Food & Drink

What Are Lentils?

Last Updated on March 26, 2024 | 0 Comments
What are lentils? Is an interesting question to answer

If you've been looking to eat healthier or try out some new ingredients in the kitchen, you may want to know: "What are lentils?" Praised for their nutritional properties and culinary versatility, lentils come in a wide array of colors. Each type offers its own unique taste and texture. These little nutrient powerhouses are packed with plant-based protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, making them a healthy addition to any diet.

But exactly what are lentils? We'll delve into the world of lentils, exploring their origins, varieties, culinary uses and how you can incorporate them into your cooking.


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What Are Lentils?

So, what are lentil beans? Simply put, they are the edible seeds of the lentil plant, known for their earthy flavor and ability to adapt to various dishes. From hearty soups to vibrant salads and spicy curries, lentils are a staple ingredient used across the globe. 

Archeologists have found evidence of their cultivation and consumption dating back thousands of years, in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean. This is why lentils are the star of the show in dishes such as dal, Ethiopian misir wat (lentil stew) and Egyptian koshari. 

With at least one lentil dish in many world cuisines, it just goes to show that this little legume has a lot to offer. Whether you're cooking up a nutritious meat-free meal or making your ground beef go a little further, lentils are an economical and satisfying choice.

A selection of raw dry lentils on a wooden board
via Canva

What Do Lentils Look Like?

Along with answering the question: "What are lentils?" you may wonder what they look like. Across the board, lentils tend to be small, lens-shaped legumes with a flat and round appearance, typically ranging in size from about 0.5 to 1.5 centimeters in diameter.

There are a range of different types of lentils, often categorized by color. The types of lentils chosen for a dish can not only change its appearance but texture too. From vibrant red and yellow lentils to the rich intensity that black lentils bring, lentils can really set the scene. 

Depending on the amount of time you have on your hands, lentils can also be purchased ready to eat or dried. For a quick express meal after work, canned brown lentils will do the job. If you have the luxury of time when cooking, use dry lentils, a thrifty store cupboard staple.

Three spoons with different colored lentils in them
via Canva

What Do Lentils Taste Like?

You may additionally be wondering: "What are lentils like in terms of taste?" Lentils have a distinctive earthy flavor that adds depth to a range of dishes. Their taste can be described as subtly nutty with a hint of sweetness, depending on the variety. Ranging from the peppery notes of green lentils to the mild, smooth taste of yellow lentils, there’s a lentil for all palates.

In terms of texture, cooked red or yellow lentils are typically soft and creamy in consistency and because of this, they work well as a thickener for stews or soups. Other varieties such as green and black lentils are firmer, they maintain their shape and have a slight bite to them. This wide spectrum of tastes and textures within the lentil family make this legume a versatile ingredient. 

A bowl of Dal Makhani on a dark table
via Canva

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What Are Red Lentils?

Known for their vibrant reddish-orange color, red lentils are delicate in flavor and have a soft texture. Red lentils stand out from other lentil varieties due to their hulled and split form, resulting in their distinctive appearance and quicker cooking duration. This processing also gives them their softer texture and they tend to break down easily when cooked, making them ideal for soups, stews, curries and purées.

Red lentils are particularly popular in Middle Eastern, Indian and Mediterranean dishes, where they add color and soak up the flavors of herbs and spices. Prized for their ability to enhance and complement other flavors, red lentils are undoubtedly a valuable addition to many popular dishes.

What are lentils? A wooden scoop with red lentils.
via Canva

What Are Black Lentils?

Also known as beluga lentils due to their resemblance to beluga caviar, black lentils have a striking appearance and rich flavor. Unlike some other types of lentils, such as red or yellow lentils, black lentils keep their shape well even after cooking, maintaining a firm texture and glossy appearance. In terms of taste, black lentils pack more of a punch than other lentil varieties, holding their own against similarly rich ingredients.

These tiny black gems are often added to salads, side dishes and main courses, particularly if the aim is to impress dinner guests. Their gleaming, onyx appearance and rich flavor elevate even the simplest of dishes, adding a touch of luxury to every bite.

A wooden spoon of black beluga lentils in a heart-shaped bowl
via Canva

What Are French Lentils?

French lentils, otherwise known as Puy lentils are from the Puy region in France. These are lentils that are smaller in size compared to other varieties and can have a dark green or blue-green color. French lentils, like black lentils, are firm and hold their shape. If it is texture you are after, French lentils will add a distinctive bite to your dishes.

It's not just texture that sets these lentils apart, French lentils also have a peppery taste. This sharp, earthy flavor pairs well with rich stocks and smoky ingredients, making them a popular choice in traditional French cuisine. 

What are lentils? French lentils, otherwise known as Puy lentils are from the Puy region in France
via Canva

Are Lentils Good for You?

Not only are lentils delicious but they are also incredibly nutritious, making them a valuable addition to any diet. Vegans and vegetarians, in particular, should look to incorporate lentils into their diet as they are an excellent source of plant-based protein. What’s more, lentils are a low-fat and low-calorie food, which is great news if weight management is your health goal.

You may additionally be curious as to what food group lentils are in. Lentils are part of the legume family, which includes beans, peas and chickpeas. Legumes are considered part of both the protein and vegetable food groups, as they provide a valuable source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. If you're wondering how to start eating healthy, incorporating lentils into your diet is a good place to start.

Jars of beans, peas and lentils on wooden shelves in a pantry
 via Canva

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What Are the Benefits of Lentils?

Well, we know that lentils are nutritious, but exactly what are lentils good for? Lentils are an excellent source of plant-based protein, making them a great meat alternative for vegetarians and vegans looking to meet their protein needs. With a whopping 9g of protein per 100g serving, lentils can help support muscle, bone and cell growth and repair.

Lentils are also rich in dietary fiber, which aids digestion, keeping bowel movements regular and preventing constipation. Fiber also helps to regulate blood sugar levels and promotes a feeling of fullness, making them an excellent choice for weight management.

Furthermore, lentils are packed with essential vitamins and minerals. They are particularly high in folate, iron, potassium and manganese, all of which support good health. Folate plays a crucial role in red blood cell production and is a vital micronutrient essential for fetal development. Iron helps to make hemoglobin, a protein responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood, while potassium helps regulate blood pressure and heart function. Manganese supports bone formation and wound healing. So, you can clearly see just why nutritionists love this legume.

What are lentils? A type of legume that is good for the heart
via Canva

What To Do With Lentils?

You might well be thinking, what are lentils used for? Lentils are perfect for creating hearty and nutritious meals that soothe the soul and satisfy the stomach. They can be used to make comforting lentil soups, where their natural creamy texture adds body and richness to the broth. Lentils also serve as a key ingredient in vegetarian and vegan cuisine, often used to make delicious veggie burgers, where they provide protein and a meaty texture.

In Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, lentils are a fundamental ingredient. From dal to mujadara, lentils add complexity and depth to curries, stews and rice-based dishes. They are particularly popular in spice-infused dishes, as their ability to absorb flavors means that they take on the aromatic tastes of traditional cuisines. 

If you prefer fresh dishes to slow cooking, lentils can also be enjoyed cold in salads, where they add a satisfying chewiness and protein boost. Enjoyed hot or cold, in soups, burgers, salads or even made into flatbreads, the real question is what can’t you do with lentils? For fresh ideas on how to incorporate lentils into your culinary repertoire, find cooking classes near you for some inspiration. Or stay at home and try some new recipes with online cooking classes.

A stack of lentil burgers
via Canva

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How To Cook Lentils

Cooking lentils is a straightforward process that requires minimal effort, making them an excellent option for quick and nutritious meals when you are short on time. You might wonder, what are lentils like when cooking? To cook lentils, start by rinsing them thoroughly under cold water. Then, place the lentils in a pot and add enough water or broth to cover them by about 1-2 inches.

Next, bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and let the lentils simmer gently. The cooking time will vary depending on the type of lentils used, but as a general guideline, most lentils will cook in about 20-30 minutes. It's essential to check on the lentils every now and again and stir them to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Once the lentils are tender but still hold their shape, they are ready to be used in your favorite recipes. Lentils can also be cooked ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator for several days, making them a convenient option for meal prep. If you're wondering what lentil recipes you can easily make at home, try out a few famous dishes to get you started. Whip up a lentil soup and a lentil tabbouleh for a simple starter idea and sides that you can match with an equally flavorsome vegan shepherd’s pie. Impress meat eaters and vegetarians alike with this lentil-themed feast.

What are lentils like to cook with? Most lentils will cook in about 20-30 minutes.
via Canva

How Long To Cook Lentils

Cooking times for lentils do vary, depending on the variety. Here's a general guideline for the average cooking times of some common types of lentils. 

  • Green lentils typically take around 20-30 minutes to cook. They hold their shape well and have a slightly firm texture even after cooking, making them ideal for salads and side dishes.
  • Red and yellow lentils cook much faster than green lentils, usually taking about 15-20 minutes to become soft and tender. They do tend to break down more easily during cooking, so keep a watch on them in case they overcook and turn too mushy. 
  • Black lentils typically need around 20-30 minutes to cook. They maintain their shape well and are firm to the bite. Add them to any dish requiring a little more texture.
  • Brown lentils are versatile and are usually ready in 20-25 minutes. They have a mild, earthy flavor and hold their shape moderately well, making them a good all-rounder.
Four bowls of different varieties of dried lentils
via Canva

Lentils are a superstar ingredient providing you with vital nutrients whilst being a low-fat, low-calorie and meat-free protein source. The question "what are lentils good for?" has numerous answers. They are the basis of many cuisines, are beneficial for health and offer up a range of tastes and textures depending on the type of lentil you go for. 

If you're looking to vary up your recipes, lentils are a must-have for your next food shop. Best of all, this nutritious food is inexpensive, making it the perfect store cupboard staple.

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