Lentils are a versatile addition to any pantry, ready for everything from soups to salads to side dishes.
Lentils are a small legume cultivated in Asia and the Middle East since 7,000 BC that have been adopted by different cuisines around the world. As a staple in vegetarian cooking, they typically make it onto lists of recommended foods by health organizations such as the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association. And for very good reason: Lentils are packed with nutrients, including fiber, protein, B vitamins, iron and magnesium.
These days, many markets carry lentils that range in size and color. Here are few of the more popular varieties.
The image that most people probably conjure up when thinking about lentils is the brewer lentil, the common brown-hued variety often used in basic lentil soup. Because they are on the larger side and thin-skinned, they tend to get mushy when cooked, which is perfect for some dishes.
Brewers, commonly known as brown lentils, have a creamy texture and are ideal for making into soups and stews, which take about 45 minutes to prepare. They mash up easily and are great to add to any veggie burger, as they hold their shape.
Brown lentils have a high protein content: 48 grams per uncooked cup. For the same proportion, brown lentils have 160 milligrams of calcium, 52 grams of fiber and 8 milligrams of iron.
Brown lentils are readily available at most grocery stores, cook quickly and are extremely versatile. Keep them in your pantry for quick and satisfying dinners that the whole family will enjoy.
This small, dark-green lentil with black or bluish undertones is grown in the volcanic soils of the Puy region of France, resulting in a higher mineral content than other varieties. (French Greens are the same variety but grown outside the Puy region, most commonly in North America and Italy.)
Puy and green lentils have a rich, peppery flavor that makes them ideal for salads and as a warm side dish with herbs, olive oil and lemon. They are firm and hold their shape, which makes them good for stand-alone dishes.
Green lentils take the longest amount of time to cook, 45–60 minutes. One cup of uncooked green or Puy lentils has 48 grams of protein, 20 grams of fiber, 160 milligrams of calcium and 8 grams of iron.
True French green or Puy lentils are less common in the grocery store and are a bit more on the expensive side than green lentils grown in North America. But their unsurpassed flavor makes for a wonderful addition to your dried lentil collection.
A bright salmon-colored hue when raw, this variety turns brown and loses its texture when cooked, making it perfect for creamier creations. Yellow lentils are a bright golden color and are similar to red lentils, as yellow lentils are split, cook quickly and have a similar nutritional profile.
“These small, flat lentils are in fact hulled and split regular lentils,” explains Jenny Chandler, author of The Better Bean Cookbook (Sterling Epicure). “They cook and collapse quickly as they are missing their protective skin, and are not as high in fiber but absolutely fabulous for Indian dals and creamy soups.”
Because red lentils are split and soft textured, they cook quickly—in about 15–20 minutes—and disintegrate rapidly. Their flavor is sweet and nutty, and they work well as a thickener and when pureed for sauces. Red lentils are delicious in any type of curry soup.
One cup of uncooked red lentils has 44 grams of protein, 20 grams of fiber, 80 milligrams of calcium, 12 milligrams of iron and 1200 milligrams of potassium. Keep red and yellow lentils available for quick-cooking dinners.
Spanish Pardina Lentils
These small brownish-gray lentils, also known as Spanish browns, are known for their nutty flavor and a texture that holds up well, making them perfect for salads and side dishes.
The tiny Spanish Pardina lentils make a great substitute for brown lentils in soups, stews and veggie burgers. The flavor is similar to brown lentils, but with a more pronounced nuttiness to them. A tasty and warming stew made with Spanish Pardina lentils, chorizo, tomatoes and spices is flavorful and ideal for eating on a cold evening. Generally, Spanish Pardina lentils take about 30 minutes to cook.
This variety of lentils has 44 grams of protein per one uncooked cup. They also have 40 grams of fiber, 16 milligrams of iron and 180 milligrams of magnesium. The small size of Spanish Pardina lentils look attractive in soups and side dishes, and they make a wonderful addition to any potluck meal.
Black or Beluga Lentils
These tiny gems are said to resemble beluga caviar when cooked, with shiny skins.
Crescent Dragonwagon, author of Bean by Bean (Workman Publishing), says black lentils appear less starchy than larger varieties due to a greater percentage of skin to inside flesh.
“They hold their shape nicely, have a glistening black color, a nice, round texture and are slightly upscale,” Dragonwagon notes. “I wouldn't use them as the base of soup simply because that would not show them off enough. I'd use them in a salad or a pilaf—they look pretty, like black polka dots, in a rice mixture.”
Black lentils make a wonderful side dish. And due to their striking coloration, they look beautiful when paired with colorful vegetables such as diced red peppers, grated carrots, and finely-chopped celery when used in a salad or pilaf. The cooking time for black lentils is about 25 minutes, and they are one of the most nutritious of all the lentil varieties.
“This hearty, addictive spread has olives in it, like classic tapenade,” says Dragonwagon, “but because they don’t serve as the base, it’s less salty and less oily. Serve at room temperature with before-dinner drinks, in a bowl with several butter knives provided and a basket of baguette toasts on the side.”
Vegetable oil cooking spray
1 cup lentils, preferably French green lentils, rinsed and picked over
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
2 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock, or water
2 tbsp sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained, patted dry and chopped
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil or the oil the sun-dried tomatoes were packed in
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley
3 tbsp capers, drained
1/2 cup chopped pitted kalamata olives
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
A few pretty sprigs of fresh parsley or 1 tbsp minced fresh parsley, for garnish
Lemon wedges, for garnish
Yields 6–8 appetizer servings, more as part of a buffet
Source: Crescent Dragonwagon, from Bean By Bean: A Cookbook (Workman Publishing).
**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.