Lentils are often overlooked as a delicious source of protein and fiber. And while they are small in size, they are packed with nutrition.
If you’re looking for a meat alternative, or just want to expand your culinary experience, lentils are a great place to start.
What are lentils?
You’ve most likely heard of lentils and probably even eaten them, but it can be hard to know just what they are. Lentils are a part of the legume family, which includes chickpeas and beans.
There are many types of lentils but what they have in common is they are an excellent source of protein and fiber.
Lentils are a staple in Indian cooking and most of the world’s supply of lentils is produced in either India or Canada.
How many different types of lentils are there?
While there are five main type of lentils, there are many varieties within the major categories. There are hundreds of different lentil variations, with unique tastes and appearances.
Different Types of Lentils
The most common type of lentils are brown ones. You can find them anywhere, including your local grocery store.
While brown lentils are distinguished by their color, there are many different shades of brown you can find, ranging from light brown to almost black.
Brown lentils have a lovely, earthy taste to them. They take about 20 to 30 minutes to fully cook.
The second most common type of lentils are green lentils. As their name suggests, they are green in color, which can vary from a khaki green to a bright green color.
For flavoring, expect a bit of earthiness with hints of pepper. Green lentils take a long time to cook, so allow yourself at least 45 minutes.
Despite having to be cooked for so long, green lentils hold their shape and texture very well. As a result, they are often used in salads.
Red lentils are not quite as common as green or brown, but are still easily found. They vary in color from a golden yellow to a deep red.
These lentils have a sweet and nutty taste to them, which makes them really stand out. They need about 30 minutes of cooking time.
The only thing to note about red lentils is that after they have been cooked, they become quite mushy. Therefore red lentils are often used in soups, stews, and curries.
If you are having a hard time finding black lentils, be sure to look for them under their other name, Beluga lentils. These lentils are very small in size and are pure black.
Black lentils are also known as Beluga lentils, after the Beluga caviar, as they look so similar. Unlike other types of lentils, black lentils only grow in cool, dry climates, mainly Canada.
Taste-wise, black lentils have an earthy taste and are sometimes compared to black beans. They are quite versatile and can be used on salads, as garnish, and even roasted and pureed.
These lentils cook in about 25 minutes and have a slight nutritional edge over other types of lentils.
French green lentils
Also known as Le Puy green lentils, this type is actually protected through the European Union. The name for these lentils can only be described for a variation that grows in the Le Puy region of France.
Le Puy lentils have grown in the same region for over 2000 years and have a strong pepper taste to them. They are grown in volcanic soil and might have gastronomic qualities to them.
After cooking, Le Puy lentils will keep their shape, making them versatile for a number of recipes.
Different Varieties of Lentils
Horse gram serves double duties as a lentil. This is because it is one of the most protein-rich lentils on the planet.
The first usage for horse gram is feeding horses, hence the name. It is widely used in England to feed both horses and cows because of its rich nutrients.
However, despite its name, people can, and should, consume horse gram, as well. In other parts of the world, horse gram has a more pleasant sounding name, such at kulthi in Hindi and kollu in Tamil.
Horse gram is mainly grown in India. It is drought-resistant and extremely hardy, making it an important food staple in south-east Asia.
Masoor Dal is a split lentil that has had its skin removed. It is an earthy red color.
For preparation, you do not need to soak this lentil as it is soft and cooks quickly. While masoor dal starts of red, once cooked, it becomes a golden yellow in color.
Masoor dal is prepared by boiling. It needs about 30 minutes on low heat and you will know it has cooked when the lentils split open.
Once cooked, you can make a variety of recipes that feature masoor dal. Curries are the most popular although you can also fry the dal.
This is a popular Indian dish because of the high nutritious value, especially for those that are vegetarian.
Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are a lot larger than other lentils. While you can find dried chickpeas, they are more commonly found in cans, making them easier to use.
Chickpeas need to be cooked before eating, and this can take about 40 minutes. However, if you are using canned chickpeas, they are already cooked so you can use them straightaway.
In North American cuisine, the most common usage for chickpeas is hummus. This dip, which comes from the Middle East, is a blend of chickpeas, garlic, and tahini, and is great for dipping pita bread or even vegetables.
Another common use for chickpeas is a masala dish, which uses larger chickpeas. This Indian dish combines cooked chickpeas with tomatoes, onions, and plenty of spices.
Green Moong Dal
Green moong dal is another popular dal recipe. At its base is mung beans, which are green in color and readily available at any Indian grocery store.
It’s recommended to soak the mung beans for about 3 to 4 hours first. This softens them up and makes them easier to cook, which takes about 30 minutes.
Other ingredients in green moong dal include onions, tomato, and ginger. The mung beans are soft at the end, but still whole, which makes for a unique consistency.
You can enjoy green moong dal with rice or with naan bread for a hearty meal.
Urad dal has a rich, spicy taste to it. It uses a darker lentil, almost black in color. The lentil takes about 30 minutes to cook, after which it is pureed for a smooth consistency.
Other ingredients in urad dal include ginger, garlic, and paprika. Because the urad dal lentil can be a bit bitter on its own, the added spices provide a bolder flavor that tastes better.
It’s better to use the split urad dal lentil variation, although if you can’t find it, the whole version can still be used.
While you can find this food by different names, which can be confusing, both toor dal and arhar dal are the same. The dish uses toor dar lentils, which are yellow in color.
Once the lentils are cooked, ginger, turmeric, and onions are added. Other ingredients include cumin, garlic, and chili peppers.
The lentils should be cooked fully so that you can mash them while cooking. The consistency of toor dal is thick and creamy and will have a golden brown color to it when finished.
Matar dal is a dish that uses dried split peas. The peas have their outer skin removed, so they are more yellow in color than the typical green you would expect from peas.
Start by boiling the split peas. Once cooked, the peas will be very mushy. Add other ingredients, such as fried onions and spices.
The result will be a thin dish, with a soup-like consistency. It will also be a bright yellow color.
Matar dal is a common south-east Asian dish but it is most popular in Bengali communities.
Lobia is a common dish in the Punjabi region of India. It uses black eyed beans as its lentil base.
Start by cooking onions, ginger, garlic, and spices. Then, add the black eyed beans to the mixture. While you should soak the lentils ahead of time, you don’t need to cook them.
Once finished, lobia should have a pureed consistency as the black eyed beans will cook into a paste. The dish should be a nice balance between thick and thin. It is best served with rice or naan bread.
Which type of lentils are best?
Different lentils have different characteristics. If you want a thick paste or stew, then a softer type like red lentils will work.
However, if you want to see the lentils in all their glory, then a firmer type like green or brown lentils will work best.
Too often we think of meat as our primary source of protein. However, there are many plant-based alternatives, like lentils that give us all the nutrients we need.
The good news is that there are many types of lentils for a wide range of culinary applications.