Front cover of The Essential Good Food Guide by Margaret Wittenberg
  • Front cover of The Essential Good Food Guide by Margaret Wittenberg
  • Close-up of a white bowl with pardina lentils

Trying to lighten up your diet, add a little fiber and boost your nutrition? Well hold everything – and consider the humble lentil. When it comes to normal meal planning, lentils rarely come to mind – that is, until we hit up the soup-of-the-day at a busy lunch and get a fresh reminder of just how good this unassumingly delicious legume can be! Lentils can be useful for more than just a good bacon-laced soup however. We’re digging in deep and showing you just why these little legumes should find their place on your pantry shelves. This extensive guide to lentils comes from the pages of The Essential Good Food Guide, a massive resource for those looking to sharpen their skills with whole foods from fresh herbs to heirloom fruits.

Lentils are the world’s oldest cultivated legume, likely domesticated around 7000 B.C.E. The botanical nomenclature for the lentil is lens culinaris, which means “cooking lens.” Our word for the optical instrument no doubt comes from its similarity in shape to the small, round, flat shape that distinguishes all varieties of lentils. Colors range from slate green, brown, and black to reddish orange, coral, and gold – and while all varieties have unique, delicious flavors and textures, they all share a similar nutritional profile. One of the easiest beans to digest, lentils also rate as a favorite because of their short preparation time and versatility. Unlike other beans, no presoaking is required. Pressure cooking is not recommended for any variety of lentils, as the foam that they create during the cooking process can clog pressure vents. Most varieties cook quite quickly using the boil and simmer method.

Lentils 101: What To Do With Lentils and Why Bother

Lentils are marketed in four general categories: brown, green, red/yellow, and specialty. In turn, within each category are several varieties, which makes for fun discovery and experimentation. In general, the brown and green varieties retain their shape well (some more fully than others), whereas the hulled or split red and yellow lentils tend to disintegrate. These red and yellow lentils are best for soups or recipes in which they’ll be pureed. Specialty lentils – those that are especially distinctive in flavor, shape, and origin – largely fall within the brown and green categories.

Brown lentils sold in bulk or in a package that is labeled simply as lentils (with no mention of specific variety) will typically be the “regular” lentil, also known as brewer lentils. Those that are marketed only as green lentils will be in one of three classes according to size: if large, they may be the Laird lentil or one of several similar varieties. If the green lentil is medium in size, it will be the Richlea lentil or the like. The classic small, green lentil 
variety is the Eston lentil. Fortunately, you won’t have to struggle with which is which when cooking, as these basic brown and green varieties have similar cooking times and water-to-lentil proportions. Still, learning more about each lentil’s characteristics enhances the enjoyment both in cooking and in dining.

Black Beluga Lentils

Use 2¼ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.
These tiny black lentils look remarkably like shiny, glistening caviar when cooked. Their rich, earthy flavor and soft texture is perfect in salads and soups or featured with pasta, rice or sautéed vegetables. Not only does their deep black color present a dramatic, striking contrast when cooked with a variety of colorful green and red vegetables, but it also indicates they are high in the antioxidant anthocyanin.

Castelluccio Lentils

Use 2 cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
Although Castelluccio lentils (Umbrian lentils, 
lenticchie di Castelluccio) are tiny – about 2 millimeters across – they have a big presence in the culinary world, where they are highly prized for their complex, delicately nutty, slightly earthy flavor and tender texture. The small, round, flat seeds vary in color from light brown to a dull yellow, sometimes speckled and sometimes striped. They are grown by a cooperative of farmers in the high plains areas surrounding Castelluccio di Norcia, in Umbria’s Monti Sibillini national park. The farmers’ commitment to the lentil involves strict agricultural production and harvesting requirements, including their centuries-old tradition of a three-year crop rotation alternating lentils, wheat, and pasture to continually allow the land to be restored. In 1998, Castelluccio lentils achieved Europe’s Protected Geographical recognition, a testament to the area’s special microclimate, which, along with its calcium-rich soil, accounts for the distinctiveness of the Castelluccio lentil. A 
label with the words “Lenticchia di Castelluccio di 
Norcia—Indicazione Geografica Protetta” ensures you are purchasing authentic Castelluccio lentils that are grown in the official area by, and in accordance with, the cooperative’s guiding principles.

Castelluccio lentils retain their shape when cooked. They are excellent simply prepared, simmered in water or vegetable stock and lightly seasoned with aromatic herbs and spices, allowing the lentil’s natural flavor to shine through.

Crimson Lentils

Use 1¾ to 2 cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
The reddish orange color of these tiny lentils turns golden once they’re cooked. While still whole and not split as are red chief lentils, they are peeled, with their rusty brown outer seed coat removed to expose the beautiful inner color. They cook quickly and generally lose their shape in cooking. As such, crimson lentils are good for soups, stews, and pureed side dishes, and as a flavorful way to thicken soups and sauces. They may be used in any recipe that calls for split red lentils. Their mild, celery-like flavor works well with a variety of seasonings and cuisines.

Eston Lentils

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes.
The small Eston lentil is 4.5 to 5.5 millimeters in size. It is khaki green in color with a yellow interior that has a relatively neutral earthy flavor. As it holds its shape somewhat less readily than the larger green lentils, it works well in soups, stews, and recipes that call for mashed lentils.

French Green Lentils

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
Known for their distinctive rich, peppery flavor, French green lentils are further distinguished by their slate green color with bluish-black undertones, and their small size, about one-third the size of green lentils. They are also rich in antioxidant phytochemicals similar to those in blueberries and black grapes, and in minerals, particularly iron and magnesium.

While French green lentils are grown using the same variety of lentil as the famous Puy lentils, since they are grown in North America or Italy rather than the Puy region in central France, they are never referred to as lentilles du Puy. Nonetheless, they can be substituted in any recipe that calls for Puy lentils, not to mention being less expensive, as well. As French green lentils hold their shape well, use them as a side dish in accompaniment with vegetables and pasta, in salads, in a light soup, or as a focal point in a meal.

Ivory Lentils

Use 2 cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes.
Just when you think everyone’s on the same program, there’s always one that dares to be different. With a name like ivory lentil, it would seem logical that this bean would be a variety of the lens culinaris species. Ivory lentils are actually from a completely different species, the Asian-based Vigna mungo. As it turns out, ivory lentils, also known in India as urad dal, are actually peeled and split black lentils (black gram). Tiny and ivory colored in appearance, when cooked, ivory lentils have a mild, earthy flavor and a creamy texture. They cook fairly quickly, taking about 30 minutes or so until soft. Traditionally in India, ivory lentils and rice are ground together into a flour to make idlis (steamed rice cakes) and dosas (savory pancakes). Ivory lentils can, likewise, be used to make soup, dips, and purees.

Laird Lentils

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and 
simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
The Laird variety is a large lentil, ranging from 6 to 
7 millimeters in size. In addition to its size, the Laird lentil is celebrated for its robust, earthy flavor. Depending on where it is grown, its texture and specific flavor may vary, although it remains a favorite type of green lentil due to its overall richer taste. As they hold their shape well, Laird lentils can be used in side dishes seasoned with herbs, served along with pasta, rice, or a favorite whole grain, and in soups and stews.

Lenticchie Verdi

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and 
simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
Literally translated from Italian as “green lentils,” lentils labeled lenticchie verdi were grown in Italy, a country that appreciates lentils and includes them often in its cuisine. These green lentils are typically large sized, flat, disk shaped and khaki colored. Along with their robust earthy flavor, they have a hearty texture that, although they keep their shape reasonably well, can also be used in recipes that call for cooked lentils that can be easily mashed. Use lenticchie verdi in your favorite pasta e lenticchie recipes, in soups, or as a hearty side dish.

Marrone Lentils

Use 2½ to 3 cups water per 1 cup lentils. 
Boil and simmer for 45 minutes.
Marrone lentils are especially good brown lentils with a full-bodied nutty, earthy taste. Medium-sized, brownish pink in color, and with a flat, disk shape, they are very versatile. Terrific as a side dish topped with roasted walnuts, they can be cooked into soup or chili, or, like other brown lentils, just as easily used in lentil-based loaf or burgers, and in casseroles.

Petite Castillo Lentils

Use 2 cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and 
simmer for 30 minutes.
Definitely petite in size, this variety of tiny lentils has a flat, though roundish, shape and a brown color. Although not grown around Castelluccio di Norcia, the delicious, delicate, nutty, slightly earthy flavor of the petite castillo is quite similar to its pricier Castelluccio lentil cousin. Likewise, petite castillo lentils keep their shape when cooked. Accordingly, prepare petite castillo lentils in the same way as Castelluccio lentils, cooked in water or a light stock and simply seasoned. Serve as a side dish along with pasta, or rice and an array of vegetables.

Petite Estoria Lentils

Use 2 cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and 
simmer for 45 minutes.
These miniature, disk-shaped, khaki-green lentils have a wonderful delicate, sweet, and nutty flavor. Although tender, they keep their unique shape after cooking. Accordingly, use them as you would black beluga lentils – in salads or soups or featured with pasta, rice, or sautéed vegetables.

Petite Golden Lentils

Use 1¾ to 2 cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
Peeled like its crimson and red chief cousins, the petite golden lentil is indeed small and golden colored, with a rounder shape than other varieties. It has a mild, slightly sweet flavor and smooth texture; although, unlike the crimson lentil, petite golden lentils hold their shape fairly well when cooked.

Puy Lentils

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and 
simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
Also known as lentilles du Puy, these lentils are slate green in color with bluish-black undertones and are about one-third the size of green lentils. Grown in the volcanic soils of the Le Puy district in the Auvergne in central France for nearly the past two thousand years, Puy lentils offer exceptional quality, flavor, and nutritional content, most notably mineral contents and particularly iron and magnesium. As a source of anthocyanins, similar to that as found in blueberries and black grapes, their dark color provides valuable antioxidants. Look for the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) label to ensure authenticity. Known for their distinctive rich, peppery flavor, Puy lentils are traditionally served as a side dish, in salads, as a focal point in a meal, or even as a foundation for meat, fish, or game.

Red Chief Lentils

Use 1¾ to 2 cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
The beautiful coral color of red chief lentils (also known as red lentils or red split lentils) turns golden when they’re cooked. Unlike their whole green and brown cousins, red lentils are made from whole yellow lentils that are peeled and split in half, exposing their characteristic red color underneath their outer seed coat. As a result, they cook very quickly. They also lose their shape during cooking, a plus when making soups, stews, vegetarian pâtés or spreads, or when simply cooking them together with white basmati rice. With their mild, earthy flavor, red lentils work well with a gamut of seasonings and cuisines, from Indian spices to fragrant Italian herbs. When rinsing red lentils prior to cooking, they will appear soapy and tend to clump together—a result of the release of starch. Red lentils foam heavily during cooking, so keep the lid of the pot slightly ajar.

Regular Lentils

Use 2½ to 3 cups water per 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.
When buying lentils and there is no other descriptor on the label, regular lentils – the name of an actual variety that is about as straightforward a name as it gets, and otherwise known as the brewer lentil – are the most common type of lentil available in North America. Distinguished from other lentils by their mottled khaki color, regular lentils have a mild, somewhat earthy flavor. Commonly used to make hearty soups, stews, and side dishes to serve along with grains and pastas, this variety holds its shape well after cooking. Still, these tender beans are also easily mashed, which is why they have long been associated with making vegetarian meat loaf and burgers. Brown lentils and rice have similar cooking times, so they’re often cooked together, commonly with celery seed or other seasonings.

Richlea Lentils

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
This medium-size green lentil ranges from 5.5 to 6 millimeters in size. Khaki green in color, it has a yellow interior beneath its seed coat. Considered a standard against which other medium lentils are measured, the Richlea lentil is milder in flavor than its larger Laird cousin. Richlea lentils are most often used in soups, but can easily be used in any recipe calling for green lentils.

Spanish Pardina Lentils

Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 45 minutes.
Known for their excellent nutty flavor, Spanish pardina lentils (Spanish brown lentils, pardina lentils, continental lentils) are small in size (about one-third the size of typical brown or green lentils) and range in color from a rich medium brown to brownish gray. Although the majority of the Spanish pardina lentils are now grown in the United States, they remain popular in Spain, as well as in Italy and North Africa. Because pardina lentils hold their shape and texture very well, they are one of the best to use as a primary or side dish with other elements within the meal, as well as in salads. And, of course, they are equally excellent in soups and stews.

Read Next: Warm Spiced Lentils Salad With Baby Carrots + Feta Crumble

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