Lentils (Lens culinaris), closely related to beans and peas, are dried after harvesting; you’ll find them on the shelves of your supermarket, gourmet stores, and online. They have been a staple food in many areas for over 8000 years, likely originating while in Turkey. They are a staple food for many south Asian cultures, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean countries. The Latin word for lentils, lens, was used in the 17th century to describe eye glasses because of the similarity in shape
Like other legumes, lentils are low in fat and high in protein and fiber, but they have the added advantage of cooking quickly. Lentils have a mild, often earthy flavor, which lets them pair well as side dishes, in salads, and soups. Lentils have traditionally been used as a meat substitute. Like other pulses, when paired with grains they offer excellent quality protein in our diet.
Before cooking, always rinse lentils and pick out stones and other debris–usually they are quite free of debris, but it’s always good to check them before cooking. Unlike dried beans and peas, there’s no need to soak them. Lentils cook more slowly if they’re combined with salt or acidic ingredients, so add these last. Bigger or older lentils take longer to cook. Store dried lentils for up to a year in a cool, dry place. Substitutes: dal OR split peas OR black-eyed peas More varieties are appearing even on the supermarket shelves, but specialty sources offer a wide variety with which to experiment.
The quick cooking and nutritious nature of lentils make them an obvious choice for winter soups. They are also good cooked and chilled for salads or mixed with bread crumbs to stuff vegetables. Blend lentils with middle eastern couscous and use as a bed for seafood and poultry. Use them instead of beans for summer salads with fresh tomatoes and other veggies.
Here is a little information about the various kinds of lentils. More synonyms and alternative names can be found in the Cook’s Thesaurus.
- Brown Lentils: The average grocery store lentil is the brown lentil. You’ll likely find these on the shelves with the dried beans. They tend to get mushy if overcooked. If you want them to be firm, add oil to the cooking water and cook the lentils just a short while, say 15 minutes.
- Black beluga lentils are a very popular legume in South Asia, they are used to make a beautiful black lentil soup. Some of the names that they my go by are Beluga lentil = black beluga lentil = beluga black lentil = petite beluga lentil. When they’re cooked, especially in salads with a tiny bit of oil, they glisten so that akes them look like beluga caviar.
- Petite crimson lentils are “crimson” in color, which is a deep orange-red. These lentils tend to lose their shape when they are cooked and are an excellent choice for thickening soup.
- Petite golden lentils are a small firm, golden lentil that is rounder in shape than many other lentils; one of the reasons that this lentils holds its shape so well when cooked. They have a soft texture.
- Ivory white lentils are a creamy white colored small lentil that is really a peeled black lentils, known in India as urid dal.
- French green lentils: (also called French green lentils, du Puy lentils, lentilles du Puy, lentilles vertes du Puy.) By many chefs, these are considered the “best”, most delicate lentils. They have the typical earthy flavor, but also are a bit “peppery”. These hold their shape well better than many other lentils, but take longer to cook, but still do not need presoaking. While I love all lentils, and typically have several kinds in the pantry, these are the ones that I would not want to be without!)
- Red lentils are the common seen in the supermarket. It’s a lovely salmon pink in the dried form, but it turns golden when cooked. These lentils cook faster than others. They’re best in purées or soups.
- Spanish pardina lentils (also known as Spanish brown lentils or Continental lentils) are smaller the brown or red lentil–about the same size as a petite green or black lentil. They have a particularly nutty flavor, and they hold their plump, round shape when cooked. This makes them a particular favorite with e for use in summer vegetable/lentil salads.
- Dal is the Indian term for peas, beans, or lentils that have been split and often skinned, but the name is sometimes used for all lentils, peas, or beans, or to cooked dishes made with them. Split lentils don’t hold their shape well, so they’re often cooked into soups or purées.
Most of these can be interchanged in recipes as long as you take into account how quickly they cook and the final textures–some are softer than others. Generally the split ones tend to lose shape faster, so don’t do well for salads, or side dishes where you want them to keep their shape, but will be fine in soups–especially if you’d like your soup to be a little thicker. Any of these would work in the lentil soup recipe that I gave earlier–though I usually use the lentils du Puy even for that.
Aside from using them instead of beans in summer salads, I think that lentils make an awesome side dish to go with grilled salmon–there’s something about the earthy flavor that combines SO well. If you have “leftover” grilled salmon, try using it with some lentils to make a cool, but hearty summer salad with some tomatoes and cucumber to it. Combined with a grain, this can be a very nutritious vegetarian dish–or not.
Here is a link to a lentil salad that makes me drool on my keyboard just looking at the recipe: Warm Salad of Lentils with Duck Fat from the Hudson Valley. Love’s description of the lentilles du Puy is marvelous. (Each time I cook duck, I carefully keep some of the fat, sealed and refrigerated to use for things like this.) Add some greens, and this is a one-dish meal that’s in my group of comfort foods. Lentils will also work in the sausage, beans and greens one-dish meal.
Lots of uses, quick-cooking, nutritious, tasty, inexpensive…what more could you want? Try some!