Understanding different types of lentils

If you're confused by the different types and colors of lentils, read on. It's all a lot easier than you think.

By Moira Adams

Garlic pot

Clockwise from top-left: Puy, red and green lentils
Photo © Justin Cormack

Lentils are a mainstay of vegetarian cuisine. But they come in a bewildering variety of colors, and many cooks are uncertain about which ones to choose. Brown, black, green, red, yellow – what's the difference between these various types? And which ones should you use in your favorite recipes?

In fact, the answer is very simple. All you need to remember is that lentils fall into two broad classes: the red, and the rest.

The red

Red or "split" lentils (they're actually a bright orange color) are different from all the other types in two important respects. They need much less cooking time (less than ten minutes). And they disintegrate into a mush when cooked. Because of this second point, red lentils are unsuitable for most lentil recipes. So you should avoid using them for vegetarian moussaka, lentil roast, lentil shepherd's pie, veggie burgers, or anything similar.

But that doesn't mean that red lentils have no place in your kitchen. On the contrary, they come into their own for making lentil soup, and they are also very useful for thickening stews and casseroles – not to mention adding a worthwhile helping of protein to those dishes.

Another good use is in making Indian dhal. To do that, boil the lentils in plenty of water. In a separate pan, lightly fry some onion, garlic and tomato. Drain the cooked lentils, add in the onion mixture, and then add some spices, such as chili, ginger or turmeric – but don't overdo it; dhal is meant to be mild. Serve with rice or naan bread.

You might also come across yellow lentils. These are very similar to the red variety, and should be cooked in the same way.

The rest

The second broad class of lentils include brown (the most common type in the USA), green, and black, as well as specialist varieties such as Puy (grown in the Haute-Loire region of France), "french" (which are actually Puy lentils but are grown in North America), beluga (so-called because they resemble beluga caviar) and macachiados (used in Mexican cuisine).

These varieties differ considerably in taste and texture. But when it comes to cooking, they are more or less interchangeable. If your recipe doesn't specify a particular variety, use whatever you have to hand. I suspect that in a blind tasting test, a non-expert would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

These types of lentils all keep their shape after cooking, which makes them suitable for any of the recipes mentioned above. They take longer to cook than the red variety: anything from 25 to 45 minutes. Follow the cooking time stated on the label, if any, or test them by tasting; they are ready when completely soft.

As well as hot dishes, these varieties go well in salads. Cook them first. Then drain them, and stir in a generous measure of olive oil or a vinaigrette dressing. Leave to cool for at least a couple of hours. Before serving, add fresh chopped herbs, such as parsley, chives or tarragon. Or, for a slightly more ambitious offering, see my recipe for lentil and rice salad.

What about nutrition?

Lentils are a good source of protein and fiber, but the quantities vary with the variety. A quick check of the nutrition data on some labels shows that green lentils are particularly high in protein (13.5 grams per cooked portion), while the black type score well in fiber (6.3 grams per cooked portion). And whatever color you go for, you'll find worthwhile amounts of calcium, phosphorus, iron and Vitamin B. And they’re all extremely low in fat and sodium.

So, next time you want to make a lentil dish, don't be intimidated by the different colors and varieties. Just apply the "red vs the rest" rule, and you won't go wrong.

October 2014

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