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Everything You Need to Know About Lentils

by Kate Morin(more info)

listed in food, originally published in issue 234 - November 2016

They’re the world’s oldest cultivated legume, so it’s no surprise that lentils have become a staple across the globe – from India to the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.[1 2]

Like beans, lentils add a great high-fibre and high-protein element to many meals. Because of their size, lentils cook much more quickly than dried beans and do not have to be soaked before cooking.[3] They are extremely versatile and inexpensive, which makes them an accessible form of high-quality protein.[4] Let’s take a closer look at this convenient staple.

your-lentil-cheat-sheet

 

Preparation, Cooking, and Storage

Lentils are sold in two forms: canned and dried. While canned are good for ready-to-eat uses such as a quick salad or side dish, the dried version works well for soups and stews, salads, and sides. A bag of dried lentils can really last forever, but they are best used within a year of purchase (or by the date printed on the package). Once the bag is opened, store any remaining lentils in an airtight container and keep them in a cool, dry place.[5]

One benefit of lentils is that they can be cooked in less than an hour. While it seems like an unnecessary step, don’t skip rinsing your lentils and sifting through them before cooking to remove any stones or debris. It is rare to find stones, but it does happen.[6] When cooking, treat lentils more like pasta than rice - the lentils do not need to absorb every bit of cooking liquid the way rice does, but you also don’t need to completely flood the lentils like you would pasta. As a general rule, one cup of dried lentils yields two to two-and-a-half cups of cooked lentils.[7]

Because of their rather delicate, earthy flavour, lentils work well in a variety of dishes and in almost any type of cuisine. The best time to add flavour to lentils is during the cooking process. Don’t be afraid to get creative. Adding half an onion (peeled), a few cloves of crushed garlic, a bundle of herbs, or a bay leaf to the cooking liquid and a pinch of salt gives lentils plenty of flavour, especially when they’re the base for a salad or side dish.[8]

Nutritional Breakdown

lentils-nutrition-facts

Lentils are an easy, affordable ingredient to add to many meals, and they’re also extremely healthy. One cup of cooked lentils contains around 230 calories, 18 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat, and 16 grams of fiber.[9] When you add this legume to your diet, you can count on:

  • Fibre Lentils are packed with both soluble and insoluble fibre. Foods high in soluble fibre can help stabilize blood sugar and help reduce blood cholesterol. This in turn reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. Foods high in insoluble fibre are good for digestion and help prevent constipation and other digestive issues;
  • Protein Protein helps keep us full and gives our bodies the energy to power through the day. Protein accounts for 26 percent of the calories in lentils;
  • Energy Lentils offer a steady, slow-burning source of energy, thanks to the mix of fibre and complex carbohydrates;
  • Folate One cup of cooked lentils provides 90 percent of the daily recommended intake of folate. This B vitamin helps the body build new cells, an essential task that’s incredibly important for pregnant women, and has also been shown to help prevent some types of cancer;[10,11]
  • Vitamins and Minerals Lentils are rich in a number of vitamins and minerals. The magnesium in lentils helps the body transport oxygen and nutrients more effectively by improving blood flow. And iron helps move oxygen throughout the body;[12]
  • Heart Health The mix of fibre, folic acid, and potassium in lentils makes them a heart-healthy choice.[13]

Lentil Varieties

There are four main categories of lentils: brown, green, red/yellow, and specialty.

10-ways-to-eat-more-lentils

Brown Lentils

Brown lentils are the most common variety - any bag in the grocery store that says ‘lentils’ without any other descriptor is most likely full of brown lentils. This variety can range in colour from khaki brown to dark black and has a mild, earthy flavor.[14]

Good For

This variety holds its shape well during cooking, making it ideal for use in warm salads, casseroles, soups, and stews.[15] Brown lentils also work well in veggie burgers or vegetarian meatloaf.[16]

To Cook

In a medium pot, combine 1 cup dry brown lentils with 2½ to 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 35-45 minutes until tender.[17,18] If they will be used in a soup or stew, add them to the pot with about 40 minutes cooking time left.

Green Lentils

Green lentils are extremely similar to brown lentils, but they have a more robust and slightly peppery flavour and come in a range of sizes. Green lentils can vary in colour from a pale or spotted green to a green-slate colour with hints of blue and black.[19] Pro tip: Green lentils are a great (and less expensive) substitute for the famous French Puy lentils.

Good For

Like brown lentils, green lentils retain their shape well.[20] This, combined with their strong flavour, makes green lentils ideal for salads or side dishes.[21]

To Cook

Combine 1 cup lentils with 2½ cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer 35–45 minutes until tender. (Don’t forget to flavour the cooking water with some aromatics or herbs for a tastier end product.)

Red and Yellow Lentils

This variety of lentil ranges in colour from golden yellow to orange and red. They are also the only variety sold ‘split’, meaning they processed into smaller lentil bits.[22] These somewhat sweet and nutty lentils are very common in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine and are the key to classic dishes such as Indian dhal.

Good For

Because of their ‘split’ nature, this variety of lentil tends to disintegrate when cooked, making them ideal to use in soups or stews (especially as a thickener), and in casseroles or any other dish where they are pureed.[23]

To Cook

Split lentils cook quickly, usually in about 15-30 minutes.[24,25] When you’re using them in a soup or stew, just add them to the pot with 15-30 minutes left in the cooking time. When cooking them on their own, bring 1½ cups water and 1 cup dry lentils to a boil, then simmer until tender, 10–15 minutes.

Specialty Lentils

There are many varieties of specialty lentils, but two are most common: Black beluga and Puy. Both varieties are about one-third of the size of brown or green lentils and have a rich, earthy flavour.

Black Beluga Lentils

When cooked, black beluga lentils are shiny, tiny, and black - they look kind of like caviar: hence their name.

Good For

Thanks to their rich, earthy flavour, soft texture, and beautiful appearance, these lentils make a great base for salads or as a feature with any kind of protein.

To Cook

Combine 2¼ cups water and 1 cup lentils. Bring to a boil and simmer 25-30 minutes or until tender.

Puy Lentils:

Puy lentils are grown in the volcanic soil of a specific region in central France called Le Puy. Puy lentils are known for their dark, bluish-slate-green colour and rich, peppery flavour.

Good For

These high-quality lentils should star as the centre of a meal. They make a great base for meat or fish, or can be easily featured in a side dish or main dish salad.[26]

To Cook

Combine 2½ cups water with 1 cup lentils. Bring to a boil and simmer 20–30 minutes until tender.

Whether in a salad or soup or as the base of a main dish, lentils make a hearty and healthy addition to any meal. If using a recipe isn’t possible, it’s easy to whip up a tasty lentil-based dish without a lot of direction. Follow the guidelines regarding water to lentil ratio, and add plenty of flavourings to the water itself – an onion (quartered), a bay leaf, or a bundle of other herbs – to flavour the lentils as they cook. Serve with a pan of roasted vegetables and a piece of meat for an easy, complete meal. Lentils easily take the place of any hearty grain or legume in most recipes or cooking applications.

Sources

  1. http://www.amazon.com/The-Essential-Good-Food-Guide/dp/1607744341
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/26/health/nutrition/26recipehealth.html?_r=0
  3. http://www.amazon.com/The-Essential-Good-Food-Guide/dp/1607744341
  4. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/297638.php
  5. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/glossary/lentils
  6. http://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/common-mistakes/article/lentils-common-mistakes
  7. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/297638.php
  8. http://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/common-mistakes/article/lentils-common-mistakes
  9. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/297638.php
  10. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/297638.php
  11. http://www.rd.com/health/wellness/foods-high-in-folic-acid-folate/
  12. http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-5488/7-Health-Benefits-of-Lentils.html
  13. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/297638.php
  14. http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-brown-gre-111139
  15. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/glossary/lentils
  16. http://www.amazon.com/The-Essential-Good-Food-Guide/dp/1607744341
  17. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/glossary/lentils
  18. http://www.amazon.com/The-Essential-Good-Food-Guide/dp/1607744341
  19. http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-brown-gre-111139
  20. http://bit.ly/1lQKO7z
  21. http://bit.ly/1lQKO7z
  22. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/glossary/lentils
  23. http://www.amazon.com/The-Essential-Good-Food-Guide/dp/1607744341
  24. http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-brown-gre-111139
  25. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/glossary/lentils
  26. http://www.amazon.com/The-Essential-Good-Food-Guide/dp/1607744341

Comments:

  1. Catherine Crawford said..

    Great article with some handy tips on cooking lentils. I'm vegetarian so it's given me a few ideas. Many thanks.


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About Kate Morin

Kate Morin is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for food. After being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2010, she developed a strong interest in health, and has been merging these two passions through her work ever since. In her free time, she runs her own food blog, SeasonSimply.com. Her work has also appeared on Greatist.com and in Delight Gluten-Free Magazine. She currently works and resides in Kansas City, MO. She may be contacted via  www.fix.com/blog/authors/kate-morin/

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