Lentils are grouped with beans and peas as part of the legume family because, like all legumes, they grow in pods. Lentils are high in protein and fiber and low in fat, which makes them a healthy substitute for meat. They're also packed with folate, iron, phosphorus, potassium and fiber.
There are many types of lentils. However, the three most common varieties are brown, green and red. Most lentils come in dried form, although you may also find them in ready-to-eat packages. Most grocery stores carry brown lentils, which are also known as European lentils. Green and red lentils may be found at specialty food markets.
Here are some tips for choosing and preparing lentils:
- Brown lentils. The least expensive, they hold their texture if properly cooked. They can stand in for black beans as a side dish or in a vegan burger. They also work well in soups.
- Green lentils. Also called French lentils, these have a nuttier flavor and stay firm when cooked. Green lentils are the best choice for salads. Newer to markets are Beluga lentils, which are similar in texture to French lentils but are black in color.
- Red lentils. The fastest cooking, these lose their shape and turn golden when cooked. They are milder and sweeter than green lentils. Use them for purees and Indian dals.
Preparing lentils is simple. Start by sorting through the lentils to pick out any small, hard debris, and then rinse to remove dirt. Unlike other legumes, lentils cook quickly without presoaking.
Place lentils in a pot, cover with about 1/2 inch of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered. Cook about 20 minutes for red lentils, 30 minutes for brown and 40 minutes for green. Check them frequently, and add water if needed. Don't overcook. Flavor them with garlic, cumin, thyme or other seasonings. Add cooked lentils to soups, stews and salads, or serve over rice.