How to Cook Lentils

June 2, 2016
by Thrive Market
How to Cook Lentils

For thousands of years, lentils have had a humble yet reliable place in our hearts—and in dishes as plain and simple as soup to more exotic fare like Indian dal. Lucky for us, they also happen to be an inexpensive source of sustenance. They taste amazing, too, with all the subtle earthiness of beans—but they’re even better at absorbing flavor from herbs and spices.

Of course, they’re healthy, too. Gram for gram, lentils boast more protein than beef, plus tons of fiber—making them super filling, satisfying, and pretty waistline-friendly. Studies suggest that their slowly digestible carbohydrates and the substantial amount of energy they pack can keep you fuller for up to four hours longer than other food groups, helping to curb overeating.

Not to mention, they’re packed with micronutrients including magnesium, iron, zinc, B6, and potassium, which is a major plus for immunity.

Even better—cooking lentils is a breeze, and actually brings out their nutrients. So here’s how to do it.

Which lentils to buy

Lentils are a member of the legume family, which consists of plants with fruit enclosed in pods (like peas, alfalfa, and peanuts). To be more specific, lentils are pulses, or the dried seeds of legumes—similar to beans and chickpeas.

There are several types, including black, green, brown, red, orange, and yellow. Here we’ll cover the two most commonly found in grocery stores: green and red.

  • Green lentils hold their shape well and don’t get mushy as long as they’re not overcooked. This makes them a great addition to salads and other dishes that need texture. It does take a little bit longer to make them.
  • Red lentils are less dense than green, but can become soft and mushy. Many of the varieties found in stores are red split lentils, which are split in half and have the seed coat removed (which can make the nutrients easier to absorb)—meaning they cook more quickly. They’re popular in Middle Eastern and Indian dishes, and work well as a thickener in soups and purées.

Note: Aside from dried, you can also use canned lentils. No cooking required—just be sure to rinse them thoroughly to reduce the sodium content. Simply heat and serve, or incorporate into any recipes as needed.

Storing lentils

Dried lentils are technically non-perishable, but after a year they dry out even more and take longer to cook. Some experts recommend using them within six months of purchase since it’s difficult to judge how long they’ve been sitting in the store. Keep lentils in a sealed bag or airtight container in a cool, dry area, away from sunlight.

Lentil cooking tips

No soaking required

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to soak lentils to soften them up prior to cooking. However, soaking could help minimize the antinutrient coating that causes digestive issues for some people.

Treat them like pasta

No need to worry about a specific water-to-lentil ratio like you would when making rice. You can treat lentils more like pasta—just make sure there’s plenty of water and you’re good to go (you’ll strain them anyway).

Add aromatics

If you want tastier lentils (of course you do!), add onion, garlic, and herbs into the water to infuse them with flavor.

Sprinkle in spices

After boiling, feel free to sprinkle in plenty of spices like:

Salt at the end

One of the most important tips to achieve optimal texture: wait until lentils are done before adding salt. Doing so during the cooking process can make them too tough.

How to cook lentils on the stove

Cooking lentils is as easy as boiling water. Once they’re boiled and strained, you can either serve them immediately as a side, in a salad, or incorporate them into more complex recipes.

Here’s how to prepare red or green lentils. (The steps are the same—the only difference is cook time.)

Yield: 8 servings
Active Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 30 to 45 minutes

Ingredients

2 cups green or red split lentils
6 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt, to taste
Chili powder, to taste (optional)
Cumin, to taste (optional)
Turmeric, to taste (optional)

Instructions

Rinse lentils well in a fine mesh strainer. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add lentils, bay leaves, onion, and garlic. Return to a boil, 3 minutes.

Reduce to a gentle simmer on medium-low heat. Cook, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes (for split red lentils) or 30 minutes (for green lentils).

Strain lentils and remove bay leaves and onions. Sprinkle with salt and, if desired, chili powder, cumin, and turmeric.

Now that you have cooked lentils, see two recipe options below—one for amping them up with Indian spices and one using them as a soup ingredient.

Indian-Style Lentils

Yield: 8 servings
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion, sliced
Pinch of salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
Chili powder, to taste (optional)
1 ½  cups mushrooms, sliced
4 to 6 cups cooked green lentils
1 cup water
1 cup carrots, diced
2 handfuls of spinach
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan on. Sauté onions on medium-high heat with pinch of salt. When they start to soften, add garlic. Add cumin, black pepper, curry powder, turmeric, and chili powder, then stir. Once garlic browns, add mushrooms and stir. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add lentils and stir. Reduce heat to medium-low. After 3 minutes, add water. Simmer, covered, 25 minutes.

After, add carrots and stir. Add spinach and stir. Add lemon juice and stir. Cook, uncovered, 5 minutes. Remove from heat, then add salt and pepper to taste.

Lentil Soup

Yield: 8 servings
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion, sliced
Pinch of salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
Chili powder, to taste (optional)
1 ½  cups mushrooms, sliced
1 potato, diced
1 celery stalk, sliced
4 to 6 cups cooked red lentils
4 cups vegetable broth
1 cup carrots, diced
2 handfuls of spinach
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste

For a thickener (optional)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups water

Instructions

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Sauté onions on medium-high heat with pinch of salt. When they start to soften, add garlic. Add cumin, black pepper, curry powder, turmeric, and chili powder, then stir. Once garlic browns, add mushrooms and stir. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add potatoes and stir. Add celery and stir. Add lentils and stir. Reduce heat to medium-low. After 3 minutes, add vegetable broth. Simmer, covered, 25 minutes.

Then, add carrots and stir. Add spinach and stir. Add lemon juice and stir. Cook, uncovered, 5 more minutes.

If desired, thicken with a mixture of cornstarch and water. Add slowly, a little bit at a time, while stirring, until desired thickness is achieved.

Remove from heat, then add salt and pepper to taste.

How to make lentils in a slow cooker

Although it takes longer, the crockpot does most of the work, so it’s a low-effort way to cook lentils—and it also allows time for the flavors to really marinate.

Slow Cooker Indian-Style Lentils

Yield: 8 servings
Active Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 3 to 7 hours

Ingredients

2 cups dried green lentils
½ tablespoon olive oil
½ onion, sliced
Pinch of salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
Chili powder, to taste (optional)
1 ½  cups mushrooms, sliced
1 cup carrots, diced
2 handfuls of spinach
4 cups water
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions

Rinse lentils well in a fine mesh strainer.

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Sauté onions on medium-high heat with pinch of salt. When they start to soften, add garlic and cook until browned. Remove from heat and transfer to a slow cooker. Add lentils, spices, vegetables, and water into slow cooker. Cook on the low setting for 6 to 7 hours, or the high setting for 3 to 4 hours.

Add lemon juice, then salt and pepper to taste.

Slow Cooker Lentil Soup

Yield: 8 servings
Active Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 3 to 7 hours

Ingredients

2 cups dried split red lentils
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion, sliced
Pinch of salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
Chili powder, to taste (optional)
1 ½  cups mushrooms, sliced
1 potato, diced
1 celery stalk, sliced
1 cup carrots, diced
2 handfuls of spinach
8 cups vegetable broth
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions

Rinse lentils well in a fine mesh strainer.

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Sauté onions on medium-high heat with pinch of salt. When they start to soften, add garlic and cook until browned. Remove from heat and transfer to a slow cooker. Add lentils, spices, vegetables, and vegetable broth into slow cooker. Cook on the low setting for 6 to 7 hours, or the high setting for 3 to 4 hours.

Add lemon juice, then salt and pepper to taste.

How to make lentils in a rice cooker

This is probably the easiest way to make lentils! Simply rinse them, then throw them into a rice cooker with 2 to 3 times as much water. The cooker should shut off automatically once they’re done. Strain if there’s excess water leftover in the pot.

Afterwards, add spices to taste, including:

How to serve lentils

Lentils are so versatile—they can add protein and fiber to both salads and soups, and make a killer vegetarian side dish, too.

And they’re even substantial enough to take center stage as a main course. We love lentils with brown rice, basmati rice, couscous, or any other grain. For an easy protein-rich meal, make some quinoa and top it off with a hefty serving of lentils. Done!

Yogi lentil bowl

More ways to cook lentils

Want to experiment more with this hearty legume? Try these incredible recipes!

Red Lentil Soup

A velvety puréed soup blended with carrots or sweet potato (your choice!) to create a colorful, warming bowl of goodness.

Lentil-Parsnip Shepherd's Pie

In a vegan-friendly shepherd’s pie, herb-infused lentils lend the ideal meaty texture, and parsnip mash makes an unbelievable golden “crust.” So much fiber, and oh-so-satisfying!

Yogi Lentil Bowl

This one is so simple, and it’s one of our favorite go-tos for lunch or dinner! Ginger, turmeric, chili powder, curry powder, onion powder, honey, lemon juice, and liquid aminos give red lentils tons of complex flavor.

Whole Roasted Sea Bass With Lentils

Earthy green lentils are a perfect side dish to complement delicate sea bass. Cherry tomatoes add a pop of color and a lovely tart sweetness.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho, Paul Delmont

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