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The Ultimate Guide To Lentils – All You Need To Know

ingredients plant-based cooking Jan 28, 2021
the ultimate guide to lentils and cooking with lentils

What are lentils?

Lentils are legumes that are high in both protein and fiber. They are grown in pods and resemble very small beans. Legumes are different from beans in that they are grown in a pod of a plant whereas beans are the seeds of a plant. They are similar in texture and appearance to dried peas, which are also legumes. Lentils come in a variety of colors such as red, brown, yellow, and black. They’re small, colorful, and nutritional powerhouses.

Many nations around the world, have been reaping the health and nutritional benefits of lentils for thousands of years, especially in Asia, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East where lentils are naturally grown.

Lentils were grown and consumed for thousands of years, and evidence shows they were first cultivated as early as 8.000 BC in the Northern region of Syria. Lentils spread from Syria to Greece, Italy, and Egypt and to this day they remain a staple in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine frequently use lentils in soups, stews, and salads as well as seasoned on its own. They’re considered to be economical and simple to prepare, making them an essential staple in many kitchens around the world. With the right spices and proper preparation, the otherwise rather bland-tasting lentils can become the delicious heart and soul of many main dishes.

Health benefits of lentils

Lentils are an excellent source of protein, especially for vegans and vegetarians. 

100 g of dried lentils contains 307 calories, 40 g of carbs, of which 17 g is fiber, only 1,6 g of fat, and 25 g of protein. Lentils, such as other legumes, are also rich in the essential amino acid lysine which is low in most other plant sources. Therefore, incorporating lentils and legumes combined with other grains, nuts and seeds will ensure you get all of the essential amino acids.

But not only that, it contains 8 mg of iron, which is 53 % of the recommended daily intake for women and 80% for men. It also covers 56% of your daily folate intake, 35% of your magnesium, and 50% of your daily zinc intake for women, and 30% for men.

Eating 100 g of dried lentils also covers your entire daily vitamin K intake and almost half your vitamin B2 and B6 recommended intake.

Consuming plant-based foods with plenty of fiber and protein is known to significantly decrease the risk of many illnesses such as heart disease and obesity. Lentils are a sure way to include more fiber and protein into your diet. In addition, this high fiber and protein content helps with satiety and digestion so you’ll be less hungry and longer satisfied after a meal. The vitamins and minerals found in lentils are thought to help prevent inflammation, fight fatigue, and decrease blood pressure. 

With all of those wonderful benefits, it’s a good idea to learn more about the humble but powerful lentil and how to incorporate it into your plant-based diet. 

The different types of lentils

You’ll notice immediately that there are many different colors of lentils available. All of the colors have approximately the same nutritional value with some slight variation in protein content. However, different colors tend to have different flavors, take on different textures as they cook and they all have slightly different cooking times. To decide for yourself which lentils to purchase, read on to learn about the various lentil types and what makes each of them unique. 

Brown lentils

The most common variety, brown lentils are mild and earthy in taste. They can range from a light khaki color to a rich, deep brown. They’re also the most versatile of all the lentil colors. They hold their shape and texture well with prolonged cooking so they are great in curries and stews, but they also work well when they’re mashed into burgers, added on top of salads, or even blended up into soups. Brown lentils are a good choice to always have on hand due to their hardy texture and versatility as well as how easy it is to find them. Brown lentils have a moderate cooking time at about 20-25 minutes.

Red lentils 

Red lentils are different from brown in both color and texture. They can have a true red color or range from orange to gold. Red lentils tend to break down and become mushy with prolonged cooking. That isn’t a bad thing, but be aware when cooking to achieve your perfect texture. When cooked for longer, they make great thickening agents to soups and stews. However, they’re not as good for salads. In addition to their thickening potential, red lentils also offer a vibrant color to dishes and lend a sweeter, nuttier flavor than the earthy brown lentils. They are the most common in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine and have the shortest cooking time at 15-20 minutes.

Yellow lentils 

Similarly to red lentils, yellow lentils are mild and sweet compared to earthy brown lentils. They range from light to bright yellow or look similar to the orange and gold red lentils. They’re equally common in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine to the red lentils. Yellow lentils, like the red, also tend to break down and become mushy so they’re great for thickening soups and stews. They have a cooking time of about 15-20 minutes.

Green lentils 

Green lentils hold up well in all cooking methods but tend to be the most expensive. They range from pale, mottled green to darker green, almost brown colors.  Green lentils are hardy, keep their shape and texture and do best spooned over salads. They have a mild peppery taste that may overwhelm the flavors of soups and stews. They also take the longest to cook at about 30 to 40 minutes. 

Beluga (Black) lentils 

Named like this because of their resemblance to beluga caviar, beluga lentils are hardy and have a strong, earthy flavor. They tend to be slightly smaller than other lentils and have a dark, black color. They’re actually fairly similar to the taste and texture of black beans. Even after cooking, they keep a harder texture and do not become mushy. They go well combined with other hardy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and carrots and tend to have more protein per 100 g than other lentils. They cook in about 25-30 minutes and are about as versatile as brown lentils although earthier in taste.

The Bottom Line  

Differently colored lentils do best in different dishes. For authentic Indian or Middle Eastern dishes, look for red and yellow lentils. For a versatile pantry-staple, stock up on brown lentils for their versatility and mild flavor. No matter which color you choose, lentils are an easy-to-cook and delicious addition to your kitchen.

How to Prepare Lentils 

Like dried beans, lentils require a small amount of simple preparation before you cook them to produce the right texture and flavor. It’s always best to your rinse lentils first to get rid of any debris.

Why soak lentils?

It isn’t strictly necessary to soak lentils, but it is definitely recommended. Soaking will reduce the cooking time and improve digestion as antinutrients are removed. Like beans, lentils contain an enzyme that makes it difficult to digest the protein and can make you uncomfortable. Therefore, you always better soak and later rinse them before boiling.

How to soak lentils 

After you’ve rinsed your lentils to remove any debris, drain them and then pour them into a large pot and cover them with fresh, cold water. It is best to then leave them soaking for four to six hours, or overnight, for all colors of lentils. As they soak, they will grow and almost double in size. When they’re done soaking, drain them and give them one final rinse before cooking. 

How to cook lentils

When they’re done soaking, you can begin cooking them immediately or refrigerate for a few hours until you’re ready. Soaked lentils cook quickly and their cooking time depends on their color, so refer back to the lentil color guide above. No matter how you’re cooking them, don’t add salt until the end of the cooking process. Salt added before they’re done will make the lentils tough. 

Cooking Lentils on the stovetop (recommended):

Use 3 cups of cooking liquid (water or stock) for every 1 cup of soaked lentils. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cover until they’re tender. 

Cooking Lentils in the slow cooker:

Use 3 cups of cooking liquid (water or stock) for every 1 cup of soaked lentils. Cook on low heat for 8-10 hours until they’re tender. 

Cooking Lentils in the pressure cooker:

Use 3 cups of cooking liquid (water or stock) for everyone 1 cup lentils. Cook on high pressure for 15 minutes and then allow the pressure to release naturally.  

With some simple preparation, lentils are quick and easy to prepare and make a great addition to soups, stews, and curries as well as a fantastic side dish or salad topping. 

Famous Lentil Dishes 

As we know, lentils are a staple in Middle Eastern and  Indian cuisine. Here, we’ll explore a few of the most famous lentil dishes around the world. 

Middle Eastern Spiced Rice (Mejadra)

Simple and a staple for a good reason, mejadra is a combination of spiced (but not spicy) rice and brown lentils. It’s an ancient Middle Eastern dish that has stood the test of time with its rich flavors from cumin and coriander. The hearty, filling combination or rice and lentils, and the delicious topping of crunchy, fried onions is warm and comforting. Mejadra can be served as a side or as a complete meal on its own. 

Middle Eastern Lentil Soup

Another staple in Middle Eastern cuisine, lentil soup is simply made from lentils (red or yellow are perfect for soup), onions, carrots, spices (cumin and coriander), and vegetable stock. Combine ingredients, simmer until the carrots and lentils are tender, and then puree with an immersion blender until mostly smooth. Enjoy with warm flatbread. 

Greek Lentils 

Greek lentils are cooked similarly to mejadra but it uses green lentils (the ones with the peppery flavor and longer cook time) and it is spiced with coriander and mint and topped with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Greek lentils can be served as a side dish with rice, but it makes a fabulous main course when served with flatbread. 


Dal is a very broad term for Indian soups, stews, or curries made from lentils. There are many local and regional variations but they all have two things in common: lentils, and the fact that they’re delicious. Dal recipes are generally simple to prepare with cooked lentils, spices such as cumin, garam masala, and red chili powder, garlic, onion, and fried garnish. Regional variations on the dish include the use of tomatoes, mango, and coconut. Curry is a broad term that actually describes the spices used. Lentil curry is a popular, Indian-spiced stews, and filling soups are all dal recipes. 

Lentil Soup (Western Style)

In the West, the traditional lentil soup tends to be flavored with garlic, onion, salt, and pepper and is loaded with brown lentils and vegetables. You can easily adjust any recipe by adding your favorite choice of vegetables and herbs. It is best served hot and with crusty bread at the side.

In Summary 

Lentils are a simple, economic, and nutritionally-dense food to add to your diet. With a little bit of preparation, a few good recipes at hand, and the right spices, you can easily turn lentils into a quick weeknight meal or a more elaborate, lavish weekend dinner. The humble and ancient lentil is beneficial to everyone all over the world and the possibilities for mains and side dishes are endless. 


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