5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking Lentils

updated May 1, 2019
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If you’re not already cooking lentils all the time, you should be — they’re quick, easy, wholesome, and affordable. While making them is pretty straightforward, there are a few mistakes that can be made along the way that may leave you with a pot of lentils that you’re less than satisfied with. Here’s what to avoid to achieve lentil success.

Two Ways to Cook Lentils

Lentils happen to be just as versatile to cook as they are to cook with. You can pressure-cook them or cook them on the stovetop with equal success. Just be sure to pick the right method depending on the variety of lentil you’re cooking.

1. Buying old lentils.

The first time I cooked lentils, I bought a cheap bag of standard brown ones from the store and simmered them forever — and they never softened up. It’s important to buy the freshest lentils possible. Older lentils take much longer to cook and often shed their skins during cooking.

Follow this tip: Look to bulk bins when buying lentils, as they tend to have higher turnover so they’ll likely be fresher than those in boxes or bags in the shelf. After purchasing, try to use them up within a few months.

2. Forgetting to sift through them before cooking.

It’s possible that there are small pebbles in your bag of lentils. It’s best to be safe and rinse and sift through them before cooking, because no one wants to break a tooth by biting down on a rock.

Follow this tip: Give the lentils a good rinse in a colander to remove any debris and sift through them to be sure there are no hidden stones tucked among the legumes.

3. Not adding any aromatics to the pot.

The beauty of lentils is that they are a completely blank slate — they can take on any flavor you throw at them. That also means if you don’t give them any flavor, well, they will taste pretty bland. Add aromatics to the water or, even better, use chicken or vegetable stock instead of water.

Follow this tip: Add a few cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, a spring of rosemary, half of an onion, or a combination of these aromatics to the cooking water or stock to help flavor the lentils.

4. Cooking them at too rapid of a simmer.

Mushy, overcooked lentils are far from tasty. Cooking them at a rapid simmer can lead to them splitting their skins from the pressure and thus lead to mushy results.

Follow this tip: Trust that a gentle simmer will cook the lentils perfectly. Bring the pot to a rapid simmer first, then reduce the heat to low so that the pot just barely bubbles. If you’re making your lentils in a pressure cooker, know which varieties work.

5. Salting or adding acidic ingredients to the pot too early.

On the other hand, undercooked, crunchy lentils really aren’t ideal either. Salting the cooking liquid or adding an acidic ingredient like lemon or vinegar too early in the cooking process can prevent the legumes from reaching their peak tenderness.

Follow this tip: Wait until the lentils are done cooking to add salt or acidic ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar. Stir them into the lentils while still warm and they’ll absorb the flavor perfectly.