Dried lentils are a year-round staple in our pantry, essential for rounding out salads during hot weather and hearty soups in the winter months. Regardless of the season, their quick-cooking, no-soak-required nature makes them ideal for healthy weeknight meals. Worried about mushy lentils? We have a trick for that, too. For weeknight meals, we like keeping green or brown lentils in our cupboard. These cook quickly and evenly without becoming mushy and are the most versatile for our recipes. Yellow, red, and orange lentils are fantastic, but since they tend to get mushy when cooked, they are usually best added to soups and sauces rather than cooked on their own.
After trying many different cooking methods for lentils, we have found that the most reliable way to cook perfectly tender lentils is to bring them to a rapid simmer, and then reduce the heat to low for the rest of cooking. You want to see just a few bubbles in the water and some gentle movement in the lentils. They will plump up nicely without splitting their skins or becoming mushy.
The other trick is to wait to add the salt or any acidic ingredients until the lentils are done cooking. These ingredients can cause the lentils to stay crunchy even when fully cooked. If you stir in the salt while the lentils are still warm, they will absorb just enough to taste fully seasoned.
It's also important to buy the freshest lentils you can find and then use them within a few months. Older lentils take longer to cook and tend to shed their skins during cooking. You may also see tiny white flecks where the lentil started to sprout. They're still tasty and entirely edible, but just not as presentation-worthy.
Once cooked, your lentils are ready for any kind of culinary action you want to throw at them. They can be tossed into both green salads and grain salads, used in sandwich wraps, added to soups and chilis, or even made into veggie burgers. Some nights, I love a simple bowl of warm lentils tossed with good olive oil and vinegar with a poached egg to complete the meal.
What are your favorite ways to use lentils in your cooking?
What You Need
1 cup dried green, brown, or French lentils
2 cups water
1 bay leaf, 1 garlic clove, or other seasonings (optional)
1/4 - 3/4 teaspoon salt
Strainer or colander
Any amount of lentils can be cooked in this manner. Just maintain the 2:1 ratio of water to lentils described below.
1. Wash Lentils: Measure the lentils into a strainer or colander. Pick over and remove any shriveled lentils, debris, or rocks. Thoroughly rinse under running water.
2. Combine Lentils and Water: Transfer the rinsed lentils to a saucepan and pour in the water. Add any seasonings being used, reserving the salt.
4. Cook the Lentils: Bring the water to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer. You should only see a few small bubble and some slight movement in the lentils. Cook, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes. Add water as needed to make sure the lentils are just barely covered.
5. Salt the Lentils: Lentils are cooked as soon as they are tender and no longer crunchy. Older lentils may take longer to cook and shed their outer skins as they cook. Strain the lentils and remove any seasonings. Return the lentils to the pan and stir in 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Taste and add additional salt as needed.
6. Seasoning and Using Cooked Lentils: Cooked lentils will keep refrigerated for about a week. Season them with olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, fresh herbs, and eat them on their own. Lentils can also be added to soups, salads, or other recipes.
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Originally published 5/7/2010
(Image: Emma Christensen)