During my stint as a vegetarian, my boyfriend (now husband) took me on a date to The Meatball Shop in lower Manhattan. While he relished the many varieties of meatballs, I half-heartedly ordered the lentil balls.
I was skeptical of meat substitutes, but those lentil meatballs ended up being a dish I couldn't stop talking about for months — tender, ridiculously flavorful, and "meaty" yet still quite light. I ordered the lentil meatballs even when I returned to the restaurant after I started eating meat again. That was the moment I realized just how incredible lentils are as a substitute for ground beef.
You don't have to be a vegetarian or vegan to appreciate the wonders of lentils as a beef substitute. They resemble crumbled cooked ground beef in texture, and have a neutral-enough flavor that they can take on an array of seasonings. Beyond that, lentils are ridiculously affordable and a rich source of lean protein, fiber, and a number of other nutrients like iron, potassium, and magnesium.
Even if you eat red meat, knowing how to use lentils in its place opens up a wide world of possibilities in your kitchen. Here's how to do it.
How to Substitute Lentils for Ground Beef
For every one pound of ground beef, you can substitute one cup of dried, uncooked lentils. One cup of dried lentils equals about two to two-and-a-half cups of cooked lentils. The best lentils to use as a beef substitute are brown and green, as they have a milder flavor than red lentils, which means they are more willing to soak up different flavors and adapt to being used as a substitute. Brown and green lentils also hold their shape better when cooked, so they are closer in texture to crumbled cooked ground beef.
1 cup of dried, uncooked lentils = 1 pound of ground beef
Lentils can be used pretty much anywhere you'd use crumbled cooked ground beef. Try them in burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, sloppy Joes, tacos, burritos, marinara sauce (for a quick, meatless Bolognese), shepherd's pie, or stuffed peppers. It's an easy, cheap, and nutritious swap-in regardless of whether you're vegetarian or not.