Cooking with Lentils

Lentils are a Plant Based Diet Staple

Whether you’re fully vegetarian or not, lentils are a great staple feature of a plant based diet. I personally love cooking with lentils. They’re versatile, hearty, affordable, long-lasting, and healthy. Besides being just tasty and useful, lentils are also pretty nutrient-dense, making them a great base option for vegetarian and plant based lifestyles.

My Latest Lentil Creation

Before I get into my FAQ, I wanted to share the colorful lentil and orzo dish I made this past week for myself, my mom, and my grandma. I used a 6 quart round dutch oven from Martha Stewart and was reminded of how well this type of pot works for lentils and stews.

I was going to do a full recipe post on this creation, but it was such an ad hoc process that I decided to simply share the ingredients on Instagram. Most of my cooking, when not based on someone else’s recipe, winds up being a bit of this, a bit of that, in a very forgiving way, making it hard to put down on paper (or on the screen).

Basically, the rough outline of the dish went like this:

  • First, I sautéed garlic, olive oil, and diced white onion. At this time, I chopped up three large tomatoes and opened the can of diced tomatoes.
  • Then, I added the tomatoes to the pot and let them cook for a bit. Then I chopped up the sweet potato.
  • Next, I added the sweet potato and quickly followed that up with about two cups of water.
  • That mixture cooked for a couple minutes before I added the lentils and incorporated them.
  • After incorporating the lentils, I continued to add vegetables as I diced them, saving softer ones — IE: Swiss chard, chopped broccoli — until closer to the end.
  • Towards the end, I added a bit more water and the orzo. I let it all cook together for at least 8-10 minutes so I knew the orzo was properly cooked.

Cooking with Lentils FAQ

What Are Lentils?

Lentils are technically legumes, making them related to other plant-based diet staples like chickpeas. They have a long history in European, Asian, and North African cooking. My family has been cooking with lentils for my whole life, since they’re a staple in Italian cooking.

Types of Lentils

There are a few types of lentils, differentiated largely by color. Green lentils, also known as French lentils, are some of the more commonly seen options. Green lentils have a more nutty flavor. Brown lentils are also pretty common, especially in veggie burgers.

Besides green and brown lentils, you can also find red and yellow lentils, which have a sweeter flavor. Black beluga lentils, on the other hand, have a more earthy in flavor. I’ve seen some info about another type of French lentil called a Puy lentil. These seem far less common or are grouped in with green lentils. The different varieties have slightly different textures and cook at a variety of different speeds.

What is the Nutritional Breakdown of Cooked Lentils?

The nutrients in each type of lentil varies. Brown lentils, one of the more common styles, is a good benchmark, though. In a 1/2 cup serving of cooked brown lentils, you’ll get 9 grams of protein, 20 grams of carbohydrates, 8 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of sugar. The 1/2 cup serving is 115 calories and has 0 grams of fat (saturated or unsaturated) and no added sugars.

Besides the basic nutritional information, lentils are full of vitamins and minerals, like magnesium, zinc, potassium, and B vitamins. Furthermore, they include a range of phytochemical, beneficial plant based compounds that help protect against various chronic diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Healthline notes that lentils often overlooked, despite being an inexpensive way to get a variety of nutrients.

Lentils can contain low amounts of antinutrients, like trypsin inhibitors, which block production of an enzyme that helps break down protein or other nutrient absorption. Healthline notes that it is unlikely that these would have a major effect on the digestion of protein and nutrients, though, since the amounts are so low.

This Healthline article and this Cooking Light article have useful info on this nutritional breakdown.

How to Cook Lentils

A word of warning here, rinse your lentils. Most bags of dried lentils will tell you to do this, and, like me, you may be tempted to think this is a pointless step. It is most certainly not. I didn’t rinse the last batch of lentils I cooked and was surprised to bite into a literal rock. It was small, but startling nonetheless.

You can’t eat lentils raw, but cooking them is pretty straight forward. How long to cook lentils depends on the type of lentil used, but most cook relatively quickly. Lentils need to be boiled to break down the lectin, like in some other legumes. Still, lentils typically cook much faster than dried beans.

Also, lentils don’t need to be soaked before you cook them. I’ve soaked them before and haven’t really noticed too much of a difference. It might have shortened the cooking time a bit, but I didn’t pay much attention.

Ok, so on to how to prepare lentils:

  1. Rinse the lentils (see warning note above)
  2. Use a 3-to-1 ratio of water to lentils. Bring 3 cups of water with 1 cup of lentils to boil (or use some kind of broth; I like the vegetarian Better than Bullion options)
  3. Allow the pot to simmer until the lentils are tender (this speed will vary based on the type of lentil you use; the bag you buy should have instructions)
  4. The lentils will absorb the water as they cook, so once they’re tender, they’re good to go!

Properly cooked lentils should be slightly crunchy — but still soft — and maintain some structural integrity. If you want a softer lentil, you can cook them for longer. If you want them to be more firm, you may want to cook them for a couple minutes less.

Recipes with Lentils: Broccoli & Squash Rice & Lentil Bowl
Recipes with Lentils: Broccoli & Squash Rice & Lentil Bowl

Once they’re cooked, lentils can last for up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Eat them plain with salt, pepper, and olive oil or mix them with your favorite vegetables!

Can Dried Lentils Go Bad?

Dried lentils that are properly stored last a really long time. The consensus online seems to be that dried lentils can last up to three years if properly stored in a sealed package in a cool, dry area. You should discard lentils if they appear to grow mold or if you find bugs in them — as you would with any other dried pantry good, like flour or oatmeal. But, otherwise, they should be good to go. The Kitchn notes, though, that older legumes may not cook evenly or taste as great as they should.

Interested in cooking with lentils in your next meal?
Check out my Broccoli & Squash Rice & Lentil Bowl recipe!

Learn more about plant based foods and get tips on affordably incorporating them into you diet here!