What Are Lentils?
Lentils truly are beautiful. It’s not just that these nutritious legumes contribute mightily to a healthy diet. They come in a variety of colors to add some beauty to your plate, while being rather quick and easy to prepare. Top it off that they are affordable and lend themselves easily to a variety of cuisines, and it really is a struggle to find anything negative to say.
Beyond esthetics, taste, and versatility, lentils are a major source of fiber and protein. These two nutrients alone make lentils a great choice for heart health, energy, lower cholesterol, muscle building, and more.
Types of Lentils
There are a number of different types of lentils (Lens culinaris), and each has distinct features to help determine how it should be cooked and eaten. The different varieties are distinguished by color, as well as their unique flavor and texture. Here are some of the most common forms of lentil you’ll find.
Brown lentils: Widely consumed throughout the world and have an earthy flavor. The words “mild” and “earthy” can help you remember what makes this variety distinct (other than the color). They generally maintain their shape well during cooking and are a common ingredient in stew, or eaten alone as a side dish.
Green lentils: These lentils generally vary in size and can have a crunchy texture. They have a peppery flavor and are used in soups and curries.
Puy lentils: Coming from the French region Le Puy, these are essentially smaller and more expensive green lentils. They have a peppery taste just like larger green lentils, which can be used as a cheaper alternative.
Yellow and red lentils: These varieties are easy on the eye and schedule. They are split, allowing them to cook quickly, and add plenty of color to any dish. They are great for dal, which is an Indian lentil curry, and have a sweet and nutty taste.
Beluga lentils: Tiny black varieties of lentil that slightly resemble caviar, beluga lentils can be used for warm salads.
Nutritional Profile of Lentils
As mentioned, lentils are a great source of fiber and plant-based protein. But that’s really only scratching the surface. These legumes are packed with nutrition that can contribute to numerous health benefits.
There is some variation in nutrition between the types of lentil, but don’t worry; no matter which type you select you’re making a good choice! Here is the general nutrition profile for one cup of cooked lentils:
|Nutrient||Total Amount||% Daily Value|
|Folate||358 micrograms (mcg)||90%|
|Copper||0.5 milligrams (mg)||56%|
|Vitamin B1||0.33 mg||28%|
|Pantothenic Acid||1.26 mg||25%|
|Vitamin B6||.35 mg||21%|
|Vitamin A||16 IU||N/A|
As you can see, lentils are a nutritional powerhouse.
Potential Lentil Benefits for Health
All that nutrition can contribute to many positive health benefits. Making lentils a regular part of your diet may help in the following ways:
Better Heart Health
Because of their sizeable servings of fiber, folic acid, and potassium, lentils are certified heart-healthy options.
Fiber helps reduce your levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also called “bad” cholesterol. Fiber intake is linked to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, while also potentially slowing the progression of heart disease in people who already have it.
Folic acid has been shown to effectively reduce homocysteine, an amino acid associated with heart disease risk. There is research to suggest folic acid may have a significant effect on the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Another major benefit owing to the fiber content of lentils is improved digestion. Legumes are a great source of fiber that can help add bulk to stool so it easily passes through your digestive system. This helps prevent constipation.
The fiber in lentils can also aid digestion by acting as a quality food source for healthy gut bacteria (prebiotic).
Could Boost Energy Levels
One common cause of fatigue is low iron. Lentils are a great source of non-heme iron, which is particularly important for vegetarians, vegans, and other cohorts who follow plant-based diets.
Lentils can also promote long-lasting energy by regulating blood sugar.
May Aid Weight Loss Efforts
Lentils are very filling, meaning they might help curb your appetite to fight the cravings that promote weight gain.
How to Cook Lentils
You can purchase most varieties of lentils either prepackaged at your local grocer or in bulk. If buying bulk, make sure they are in an enclosed container and the store is busy enough to indicate high product turnover. This can help with freshness.
You want to make sure there is no water wicking or mold, or any evidence of moisture. Lentils should be hard and dry.
At home, store in an airtight container in a cool, dark, and dry place. If stored as such, you can expect them to maintain a shelf-life of up to a year.
When it’s time to cook, you can grab and go. They do not need to be presoaked to soften, so rinse them under cold water and give them a good look, removing any stones, debris, etc. Give them a good rinse again.
Boiling is generally the way they are cooked, but they can be added to a pressure cooker or crock pot as well. When boiling or pressure cooking, the water ratio is 3:1 (3 cups water for every 1 cup of dry lentils).
Pour the water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add lentils and allow water to return to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cover. Depending on the type of lentil and consistency you’re going for, you’ll be cooking for about 20 to 40 minutes.
2 Healthy Lentil Recipes
Here are a couple of easy recipes you can use to include lentils in your diet.
1. Khichuri Red Lentil Risotto for Instant Pot
(From Instant Indian Cookbook – Rinku Bhattacharya)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 3/4 cup split red lentils
- 1/2 cup Basmati or Kala Jeera rice
- 1 tsp powdered cumin
- 1 tsp powdered coriander
- 1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
- 1/2 tsp red cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 2 cups cauliflower florets
- 1 medium size Yukon gold potato, peeled and cubed
- 1/2 cup frozen green peas
- 1 tbsp ghee or coconut oil
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp dried crushed red pepper
- 2 tbsp fresh lime juice
- 1 tbsp chopped cilantro
- Set instant pot to “saute” mode and heat oil for about one minute. Add onion and saute until golden, about five or six minutes. Stir in lentils, rice, cumin, coriander, ginger, cayenne, pepper powder, salt, and turmeric.
- Add cauliflower, potato, and 4 cups of water, stirring well so everything is mixed together.
- Press “cancel” to turn off “saute” mode. Set Instant Pot to “Manual Low Pressure” mode for 4 minutes.
- Allow for a 10- to 15-minute natural release following cook time.
- Once pressure is released, open lid and stir well. Set to “saute” and stir in green peas, cooking for about one minute.
- Heat ghee of coconut oil in a small pan, add cumin seeds, cracked peppers, and cook until they crackle. Pour over the khichuri and gently stir, topping with lime juice and cilantro.
2. Green Lentil Soup
(From Cookie and Kate)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium yellow or white onion, chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp curry powder
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1 large can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, lightly drained
- 1 cup brown or green lentils, picked over and rinsed
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 2 cups water
- 1 tsp salt, to taste
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 cup chopped fresh collard greens or kale, tough ribs removed
- 1 to 2 tbsp lemon juice (1/2 to 1 medium lemon), to taste
- Warm olive oil in a large Dutch oven or pot over medium heat.
- Once the oil is shimmering, add the chopped onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, until the onion has softened and is turning translucent, about five minutes.
- Add the garlic, cumin, curry powder and thyme. Cook until fragrant while stirring constantly, about 30 seconds. Pour in the drained diced tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes, stirring often.
- Add the lentils, broth and the water. Add 1 tsp salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Season generously with freshly ground black pepper. Raise heat and bring the mixture to a boil, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape.
- Transfer 2 cups of the soup to a blender. Securely fasten the lid and purée the soup until smooth. Pour the puréed soup back into the pot.
- Add the chopped greens and cook for five more minutes, or until the greens have softened to your liking. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Taste and season with more salt, pepper and/or lemon juice as desired. For spicier soup, add another pinch or two of red pepper flakes.
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