What Are Lentils? Nutrition and Varieties

Lentils are mini-sized legumes that pack a mighty dose of nutrition! Each serving contains protein, fiber, and minerals. Here’s a guide to the different types of lentils and how they vary in taste, texture, and uses.

Different types of lentils spread on a table

If you’re not already cooking with lentils–listen up! This overlooked legume is incredibly versatile, easy to prepare. They should be a staple food in your pantry. Eating lentils is a hearty decadence that also happens to be healthy at the same time.

I love cooking with lentils because it’s a high-fiber food–though lentils are high in carbohydrates and protein, they also clock in at about 16 grams of fiber per cup of cooked lentils. They’re delicious whole in soups, salads, stews, sauces but also work well when pureed. As if it couldn’t get better, their size means they don’t need to be soaked overnight like other legumes need, eliminating an annoying preparation step.

Bowl of raw brown lentils with a spoon

Nutritional benefits of lentils

Lentils or Lens culinaris, are legumes- plants that contain edible seeds that are surrounded by protective outer skin. They sell at the market with and without the seed coating, as well as whole or split, which impacts texture and cook time. Lentils are an excellent source of protein with the potential to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Now as a staple in many cultures, similar to the benefits of quinoa, lentils are a wonderful nutrient-dense food to add to your diet. Dried lentils are composed of about 8% water, 26% protein, 63% total carbohydrates and 42 to 47% starch. They are loaded with minerals and are an especially good source of magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, and phosphorus.

Their hallmark is that they are high in the essential amino acid called lysine, which other grains are low in content. However they lack another essential amino acid tryptophan, so make sure you obtain sources from meat or other cereal grains.

One serving of lentils, about 1/4 cup dried contains approximately 180 calories, 11 grams of protein, less than 1 gram of fat, 32 grams total carbohydrate, 1 gram of sugar and 19 grams of fiber. For micronutrients; 40 mg calcium, 2.5mg iron, 42 mg magnesium, 105 mg phosphorus, 480  mg potassium and 1.5 mg zinc. (Source: USDA Food Products Database). 

Common types of lentils

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be boring, especially when you have at least 12 varieties of lentils to choose from that vary in taste and texture. The following types are the most commonly used for side dishes, salads, soups, and stews. They’re also most widely available in grocery stores or online retailers (Amazon).

Brown Lentils

Brown Lentils

Brown lentils are the most common and mostly hold their shape while cooking. They have an even-keeled, mild and earthy flavor and creamy texture. They are good as a stand-alone side dish, tossed in salads, adds heartiness to soups and stews and good for pureeing.

  • Cook Time: about 20 to 30 minutes

Red Lentils

Red Lentils

Red lentil colors can range from yellow/gold to bright orange or red. They have a slightly sweeter taste and tend to lose their shape and breakdown to a puree consistency while cooking. For this reason, they’re ideal for soups, Indian dal, or in curries, where these types of lentils have been used as the primary ingredient for centuries. Because they do not have a protective coat, they take a shorter time to cook.

  • Cook Time: about 15 minutes

Green Lentils

Green Lentils
Green lentils are larger and similar to brown lentils. They appear pale greenish-brown, like dried peas, or spotted with brown hues, too. They keep relatively firm and have a mild flavor.

  • Cook Time: about 10 to 20 minutes

Lentilles du Puy

Lentilles du Puy

These small and round lentils have an olive-green and black color with mottling. They have a vibrant and earthy flavor and firm-tender texture. The rounded shape holds up the best in cooking. Lentilles du Puy are similar to green lentils in that they are of the same variety, but these lentils are grown explicitly in France, not North America like their confusingly-named cousin “French Green Lentils” are.

These lentils are grown in the volcanic soils of The Puy district in France and are celebrated for a distinctive peppery flavor and high mineral content, including iron and magnesium. When looking for these lentils, look for the region’s official designation on the package, ensuring authenticity. Their heartiness compliments meat dishes like lamb, duck, and pork, or great as a vegetarian side dish.

  • Cook Time: about 20 to 40 minutes

French Green Lentils

French Green Lentils

Very similar to appearance as Lentilles du Puy, these small dark greenish-black, mottled lentils have a slight peppery flavor. They hold their shape well and have a nice chew, making them great additions to soups, stews or as a side dish. They are an affordable substitution for Lentilles du Puy because they are grown in the United States.

  • Cook time: about 20 minutes

Black Lentils

Black Lentils

Black lentils, or black beluga lentils, are small and glistening. They hold their shape well and take on the look of caviar when cooked. Their soft texture and deep, robust flavor allow it to be used in any recipe calling for lentils, especially when you want some color variation. The hulled version is called white lentils, also found as “urad daal” in supermarkets. They’re common in Indian cooking. Preparing the unhulled variety will result in a more mushy texture.

  • Cook Time: about 25 to 30 minutes

Cooking lentils

Cooking with lentils couldn’t be easier. You’ll want to quickly rinse them under cold water, transfer them to a saucepan with water, bring to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat then reduce to a very low simmer. Cook uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the type of lentil. However, there are additional methods to cook lentils to keep them intact and make them super creamy.

After cooking, the world is your oyster. Try it in a rice pilaf or risotto, curries, soups, casseroles or either cold or hot in a salad, either with greens or as the base for a grain salad. Its earthy flavors and high protein and fiber make lentils a perfect substitute for meat and an ideal pair for most vegetables, especially in dishes that require a lot of seasoning.

Recipes to try

Filed under:

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.

Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

Jessica's Secrets: Cooking Made Easy!
Get my essential cooking techniques that I learned in culinary school.
Jessica Gavin standing in the kitchen

You May Also Like

Reader Interactions

11 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Manu Singh says

    A pressure cooker is a staple in Indian households for cooking lentils. Most skinless lentils, such as masoor (red lentils) can be cooked in as little as 5 minutes. Whole masoor (brown lentils with skin on) take around 20 minutes. A favorite of mine are pigeon peas (yellow lentils)… super yummy.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you so much for your incredible insights Manu! I really want to pressure cook more lentils, and you feedback is so helpful! I’ve been looking for yellow lentils and wasn’t sure if they had a different name. Thank you!

Leave A Reply