What Are Lentils—and Are They Healthy? (2024)

A bag of dry lentils is one of those foods you bring home with good intentions, only to find it in your pantry weeks later and realize you still have no idea what to do with it. You could throw some in soup, but it might be too hot for that. You could make a salad, but how long does that take? Could you eat them raw? Maybe they could be tossed in a smoothie for extra protein? But is that even safe? (Hint: It's not! Read below to find out why).

Pictured Recipe: Easy Lentil Salad

Here, we'll talk about what lentils are, what makes them so healthy, and how to cook them properly to turn them into a tasty dish.

What Are Lentils?

Lentils are legumes—cousins to beans, chickpeas, soybeans and peanuts. The name "lentil" actually comes from the Latin word for "lens," which makes sense since a dried lentil looks like a little lens.

Like many other legumes, lentils have been used in cooking for centuries and are thought to have originated in the Near East. But they're routinely cultivated (and a part of the cuisine) throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. This means you can find lentils in some of their most well-known dishes, such as dal, Ethiopian stew and Egyptian koshari. And because they've spread so far, there's a wide variety of different types of lentils you can cook with. Here are some of the types.

Green Lentils

Also referred to as French lentils, green lentils hold up well after cooking and have a nutty taste. They're an ideal addition to a salad or on their own as a side dish. Beware, they require a bit more patience to prepare than other varieties, taking nearly 45 minutes to cook. This Lentil Stew with Salsa Verde is perfect for green lentils.

Red and Yellow Lentils

With a sweeter flavor, these lentils are commonly utilized in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Although they are quick to prepare, they are more prone to lose their texture after being cooked. Consider using them in stews, soups or sauces, like this Red Lentil Soup with Saffron.

Black Lentils

Also called beluga lentils, these have an earthy flavor that complements proteins or meaty vegetables, such as mushrooms, with a moderately low cooking time of 25 minutes. Try them in .

Brown Lentils

Commonly used in North America, this is the variety you might often see staring back at you in your pantry. With a mild and earthy flavor and the ability to hold their texture after being cooked, they can serve as a veggie-burger base without overpowering the fresh veggie flavor. They serve as the foundation for this .

What Are Lentils—and Are They Healthy? (1)

Lentils Nutrition

A budget-friendly, nutrient-dense option, lentils may just become one of your new favorite foods. Here is the nutritional breakdown of a 1-cup serving of cooked lentils, according to the USDA:

  • Calories: 230
  • Total Fat: <1 g
  • Saturated Fat: 0 g
  • Protein: 18 g
  • Carbohydrates: 40 g
  • Fiber: 16 g
  • Magnesium: 71 mg
  • Potassium: 731 mg
  • Iron: 6.5 mg
  • Selenium: 5.5 mcg

In addition to their high protein and fiber content, which will keep you satiated for a relatively long time, there are a few other reasons you may want to make lentils an integral part of your diet. For instance, they are high in iron, a good source of phytochemicals and have a low glycemic index, which can help manage your blood sugar.

Can You Eat Lentils Raw?

The short answer? No.

Like other legumes, raw lentils contain a type of protein called lectin that, unlike other proteins, binds to carbohydrates and your body can't digest them. This might result in a variety of reactions, such as bloating, vomiting and diarrhea. Yikes.

Luckily, lectins are heat-sensitive and break down into more digestible components when they're cooked. Some legumes, like red kidney beans, need to be brought to a boil to fully break down the lectins. Unfortunately, most dried beans also need to then simmer for 30 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the type and age of the bean.

But lentils typically cook much faster! Part of the reason is that they are smaller, but they also contain lower levels of lectin than other beans, though they are still considered high in lectin.

Should Lentils Be Soaked?

Many legumes, such as red kidney beans, are typically soaked for hours, sometimes even overnight. The soaking helps neutralize lectins, which is important for legumes that have high levels.

Because lentils are low enough in lectins, the legume does not need to be soaked for hours. If you are up for it, you can soak your lentils to aid with digestion and for a shorter cooking time. Try soaking them with lemon juice or vinegar to prevent them from getting too soft. But if you are in a time crunch, presoaking is not required.

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How to Cook Lentils

Start by rinsing your lentils to remove any debris. Combine 3 cups of water and 1 cup of lentils; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until they are tender, which will take 15 to 20 minutes, depending on type. Yes, it is as simple as that.

The Bottom Line

Lentils are a nutritious food that's low-fat and high in protein and fiber. While they make a delicious addition to a soup, stew or salad, you should not eat them raw. No matter which type of lentils you buy, you can easily cook them by boiling your lentils in water on the stove.

10 Easy Lentils Recipes for Dinner Tonight

What Are Lentils—and Are They Healthy? (2024)
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