Real Food Encyclopedia | Lentils

There are some foods that are associated with luck and happiness in the New Year, and fortunately for us, delicious and nutritious lentils are on the list. Theories abound as to why we eat lentils on New Year’s, but the most plausible is that they resemble money (in the form of coins) and thus bring luck and fortune to whoever eats them. But the great thing about lentils is they are extremely versatile, easy to cook with and packed with flavor, so you don’t have to wait for New Year’s to eat them, any day will do just fine.

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Fun Facts about Lentils:

  • Lentil’s genus name, Lens, comes from the legume’s resemblance to optical lenses. 
  • The ancient Roman cookbook “Apicius dedicates an entire chapter to lentils, including recipes for lentils and parsnips (with cumin, coriander and mint) and lentils and chestnuts. 
  • In the Bible, Esau (brother of Jacob), is said to have sold his birthright for a “mess of pottage” i.e., lentil stew. The phrase “mess of pottage” has now become a phrase meaning something seems good in the present but that is ultimately shortsighted. 

What to Look for When Buying Lentils

Look for lentils in the bulk department of your grocery store, or packaged. Lentils should be whole (i.e., not chipped or broken), and free from significant amounts of debris like rocks and dirt (a little bit is normal). 

Lentils come in many different types, varying in size and color. Depending on the variety, lentils when cooked may keep their shape or fall apart into a natural sort of puree. Some of the most readily available are: 

  • Brown lentils: probably the most common, brown lentils are fairly large and hold their shape if cooked for a short period of time, but fall apart if cooked for too long. They’re great for soups, purees and dips.
  • French green (du Puy) lentils: small, green, or in the case of du Puy lentils, speckled green and black. French green lentils hold their shape, even when cooked for a long time. Perfect in soups, braised and in salads. 
  • Black (or Beluga) lentils: tiny lentils, jet-black in color. Black lentils hold their shape very well. Like French greens, they are perfect braised, in soups and in salads.
  • Red lentils: come in several different varieties. You might see red lentils labeled “masoor” in Indian markets. Red lentils tend to be sweeter than green, brown or black lentils, and fall apart when cooked because their hulls have been removed. They’re used in Indian dals (legume-based dishes) and Middle Eastern cuisine and are great pureed or made into dips.

Legumes labeled “yellow lentils” are generally not lentils at all, but rather yellow split peas or chana dal, a variety of split chickpeas.

Sustainability of Lentils

Pesticides and Lentils

Lentil growers employ chemical desiccants (drying agents) to ensure that the plants and the harvested legumes are mature and dry enough for harvest. Herbicides, including glyphosate (aka Roundup) and Reglone are sprayed on the lentil plants to aid in the drying process. Insecticides and other herbicides are also used on conventional lentils to help control pests and weeds. A report from the European Union’s Laboratories for Residues of Pesticides found that even some organically labeled lentils had glyphosate residues above the set Minimal Risk Levels (MRLs); conventionally grown lentils had even higher proportions of glyphosate contamination above the MRLs. If you’re concerned about pesticide residues, look for organically grown lentils.

Environmental Impact of Lentils

The good news about lentils is that they can be grown with limited irrigation, making their water footprint low in many areas. The USDA explains that lentils are also frequently rotated with other cereal crops (like wheat and barley), capitalizing on their nitrogen-fixing properties, which can help to enrich soil without the use of artificial fertilizers. Crop rotation can also help mitigate erosion, reduce disease infestation in cereal crops and help control weeds. 

Lentil Seasonality

Lentils (Lens culinaris) are cool-weather loving, low-growing legumes that produce small pods with one or two lentil seeds per pod. According to the US Dry Pea and Lentil Council, lentil production in the US is focused in Idaho, Oregon, Washington State and the Northern Plains states (Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota).

In the US, lentil harvest begins in August in most lentil producing areas. However, fresh lentils are not sold, and lentils can be dry stored for up to four years — basically, this means that lentils don’t have a season. However, if you’re lucky enough to live near a lentil producing-region, you might find freshly dried lentils in the late fall or early winter.

Eating Lentils

Storing Lentils

Lentils can be stored for many years; however, the older the lentil, the longer they will take to cook (and sometimes they are less flavorful, to boot). Store lentils in a cool, dry place.

Cooking Lentils

No matter the variety, lentils need to be washed and picked through before cooking. First, inspect and pick through the lentils for small stones or large clods of dirt. Then, using a fine-meshed colander, rinse lentils under cool, running water to remove any remaining dust and dirt. Drain well and cook.

Many cultures rely upon lentils for a cheap and delicious source of protein and nutrients, so lucky for us, our options for lentil-based dishes are numerous and varied. Here is David Lebovitz’s ode to lentils du Puy, with a recipe for lentil salad with vinaigrette. Lentil soup is enjoyed from France to Italy to Brazil, where sopa de lentilha is enjoyed for good luck on New Year’s. Lentils can be subbed for dry or canned beans in many recipes. Try replacing lentils for beans in your next batch of chili. The famous lentil-and-rice dish mujaddara, eaten throughout the Middle East, is thought to be the culinary descendant of Esau’s “mess of pottage.”   

Lentils also work well as a meat substitute in dishes like “meat” loaf and burgers. Red lentils make a great curry and are turned into delicious soups in much of the Middle East (check out this Moroccan red lentil soup). You can even bake with lentils: like these chocolate cupcakes with lentils and this recipe for lentil bread. Lentil flour can be baked into crisps and used as a substitute for wheat flour in cookies and other baked goods.

Preserving Lentils

Dried lentils keep for a very long time, so preserving lentils isn’t much of an issue. However, cooked lentils freeze beautifully, so next time you make a batch of lentil soup, cook a little extra to have on hand in the freezer.

Lentil Nutrition

Lentils are really good for you: loaded with fiber and protein, they are also low in calories. The little legumes are also packed with nutrients, including folate, manganese, iron, thiamin, phosphorus and magnesium. Unfortunately, lentils are deficient in several key amino acids (methionine, cystine, and tryptophan) but if paired with rice or nuts, can provide all of the nutrients you need.