Lentils: Different Colors, Different Uses

by Elizabeth Skipper | October 1st, 2014 | Ask the Chef
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chana-166987_1280I almost always use red lentils when cooking, making lentil cakes or lentil loaf. I don’t do a lot of cooking with lentils, so I was wondering if there a difference besides color in the different varieties of lentils. I may need to expand my lentil cooking, depending on your response.

Just as all tomatoes have different characteristics, so do the members of the legume family – beans, peas, and lentils. So there are definitely differences other than color among the various kinds of lentils. I was amused to go back through some of my more “crunchy” cookbooks from the 70’s and 80’s to see, first, information about the different kinds of lentils, and then, recipes which simply called for “lentils,” as if they’re interchangeable. They’re not.

While lentils are used in European cuisines (they’re traditionally eaten with sausages on New Year’s Day in Italy because their resemblance to coins will ensure prosperity in the coming year), the true aficionados of these pulses are Middle Easterners and Indians. Especially in India, where so many people are vegetarian and get much of their protein from these foods, the differences among the pulses are celebrated and part of every cook’s repertoire. Not being as conversant as people who eat them almost daily, I’ll avoid trying to parse out the subtleties of the many ways Indian cooks use lentils and divide them up as follows. Approximate cooking times follow.

Green lentils – actually a kind of brownish olive-green – cook for roughly the same amount of time as brown ones, although they can be cooked longer because they keep their shape well. This makes them a natural for warm or cold salads, side dishes, and casseroles. The best ones come from Le Puy, a region in France. They may be sold as French Green lentils, Puy Lentils, or Lentilles du Puy; they’re all the same.

Brown lentils, the kind I grew up with and the most commonly found ones in supermarkets, hold their shape well, too, and are good for the same dishes as green lentils. Mild, they’re best paired with more flavorful ingredients such as garlic, sausage, and peppery spices. (I tried a recipe for lentils and ground beef from a Mennonite cookbook which focused on economical, nutrient-dense dishes from around the world. Cheap and nutritious it may have been; it was also boring. I count my blessings to have options.) They’re good stand-ins for meat in vegetarian dishes.

Red split lentils, which you’re already familiar with, take much less time to cook, quickly disintegrate into a purée (the skins are removed), and turn a disappointing shade of yellow if you’re not expecting it. Yellow and orange lentils are similar to the red ones. All are perfect for the uses you mention, as well as soups, curries, and dahls, seasoned purées which are endless in variation.

A fairly new one to me, and which I haven’t yet cooked with because it’s the priciest of the lot, is tiny compared to other varieties and a pretty shiny black. It’s called a beluga lentil for its supposed resemblance to caviar. It holds its shape and texture when cooked.

Estimated cooking times for the different kinds are 35-45 minutes for green and brown lentils, 20-25 minutes for Puy lentils, and 15-20 minutes for red/yellow/orange lentils.

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