using more lentils….

    I need to dive in! I picked up some French ones during my last Whole Food’s trip..2 months ago.

    • Reply
      July 21, 2013 at 7:23 pm

      Put them in a salad! The French ones are so good in salads. 😀

  • Reply
    Courtney @ The Fig Tree
    July 21, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    Great guide! I adore lentils and trying out different kinds in recipes.

  • Reply
    July 27, 2013 at 3:50 am

    this is awesome, but guys, where are the red ones?

    • Reply
      July 28, 2013 at 7:44 pm

      I originally included more varieties, but the post was way too long and I had to cut some of them out. 🙂

    • Reply
      Ricardo Garcia
      May 11, 2019 at 7:59 pm

      I buy mine at Indian Store

  • Reply
    Amy @ The Little Honey Bee
    September 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    This is the perfect post as I begin my lentil experimentation!

    • Reply
      September 16, 2013 at 7:16 pm

      Woo hoo! I love experimenting with lentils–they are one of my favorite things to cook with! 🙂

  • Reply
    September 29, 2013 at 6:34 am

    I love lentils & was hoping that a comprehensive guide would have a perfect, foolproof strategy for eliminating pebbles, since I always seem to miss one…

    • Reply
      September 30, 2013 at 8:10 pm

      Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a fool proof way to do it!

  • Reply
    August 12, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    I have substituted lentils for beef when making tacos and added a little paprika, it’s one of my favorite uses!

    • Reply
      Kiersten Frase
      August 17, 2014 at 8:25 pm

      That is a great idea – I love lentils as a ground beef substitute!

  • Reply
    terry short
    November 4, 2014 at 10:49 am

    what calories are there in red lentils?

  • Reply
    December 17, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    We have made some of your lentil recipes this fall and everyone has loved them! Unfortunately, I have had stomach/abdominal pain after eating them. No one else has complained of any discomfort and it makes me sad to think I can’t enjoy lentils! Do you have any suggestions on how to remedy this? We used “regular” lentils for the recipes. I really elsewhere that the green ones may be easier to digest? Would it work to substitute them? Thanks for the help!

    • Reply
      February 24, 2015 at 11:27 am

      I have found the same with regular lentils but not with red or yellow lentils.

  • Reply
    February 21, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Going to try lentils and kale today!

    Thanks for the recipes.

  • Reply
    February 24, 2015 at 11:25 am

    What about red and yellow lentils? there are also some great Persian recipes with rice and lentils. I once had a honey and lentil recipe that my kids love, but I lost it. Have you heard of one? Lentils are high in carbs. Do any of them have a lower carb. count?

  • Reply
    May 2, 2016 at 2:02 am

    The title is not appropriate since this is NOT a “comprehensive” guide. Not one type oflentil from the Indian Subcontinent (which accounts for the bulk of lentil consumers in the world ) is listed.

  • Reply
    July 3, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Your pages are SO LIGHT I cannot see or read them. How about a darker,larger font? HELP!!!

  • Reply
    August 20, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    I just put some in a pot with coconut oil dried onion tumeric salt and pepper frozen assorted vegetables and cook.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2018 at 7:34 pm

    What a timely post! I found a recipe for Lentil Loaf this week that I plan to make and was concerned about whether I had the “right” lentils! Also, if anyone hasn’t tried the beluga lentils… Yum! They are by far my favorite.

    • Reply
      Katie Trant
      January 22, 2018 at 2:06 pm

      Beluga lentils are my favourite as well!

  • Reply
    Keith Harvey
    March 29, 2019 at 4:56 am

    Kiersten, I’m so pleased you promoted the humble but wonderful lentil! As you had to leave out red lentils (masoor dal) for space reasons, might I put in a word for these remarkable little pulses? I often make dal/daal/dahl with them. They cook amazingly quickly yet are really tasty and a perfect base for a delicious, spicy treat, blending beautifully with the ‘masala’ and coriander (US: cilantro). Rinse a few times before cooking, lift away any white froth from the top of the cooking water, and they will be fine. Crispy red lentils kebabs are wonderful, by the way.

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