The Beginner's Guide to Lentils

By Kristen Mccaffrey on

Everything you have ever wanted to know about lentils including all the different types, what makes them so healthy, how to cook them, and plenty of recipe ideas.

There are so many little, bitty foods out there. Beans, quinoa, peas, rice, chickpeas, millet, corn, bulgur, and barley, to name a few. Sure, you wouldn't eat just one chickpea, but a bowl of roasted chickpeas? Now that's something worth going on about.

The same can be said for my favorite little super-powered grain -- the lentil. No one eats just one lentil, but cooked up, sauced, bunned, tacoed, or bowled -- almost any way you serve lentils is just fine with me.

Lentils have served as a food staple around the world for thousands of years. Although they are assumed to have originated in the Mediterranean or Near East areas, today they are frequently found in not only Asian, Indian, and Mediterranean dishes, but in American dishes as well.

A wonderful (and flavorful) source of protein, lentils are inexpensive, easy to cook, and take on the flavors of whatever you're cooking them with. They are also one of my go-tos for meatless meals. I've even substituted lentils in place of pulled pork when friends came over for a football game. Skeptics quickly turned around for seconds and everyone feasted on my easy and delicious barbecue lentils.

Another nutrition powerhouse, I think lentils are here to stay. Packed full of protein, fiber, iron, folate, and potassium, they are a small (but mighty) food to add to your diet if you are watching what you eat or trying to lose weight.

Red, brown, green, French, and black lentils in different bowls.

Types of Lentils

Lentils come in several different varieties.

  • Brown and green lentils are the most common, and the ones you're most likely being served in a restaurant when you ask for a lentil dish.
  • Red lentils (that can also look a little orange and sometimes more yellow) are used most often in Indian dishes, like daal. They also tend to cook and break down quickly and turn into a thicker consistency.
  • Black lentils aren't as easy to find at the store, but are delicious nonetheless. Black lentils are thicker-skinned and hold their shape longer than the brown, red, and green ones.
  • French lentils are a bit thicker-skinned as well (so great for soups!) and come in a speckled green/blue/gray color.
  • Puy lentils: This smaller lentils are also from France and generally dark green to black in color. They hold their shape well, making them great for cooking.

Are Lentils Healthy to Eat?

Lentils are a wonderful source of protein, potassium, fiber, folate, and lots of other good-for-you nutrients. They are also good for your heart, your digestive system, and your metabolism. If you are looking for a way to replace fattier meats or institute a meatless Monday, consider adding lentils to your menu. I like to have them several times a month. From soups to stews and everything in between, I know that I'm getting the benefits of this superfood no matter how I cook them. Plus, they are filling, which helps you keep from overeating if you are looking to lose or maintain weight.

Lentil salad with spinach, Brussels sprouts, and peaches in a bowl with lemon water on the side.

The Nutritional Makeup of Lentils

According to the USDA, one quarter cup of dried lentils contains 169 calories, 12 grams of protein, 0.5 grams of fat, 30 grams of carbs, 5 grams of fiber, and 1 gram of sugar. You'll also find 17 mg of calcium, 3 mg of iron, 23 mg of magnesium, 325 mg of potassium, and almost 2 mg of zinc. Lentils also provide a healthy dose of vitamins C, A, E, and K.

The Health Benefits of Lentils

  • They pack the protein. One quarter cup of dried lentils contains 12 grams of protein. That's almost a quarter of your daily protein needs for an average sedentary woman. Protein makes up the building blocks of our muscles, connective tissues, organs, and skin. Though you can get plenty of protein from eating meat, if you are a vegetarian, watching your unhealthy fat intake, or just want other non-meat sources of protein, lentils are a great choice.
  • It's low-fat. Lentils are nearly fat-free, which leaves plenty of room in your diet for other healthy fats, like the ones you'll get from avocados, eggs, salmon, and olive oil.
  • They are high in fiber. Those five grams of fiber you get in every serving of lentils can help keep you feeling fuller, longer and can act as an appetite suppressant. Fiber is also great for keeping your digestive tract healthy, and can help you manage your weight. Most people need between 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day, but don't quite get it all in. Add cooked lentils to a salad, as a side, or as a main dish to ensure you're fulfilling all your fiber needs.
  • Iron, iron, iron. Lentils are a great source of iron. The recommended allowance for iron intake averages about 18 mg a day. One serving contains 3 mg, so you're already a sixth of the way to your total daily intake with just one serving of lentils. Your body needs iron to carry oxygenated blood throughout your body. If you don't get enough iron in your diet, you can suffer from weakness, fatigue, hair loss, and vertigo.
  • They are heart-healthy. The soluble fiber in lentils can help lower your cholesterol, prevent against heart disease, hypertension, strokes, and heart attacks. Their low-sodium content is great for your blood pressure and the potassium lentils contain also aids in blood circulation.
  • It's a folate food. One of the B vitamins, folate is integral in helping your body make new cells. It's especially important for women who are pregnant or about to become pregnant as it helps to prevent birth defects in babies.
  • They have the almighty antioxidants. Antioxidants in lentils are found in the vitamins A and C that they contain. These antioxidants help to destroy free radicals and keep your cells from any ensuing oxidative damage. Lentils also help to fight cancer because they contain a high concentration of tannins.

Are lentils healthier than beans?

Both beans and lentils are healthy foods, if prepared correctly (they aren't so healthy anymore if they are covered in heavy sauces, cooked in fat, or have been added to some other unhealthy foods). Lentils and beans both have a high carb content, but even that varies depending on the type. Typically beans contain more carbs than lentils. Depending on your diet or your nutritional needs, beans and lentils are both healthy for you, when eaten in moderation.

Are Lentils Gluten-Free?

Yes, lentils are gluten-free as lentils are not made up of wheat, barley, or rye. However, some lentil recipes may include gluten, so be sure to ask when dining out or to substitute any gluten-containing ingredients for gluten-free products when cooking at home.

Are Lentils Considered a Vegetable?

Lentils are not a vegetable. They are a part of the legume family, whose members include beans, chickpeas, peanuts, and peas as well. Legumes are the harvested, dried seeds of these plants. Technically speaking, they are part of the pulse family.

Are Lentils Fattening?

Lentils are not really fattening at all. Considering there is only half gram of fat per serving of lentils, I would say don't worry about the fat in lentils. They may seem kind of bread- or pasta-like, but the good news is they are much healthier! Go ahead and indulge in lentils.

Are Lentils a Superfood?

So many foods I love fall under this "super" category. If by superfood, we're talking loads of nutrients, vitamins, and other amazing things your body needs to be it's most perfect self, then yes, lentils are a superfood.

Lentil tacos on corn tortillas with purple cabbage slaw.

How to Cook & Eat Lentils

Before you cook lentils, make sure you rinse and pick through them (discard any that are stone-like, discolored, or wilted). Lentils do not have to be soaked before you cook them, like beans. The ratio of liquid-to-lentils is three-to-one. So for every cup of lentils, make sure you cook them in three cups of water or broth. Yes, the lentils can triple in size!

I have several preferred methods of cooking lentils.

On the stovetop. When I made the Easy Barbecue Lentils and Three Ways to Enjoy Them, this is the method I chose. Once you've sauteed other veggies, and added broth and sauce, all that's left is to soften the lentils in your pot. Wait 25 minutes, and you have yourself a hearty meal that everyone will enjoy!

If that's not simple enough, I have an even easier recipe for lentils that is impossible to resist. My Simple Stovetop Lentils contain just five ingredients (if you count water and salt and pepper). Even the most novice cook will feel like a five-star chef after making these lentils.

In the slow cooker. Sometimes we don't have time to watch even a pot. For these occasions, I use the slow cooker. Lentils are a cinch to set and forget -- plus, you can add whatever vegetables or spices you like this dish. The possibilities are nearly endless. For these Slow Cooker Red Lentils, I used vegetable broth, onion, kale, and acorn squash to add a depth of flavor to otherwise ordinary lentils.

If you love the idea of baked beans but yearn for something else, why not try to mimic the flavor with lentils like I did in this recipe for Slow Cooker Barbecue Lentils? I promise even the most die-hard baked bean lover will be a convert after he or she tries these lentils.

In a soup. Nothing says cooler weather to me like soup. I LOVE adding lentils to my soup, no matter what soup. It doesn't really matter. I think there's always room for lentils. This Lentil and Brown Rice Stuffed Pepper Soup is a deconstructed version of stuffed peppers that is great for any meal, and makes a great leftover, too!

Baked. Okay, so the only time I'll lift my ban on canned lentils is when making this Baked Lentil Falafel. These just work in this recipe. They're already cooked, and using lentils instead of chickpeas adds just a little element of surprise you're looking for in a revamped recipe. These make such a simple weekday meal, I promise once you make them, they'll be part of your regular dinner rotation right away!

How to Choose Lentils

The only way you can purchase lentils is dried. You can buy them in bulk or prepackaged in the aisle with the rest of the beans. When you half a lentil, they kind of look like split peas. When you look for lentils, you'll want to choose ones that are completely dry and not withered looking. The problem is, you can't exactly pick through every lentil to make sure each one is perfect. My suggestion is to check the bag you are purchasing. Give it a little shake. Do most of the lentils look dry and the color they should be? Then they are probably okay for purchase.

You can purchase canned lentils, but I find the consistency to mushy. Though they do serve a purpose now and then.

Four glass jars of different types of lentils.

How to Store Lentils

Lentils can theoretically keep forever. So long as they are in a tightly sealed container, and kept in a dry, cool, dark place (like your pantry), you can use them as you wish, for as long as you wish. Sure, the flavor might dissipate some, but how long are you really going to keep lentils around? A good rule of thumb is to use them within a year. Plenty of time!

If you're looking to keep leftover cooked lentils, that's also not a problem. However, those do not keep indefinitely. Store your cooked lentils for five to seven days in a sealed container. If you want to cook then freeze lentils, those will keep in the freezer for up to six months. However, it's worth noting that thawed and reheated lentils tend to be very mushy. The flavor will still be there, but you might not enjoy the consistency. Therefore, I recommend you eat them as soon as possible.

Can You Eat Raw Lentils?

Theoretically, you CAN eat raw lentils, but why would you want to? Most of the nutritional benefits of eating lentils comes from cooking them, plus they taste SO much better when cooked. If you really want to eat them raw, you can sprout them by soaking them in water for about seven or eight hours and then wait a couple of days for them to sprout. The sprouting of lentils produces vitamin C and neutralizes the phytic acid that can cause some people to have difficulty digesting them.

Guide to lentils including nutritional info, health benefits, recipes, how to cook, and more.

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