The Lowdown on Lentils

by Perinaz Avari | Print This Page

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We’ve all heard of lentil soup. But there are so many more ways to cook lentils than just a good ole bowl of broth.

This nutritionally balanced super food can be used in dips and spreads, soups and stews, salads and just about any dish that could use a protein punch.

Perhaps one of the best versions of lentil in a gluten-free diet is as “lentil flour.” It’s used in place of wheat flour for batters and also as a thickening agent in stews and soups. Lentil flour also replaces breadcrumbs in lentil cakes and burgers.

This versatile legume is no newbie on the food scene; archeological evidence in Greece has shown that they were consumed 13,000 to 9,500 years back. Others believe they originated in the Indian subcontinent. Either way, lentils commonly appear in cuisines across Asia and Europe. Most lentils offer similar nutritive benefits to the better-known members of the legume family beans and dry peas.

Lentils of many colors

Lentil varieties are identified by color; popular ones include yellow, black, red-orange, white, brown and green. Growing in pods which contain one to two seeds each, lentils can be round or oval. They are found whole or split, which really determines the cooking times and where you can use them.

There are four common types:

Green – Actually brown, they are whole legumes that retain their shape when cooked, which makes them a popular choice for soups and salad. Find them in most grocery stores.

Red – These are split lentils that get mushy when cooked. They are best used for dips and burgers. Also found easily in the market.

Yellow (yellow split pigeon peas or “toor” lentils) – They are the popular choice for Indian daal. Other split yellow lentil varieties are gram or channa used for making lentil flour/gram flour and mung lentils. Now-a-days, lentil flour is easily available in natural food stores, but you can make it at home using any of the yellow lentil varieties. Lightly roast dried lentils and grind in a food processor till you have a flour consistency.

Black – They retain their shape but have one of the longest cook times in the lentil family. To speed up the process, soak them for 30 minutes prior to cooking.

Cook them correctly

As a rule, whole lentils retain their shape and take longer to cook while split varieties cook fast but get soft and mushy rather quickly.

Stovetop cook times range from 15-45 minutes, but there are better options for cooking this delicious legume. A pressure cooker is one good alternative; most Indian daal preparations are made this way in 7-15 minutes. Another surprisingly good cooking method is the slow cooker, which allows the lentils to absorb the flavors of other ingredients for 6-8 hours.

Store them correctly

Lentils are commonly stored in airtight glass containers in a cool dry place (yes, that’s the pantry.) Once cooked, they refrigerate easily for 2-3 days. The best part, cooked lentils can be frozen for up to 3 months. To reheat, thaw at room temperature for 4-5 hours or overnight in the fridge.

Lentils and their many benefits have long remained in the dark, only sometimes sneaking into our meals as soup or through ethnic cuisines. It’s time to bring this worthy legume to the forefront of our meals and give them the place of pride they truly deserve.

Want another helping?

• Lentils are antioxidant-rich, cholesterol-free and gluten-free nutritional heavyweights.

• One cup of lentils provides 90% of the daily value of folic acid (the highest amount provided by any unfortified food),  35% of our daily value of protein, 15 grams of fiber, and a smorgasbord of essential vitamins and minerals like manganese, iron and phosphorus. Lentils deliver this nutritional punch at only 230 calories per cup.

• Lentils are full of complex carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (slow energy-release foods) which help regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol and control appetite.

• High-fiber foods like lentils are known to prevent cardiovascular diseases.

• Right here in America, we celebrate the wonders of this legume at The National Lentil Festival in Pullman, Wash., held every year since 1989. The chili bowl at this festival can hold 650 gallons, which is stirred using boat oars (clean ones.)

• The Latin word for lentil is “lens,” after which the optical lens is named.

• During World War II, Americans were encouraged to eat more lentils to support the wartime economy.

• They were found in Egyptian tombs as far back as 2400 B.C.

• Rice and lentils come together in many cultures in dishes such as Mejadra (west Asia), Khichdi (Indian subcontinent) or Kushari (Egypt). They are an essential part of every meal in India, showing up in many meat and vegetable preparations. The well-known daal is served with rice or Indian bread.

• Most of the world’s  lentils are produced in Canada, India, Turkey and the U.S.

Some recipes

Indian cuisine is closely associated with lentils. Our daal tadka (tempered lentils) is made using the slow cooker and yellow split lentils. You can speed up the cook time by using a pressure cooker instead.
Our lentil, potato and red pepper cakes make a great appetizer or main course.

Sources: The World’s Healthiest Foods , USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council

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