Since ancient times, lentils have enjoyed popularity in places like Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Turkey. The unassuming bean even played a starring role in the Old Testament, when Esau gave up his birthright for a dish of pottage made of the beans. Despite their tiny size, lentils pack a powerful nutritional punch! High in protein, fiber, and iron, but low in cholesterol, calories, and fat, they make a great snack, accompaniment, or main course. And unlike other beans, there is no need for soaking and they cook quickly.
Red lentils in particular do not hold their shape and are useful as thickeners for purees or soups. The red lentil comes in two varieties, unhulled (skins on), known as the brown masoor, and hulled (skins removed), known as the masoor dal. Both the hulled and unhulled varieties are used in Mediterranean cuisine, but more traditionally, in Indian cuisine.
Unhulled red lentils are brown with a red tint. They measure about 1/8 inch in size. Hulled red lentils are a reddish-orange color and measure about 1/16 inch in size.
Red lentils have a distinctly sweet, nutty taste. When cooked, their texture is smooth and tender.
Red lentils can be purchased dried and canned from specialty stores, natural food markets, or online.
Dried in bulk: When buying bulk dried red lentils, inquire with the store regarding their turnover of the product and certainty that the bins are sealed and free of moisture to ensure maximum freshness. Look for whole beans that are not broken or shriveled, and purchase only as much as you will use in a month.
Dried pre-packaged: Seek packaged dried beans in tightly sealed, moisture-free packages. Avoid any shriveled or broken beans, and check the package for tiny pinholes in the beans, as this is an indication of bug infestation.
Canned: Canned red lentils are available at most grocery and natural food stores and are ideal for convenience. Canned beans do not lose their nutritional value and remain an easy and nutritious choice. Read the labels to avoid extra additives, which are unnecessary and unhealthy. Be especially wary of canned beans with added salt and other preservatives.
Organic foods are those produced without the use of artificial chemicals or fertilizers, genetic modification, radiation, or sewage sludge. Buying organic foods minimizes exposure to harmful pesticides, which are toxic in nature and have been linked to a myriad of health problems including cancer, hormone disruption, brain toxicity, and eye, skin, and lung irritation. Pesticides are also thought to harm the environment through contact with the soil, water, and wildlife.
Due to their small stature, bean plants easily fall prey to insects and pests. Farmers use pesticides to ward off these unwanted visitors. Organic farmers, however, employ a process known as rotation, in which they rotate their crops each year and move them to areas where they are not subject to fungal and insect infestation.
Yoffie Life stresses that consuming conventionally grown beans, when the organic version is unavailable or financially impossible, is far better than eating none at all.
Dried red lentils are unique in that they have an indefinite shelf life. Packaged dried lentils should be stored in an airtight container in a dark, dry, cool location. But even when stored in perfect conditions, as they age, the beans must be cooked longer.
Once red lentils are cooked, they can be kept in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. To ensure maximum taste and avoid dehydration, immerse the cooked beans in cooking water, then drain. To extend the life of cooked lentils, freeze them in tightly sealed freezer bags for 4 to 6 months.
Lentils do not need to be pre-soaked before cooking, but if you wish to reduce cooking time, soak for 1 to 2 hours. Always rinse beans prior to cooking. After soaking or rinsing, discard water, drain lentils, and sift through the beans by placing them on a flat surface, removing any tiny stones or foreign materials.
To cook the lentils, place beans in a large pot, with 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of beans. Bring the water to a boil; reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until tender. Red lentils should simmer for 30 to 45 minutes or until desired firmness. If desired, add salt near the end of the cooking time as a digestive aid. Red lentils do not retain their shape, and are best for dishes where their soft, mushy texture is best appreciated. Once cooked to their desired consistency, drain the water.
Red lentils are relatively easy to digest, largely due to their small size and soft texture. Soaking beans, especially for several days in water that is frequently changed, can make them even easier to digest. Certain additives at the end of the cooking process will make beans less likely to cause gastrointestinal distress. Salt, when added near the end of the cooking time, can be a digestive aid. Cumin or fennel added near the completion of cooking can help prevent gas and bloating. Brown rice, apple cider, or white wine vinegars are all useful additives to help to break down indigestible compounds. Adding kelp or kombu seaweed to the water while cooking the beans also helps with digestion.
Lentils are unique in their shape, size, and cooking time. As their flavor is relatively mild, however, they can be substituted. Red lentils are best replaced with other lentils that don’t retain their shape, such as orange lentils. If other lentils are not available, split peas are most similar in shape, size, and cooking time, though they are somewhat sweeter than lentils. Black-eyed peas are another small bean that can be substituted when necessary.
A non-digestible carbohydrate, fiber provides a feeling of fullness, aids digestive support, helps provide the movement and excretion of bodily wastes, and aids blood-sugar stability.
Composed of amino acids (building blocks of protein), this essential nutrient aids in the healing of wounds and the growth of hair, skin, and nails; provides a substantial amount of energy and satiation; catalyzes metabolic reactions; and promotes a healthy hormonal and immune system response.
Iron is an essential trace mineral that transports oxygen in red blood cells from the lungs to the rest of the body, aiding energy and endurance.
Provides structural support to DNA and RNA, works with calcium in the formation of tooth enamel and bone, helps to filter wastes out of the kidneys, and regulates energy. Phosphorus also plays an integral role in cardiovascular health and repairing cells and tissues throughout the body.
The majority of the manganese in the body is stored in the bones and organ tissue, mainly the liver and kidneys. Manganese is responsible for production and maintenance of sex hormones, blood-sugar regulation, brain and nerve function, calcium regulation and absorption, and carbohydrate metabolism.
B9 (Folate or Folic Acid)
An important nutrient necessary for normal cell division during pregnancy and infancy, folic acid (vitamin B9) plays a powerful role in the developing infant. For adults, vitamin B9 is also essential for proper metabolism, aiding in energy and the production of red blood cells.
Lentils are an extremely nutritional food, considered one of the most nutritional foods you can eat. They have the most protein of nearly any legume, second only to soybeans. They are also high in iron and fiber. All these factors in tandem make them valuable for heart health, cholesterol levels, digestion, and dieting.
- Lentils were eaten as many as 13,000 years ago.
- In Italy, eating lentils on New Year’s Day is thought to be good luck.
- Lentils have a part in Grimm’s Cinderella, determining if Cinderella will go to the ball.