What Exactly Are Lentils and What The Heck Can I Do With Them?

what exactly are lentils

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but before becoming plant-based in 2013 I didn’t know what a lentil was. Sure, I’d probably eaten lentils at some point in my life, but not on purpose. And I certainly didn’t know how healthy they are. So let’s get into learning more about lentils!


What Exactly Are Lentils? 

Because they grow in pods, lentils are considered part of the legume family. They’re related to other legumes like soybeans, peanuts, and beans. 

Unlike their bean cousins, however, lentils don’t require soaking before cooking, which makes them much easier and faster to cook. Like beans, you can soak them to further reduce cooking time if you’re in a hurry. 




Types of Lentils

There are five main types of lentils that come in several different shapes and colors. These types are green, brown, red, Puy (French), and black (Beluga). 

Lentils are most readily available in dried form, although you may also find them in ready-to-eat packages. Most grocery stores carry brown lentils, also called European lentils. Green and red lentils may be found at specialty food markets.

One of the earliest known cultivars, lentils have had a place in the human diet for at least 8,000 years.  They have been a staple in South Asian and Mediterranean cuisines for centuries.


What Do Lentils Do For Your Body? 


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Most of us living a plant-based lifestyle have been asked (too many times!), “But where do you get your protein?” 

If your mind blanks on all of the plant-based sources of protein, just remember LENTILS! 

Lentils are high in protein AND fiber and, unlike a big steak, they are low in fat, making them an AMAZING, healthy substitute for meat! 


Some More Amazing Nutritional Facts 

  • A one-cup serving of cooked lentils contains 230 calories.  A whopping twenty-six percent of those calories come from protein.


  • Because they are so high in protein, they are especially valuable to vegetarians and vegans.  Even better, combining lentils with rice creates a complete protein (meaning that a serving of lentils and rice contains all nine essential amino acids). Back in episode 281: 10 Easy, Powerful Food Combining Tips That Actually Boost Your Health we talked all about the concept of combining certain healthy foods to create one MASSIVELY healthy meal!.


  • Lentils are high in several B vitamins, including folate.  Their folate content, plus high levels of magnesium and soluble fiber, makes them heart-healthy.


  • Lentils are high in potassium. Just ½ cup of cooked green lentils contains 273 milligrams.


  • The soluble fiber in lentils slows digestion and the conversion of complex carbohydrates to sugar, thus stabilizing blood sugar levels.


  • Lentils contain insoluble fiber, which helps lessen the risk of digestive disorders.


  • Because lentils contain both types of fiber plus complex carbs, they provide the body with an energy boost.


  • The iron in these legumes helps to ensure good oxygen distribution throughout the blood and contributes to a healthy metabolism.


  • Lentils are high in antioxidants that can help fight free radicals and inflammation in your body.


  • And, as if all that goodness wasn’t enough, these legumes are nearly fat-free.


How to Cook Lentils

Now that you know exactly what lentils are, it’s time to cook them!

Dried lentils are simple to prepare and cook faster than other legumes. They don’t need to be soaked (but they can be). Minimally, you should rinse them before cooking.

Because they hold their shape better during cooking, the green and brown varieties are better for salads, rice dishes, and other recipes in which firmer texture is important.

Once cooked, the consistency of yellow, red, orange, pink, and black varieties tends more toward the mushy side, making them ideal for soups, stews, and curries.

As is the general rule when cooking legumes, do not add salt until they are done. Salting the cooking water will make them tough. Here’s a video from Lentils.org that shows a simple way to cook them on the stovetop. 



The Instant Pot Way

Another easy way to cook lentils is in a pressure cooker like the Instant Pot. These appliances make cooking super easy because you don’t need to constantly watch them. Just place all of the ingredients in your pot, set it, and forget it until mealtime.


We LOVE our pressure cooker, the Instant Pot Duo. Check out this video from Rainbow Plant Life to learn all about cooking up some instant pot lentils!



Ok, I’ve Cooked Some Lentils…Now What The Heck Can I Do With Them?

When we’re looking for answers to questions just like this, we often turn to our wise and always helpful friends in our closed Facebook group, The Peas and Carrots Society. 

When I asked them for their favorite lentil recipes, they did not disappoint! There are quite a few recipes on that post so it’s impossible to list them all here, but here are a few that stood out.


  1. Lentil Vegetable Soup from Ina Garten on the Food Network site. Just substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock and either leave out the parmesan cheese or try some vegan parm.



  1. Barbecue Lentils Over Baked Potato Wedges from Instantpot.com – Because of their mild flavor, lentils lend themselves very well to a smokey barbeque sauce. Sprinkle some vegan cheese on top and you’ve got a delicious vegan version of chili cheese fries. 



    1. Ultimate Vegan Lentil Walnut Loaf from Oh She Glows – One of our go-to sites for recipes, Oh She Glows whips up a mean vegan lentil walnut loaf.  Pair with roasted veggies and mashed potatoes for a filling dinner.



    1. Sloppy Joes from Minimalist Baker – If you’re in the mood for a “sweet, smokey and savory sandwich,” this one’s for you. Because of their texture, lentils make a great substitute for ground beef. Once cooked, they soak up the smokey barbeque sauce goodness, making for excellent Sloppy Joes! 


    1. Coconut Lentil Dal from Deliciously Ella  – Per Deliciously Ella, “This is one of my favorite warming dishes. Cooking the lentils in coconut milk makes each bite much creamier, while the tomatoes, cumin, paprika, chili, and curry powder add such a lovely blend of flavors.”


And a Few Unconventional Ways to Eat ‘Em

  1. Smoothies – Toss a small amount of cooked lentils in your next green smoothie for an added protein punch. 
  2. Oatmeal – Check out this Red Lentil Power Porridge from Pulses.org for a POWERFUL breakfast idea. 
  3. Pancakes – These savory Spinach and Lentil Pancakes from This Healthy Kitchen are oil- and gluten-free. Great for breakfast OR dinner.

If you’d like to hear us discuss more about lentils, you can do so here in episode 365 of the podcast:

And if you’re looking for some more vegan and vegetarian lentil inspiration? Check out this cookbook by Chef  Nitisha Patel.

We hope we’ve helped you learn a little about lentils and what the heck you can do with them. Happy cooking! 

If you’re looking to up your cooking game, check out the Forks Over Knives Cooking school by Rouxbe. I learned a TON of techniques that have helped me grow my confidence in the kitchen! You can read my review by clicking below.

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Thanks for listening!

Peace and Veggies,
Vickie and Larissa


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