Although lentils have been a staple in soups and stews for years, they're becoming increasingly popular thanks to their inclusion on menus at mainstream salad chains, meat-free loafs at holidays, and faux meat products. But what are lentils, exactly, besides tasty little circles of joy? In short, lentils are pulses, aka nutritionally-dense edible seeds of legumes. In addition to being delicious, they're a low-cost, low-fat, high-fiber source of vegan- and vegetarian-friendly protein that come in several varieties with innumerable uses.  

The 411 On Lentils

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McKenna Nelson

Lentils, like beans, are legumes. They're high-protein, edible pulses that grow in pods. Lentils are typically sold dried and look like tiny lenses or pebbles and have a mild, earthy flavor. When cooked, they soften while still maintaining a substantially pleasant chew, much like an al dente noodle. Lentils are versatile in their use, and are most commonly found as a side dish, in soups, curries, or salads. Lentils are also often used in vegetarian recipes in place of meat, like in these lentil veggie burgers

Common Types of Lentils

Matt Volpe

There are many kinds of lentils, including green, brown, red, French, and black, and the various varieties are best for different kinds of dishes.

Brown and green lentils are common in the United States. These are typically found in lentil soup and have a mild flavor. These are perfect to add to salads or soups.

French lentils take a bit longer to cook, and offer a more al dente bite. French lentils hold up well in lentil-based salads or as a protein source in vegetable-based salads or grain bowls, like this sweet potato and lentil bowl.

Red lentils are a vibrant orange/yellow/reddish hue, and are commonly found in Indian dishes, like lentil dhal. They cook quickly and break down a bit, and are ideal for thickening sauces.

Black lentils are a little more difficult to find, and are smaller than most other varieties. They're filled with flavor and make a great addition to salads and soups or vegetarian black lentil tacos.

How to Cook Lentils

To cook lentils for salads and sides, simply place them in a pot and add water, stopping when the water level fills to roughly ½ inch above the lentils. Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook lentils uncovered for 10-45 minutes, depending on variety (the packaging should tell you). Drain and enjoy. 

You can sometimes find pre-cooked lentils in the refrigerated section of grocery stores (including Trader Joe’s), and occasionally in cans (although, in this author’s opinion, canned lentils are not the way to go; they tend to be super mushy and have an off-flavor).

Health Benefits of Lentils

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Megan Schellong

Although lentils are small, they're filled with flavor and pack a powerful nutrition punch. Just a 1/2 cup of cooked lentils contains roughly 9 grams of plant-protein, 8 grams of fiber, and a decent dose of iron, folate, and potassium. The combination of fiber, protein, and complex carbohydrates make lentils a satiating staple to add to your meals. 

Whether you're a fan of lentil soup or love a red lentil daal, lentils are an inexpensive plant protein option to add to your diet. Just make sure to sift through your lentils before cooking them, as small rocks can make their way into a bag of lentils (this is totally normal, so don't freak if you come across one).