If you are looking for healthy but affordable food options or great tasting food that is sustainably grown, or just something new to add to your meal repertoire, you might want to consider the small yet mighty lentil. They are an incredibly versatile, nutrient rich food.
I couldn’t believe it when I learned that lentils have such a bad rap. When raving about them recently with friends I got a lot of luke warm feedback: “oh that hippie health food”, “you mean that pasty & bland bean” and “lentils …that’s the hard bean in soup that no one likes right?” As someone who enjoys cooking delicious meals and who often cooks with lentils I just could not believe what I was hearing. I would like to suggest that you forget all of these notions and give them another try. Regardless of whether you are a gourmet cook, on a tight budget, or looking for healthy everyday family friendly meals, lentils can really be a star in your pantry. You just need to know what to do with them!
In my own kitchen we grow and raise a lot of the food we eat. The meals we cook are delicious, hearty and loaded with nutrients. These meals are often really cheap as well because we cook with local, seasonal ingredients or those that we have preserved in our pantry. Lentils are an important staple for us. They provide a really inexpensive & easy to store protein. As for being versatile, it doesn’t get much better than lentils. You can prepare them for: breakfast, lunch, dinner, breads and dessert.
Quick facts about lentils
- Dry lentils do not need to be soaked prior to cooking them.
- Lentils take about 20 minutes to cook.
- Lentils are very high in protein.
- Lentils are packed with nutrients including: Protein, fiber, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc.
- Lentils are a slow burning energy so you stay full for a lot longer.
- Lentils are gluten free. They can be ground into flour as a gluten free flour substitute.
- You can sprout Lentils for fresh greens on your plate in the winter.
- Canada is the worlds largest exporter of lentils.
- Lentils can help with blood sugar control and can aide in weight loss.
- Lentils are a beneficial tool when dealing with high cholesterol, blood pressure and heart disease.
What are lentils?
Lentils are part of the pulse family: along with dried chickpeas, dried beans and dried peas. A pulse refers to the dry edible seed harvested from the pod of these plants. Lentils are relatively tolerant to drought and are grown throughout the world. They are extremely low in fat, rich in fibre and protein and have high levels of minerals including: iron, zinc, phosphorous, folate and other B-vitamins.
Pulses come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours and can be consumed in many ways including: whole, split, ground in to flour or even separated into fractions such as protein, fibre and starch. They are tremendously versatile.
Sustainable agriculture and lentils
According to Pulses Canada, peas, lentils, beans and chickpeas can contribute to a more sustainable food system. They use half the non renewable energy inputs of other crops. Pulses are able biologically fix nitrogen from the atmosphere so they do not require nitrogen soil amendments and they are classed as nitrogen fixers so they can also be used as a cover crop to strengthen the quality of your soil.
Types of Lentils
Lentils are generally divided into two groups: macrosperma (large seeds) and microsperma (small seeds). The macrosperma group are mainly grown in Europe, North Africa, Canada & America. The microsperma group are mainly grown in Asia, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Both types are commonly grown in western Asia and south eastern Europe.
There are many types of lentils that fall within these two groups. Each variety offers unique colours, flavours and textures. In Canada there are over thirty five registered varieties but the most common variety is the green lentil. Canadian green lentils are divided into three classes: large green (Laird), medium green (Richlea), and small green (Eston).
Other varieties include: Beluga, Brown/Spanish pardina, French green, Split Red, Yellow/tan lentils, Red Chief, Masoor, Petite crimson/red, Macachiados (Mexican yellow lentils) but there are many others as well. If you have access to a bulk food store consider picking up a few varieties and experimenting. Often the label on the bin will provide some cooking guidance. Red lentils are the softest/mushiest texture and I like to use them in stews and curry dishes while green & brown lentils tend to cook more evenly and hold their shape better. We tend to use brown and green lentils most often. They work well in just about any recipe that calls for lentils.
How to Cook with lentils
Lentils are a really versatile ingredient. There are many breakfast, lunch, dinner and even sweet dessert recipes that make great use of them. Lentils can be added to soups and stews, they can become the protein component of many other dishes and you can even make waffles and smoothies.
- Rinse the lentils well with cold water before using them. Sift through them with your hand looking for any odd pieces.
- The rule of thumb is that you need three cups of liquid for every cup of lentils. I usually treat lentils more like pasta, cooking them in plenty of water. If they are done before all of the liquid is gone just drain it off.
- Do not salt your water! Salted water causes lentils to cook inconsistently. For perfect results wait until they have cooked then sprinkle in some salt and give the pot a quick stir.
- I decided to test the salt theory I prepared lentils in an identical manner salting one pot and not the other. The salted lentils took longer to cook and the results were inconsistent. Some of the lentils remained hard. The unsalted lentils were consistent in texture and were cooked slightly faster.
- Bring the pot of water to a boil, add your lentils, bring to a boil and then reduce to a low simmer until cooked (about 20 minutes).
- For soups and stews you can add the rinsed lentils directly to the pot but for consistent results I pre-cook my lentils and then add them to whatever dish I am making.
- Lentils absorb flavours really well and are not very tasty without seasoning. If you are making up your own recipe take steps to impart some flavour through the use of: butter, spices, vinaigrettes, soup/stew broths and always a bit of salt (once they are cooked!) A bit of salt changes the entire flavour!
Here is a quick video on cooking with dry lentils
Sprouted lentils for fresh greens
Raw sprouted lentils are even healthier for you than their cooked counterparts. This is because phytic acid hinders our ability to absorb certain minerals in lentils. When we sprout them the amount of Phytic acid present in lentils is reduced. This enables our bodies to absorb even more of the nutrients. Sprouting also triggers beneficial enzymatic activity. As a result sprouted seeds have more Vitamin C, and B vitamins thiamine, niacin and riboflavin compared to cooked lentils. By sprouting the seeds in your own kitchen you have access to cheap, fresh nutrient packed greens throughout the winter.
You don’t really need anything special to sprout lentils. Sprouting trays do make the job a little more convenient, they are inexpensive and are readily available on-line. You can make your own sprouting jar using a glass jar, rubber band and any sort of pliable mesh screen (such as bug screen).
- Measure your dry lentils. You need about 2tbsp of dry lentils per sprouting tray or jar.
- Place the lentils in a fine mesh sieve (something with small enough mesh that they wont fall through) . Rinse the lentils well with cold water and place the lentils in a bowl or wide mouth jar. Cover the lentils with cold water and let them soak for four hours. This will re-hydrate them.
- Drain the water and place your lentils in the sprouting tray or a mason jar. If using a mason jar you need to let it rest on it’s side so that the seeds are not “steeping in moisture”. (I made this mistake ones and they get slimy and smelly after a few days – yuck). You
- Drain and rinse the lentils twice per day. Continue doing this until the sprouts have teeny green leaves forming on the ends. It takes about three to five days.
- Once the lentils have sprouted remove them from the sprouting tray or jar and eat them or place them in a clean dry mason jar with a folded piece of paper towel on one side to absorb excess moisture and refrigerate them. They can keep for three to five days this way but are best when eaten quickly.
We keep a rotation of trays going over the winter so that there is always a bit of freshness on our plate. We also give some to our chickens as a treat.
Gas and bloating
Some people do get gas and uncomfortable bloating when they eat lentils. If you happen to have this problem try soaking your lentils first and rinse them really well. Be sure to NEVER use the water you soak them in for cooking. You can also try taking a food enzyme dietary supplement prior to eating. For quick relief try a few teaspoons of raw apple cider vinegar or a hot cup of peppermint or chamomile tea.
How to purchase and store lentils
Bulk food stores tend to have the best pricing and variety for lentils. I have found quite a large selection at the Bulk Barn. You can store your lentils in airtight jars (like mason jars) in a cool dark location such as your pantry where they will keep for a year or longer. Some lentil enthusiasts state that when stored properly lentils can last indefinitely.
Lentils, livestock & pets
Lentils are quite high protein and low in digestive inhibitors. They can be used to supplement livestock feed and they can be used to supplement the feed of your backyard poultry as well. We tend to sprout some lentils for the chickens over the winter months. Cooked & sprouted lentils can also be given to your canine friends as part of a balanced diet. Just be sure to keep an eye on them to make sure they are not having issues with digestion. Some dogs, like humans, can have trouble digesting them.