What to Do with the Bag of Lentils You Panic Bought
Grocery shopping used to be a kind of safe haven for me. I got the same feeling touring the aisles of the supermarkets around my neighborhood as I do looking through different colors of paint or crochet patterns: possibility. Now, on my rare grocery shopping runs, I feel mostly anxiety, and the need to get in and out as soon as I can with as much of my list as possible. Sometimes that leads to off-list panic purchases, like six Meyer lemons and a bag of white chocolate chips. One item I’m always using and accumulating is lentils. Like my beloved beans, lentils are a great source of vegetarian protein, and a blank canvas for many flavors. But maybe you have a big sack of lentils in your pantry staring you down and no idea how to use them. Never fear. There are a lot of great, easy lentil recipes that can be made with what you likely have on hand.
First, Assess What Lentils You Have
Lentils come in many varieties, but for cooking purposes, I’ve found it’s most helpful to separate them into two categories. The first category is lentils that tend to turn into a pleasing mush when cooked, making them wonderful for soups, stews, and side dishes. Red lentils fall into this category. There's also an entire genre of hulled, split legumes that also collapse when cooked, like split yellow or green peas and yellow-colored split, hulled pulses like toor dal (split pigeon peas), moong dal (split mung beans), and chana dal (split chickpeas).
The second category of lentil are the varieties that hold on to their shape a little better when cooked, so they’re ideal for salads, or for veggie burgers. This category includes black lentils (such as caviar lentils or lentils du Puy), brown lentils, and green lentils.
Pick Through Them
Sometimes tiny rocks and other undesirable detritus are hiding in bags of lentils. It’s good practice to empty out your bag into a colander, run your hand through to look for any non-lentil objects, and give them a quick wash.
Give Them a Simmer
Like beans, the simplest way to cook lentils is to simmer them in water until they’re tender. The amount will vary based on how many lentils you’re using and what kind, but a good rule of thumb is to use one part lentils to three parts water. Lentils are smaller than beans, so they don’t take as long to cook, but you can shorten that further in the Instant Pot, if you’d like. (Here’s a handy cooking chart for that.) You can also add salt, aromatics like a halved onion, herbs, and spices to the pot before the lentils and the water, like beans, or wait until they’re done cooking to flavor them. Green lentils also hold their shape well, but they take the longest to cook, about 45 minutes to an hour, as opposed to the 20 to 40 it takes to cook the lentils and pulses in the "mushy" category.
Once cooked, you can store lentils (and other lentil-like legumes) in the fridge for up to a week, or in an airtight container in the freezer for three months. You'll want to drain the firmer lentils, but don't bother trying to do that with the mushier varietals—it'll be impossible to separate them from the cooking liquid once they've broken down.
Dal in Every Color
One of the easiest and most delicious things to do with lentils and other "mushy category" split hulled pulses is make dal, an endlessly adaptable Indian dish. You can make dal with any lentil you have on hand. Red lentils or yellow-colored split hulled pulses are great for dal, since they break down into a nice stewed consistency. The easiest thing to do is simmer the lentils or pulses separately until cooked into a not-too-thick mush with three cups of water to one cup of lentils and a dash of turmeric, and, in a separate small skillet, heat up some fat, like oil, ghee, or butter. When the fat is hot, use it to briefly saute whole spices, like coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds until they’re very fragrant, then add any minced ginger, garlic, and chopped onion you'd like to add and stir for a minute or two before pouring the hot oil into the pot of cooked dal and seasoning to taste.
This tempering technique goes under many different names and is used widely in the cuisines of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, under a variety of names, and it’s a brilliant one—the heated fat enlivens the spices and aromatics, and adds a nice bit of richness to the lentils. I’ve even used it with less traditional seasonings, like oregano and rosemary, and it’s also worked wonderfully. Use what you have and serve the dal with rice or a nice bit of flatbread.
Lentils are fabulous in soup of all kinds—they add heft and toothsomeness to whatever bowl you’ve got going. Lentil soups are also great for cooking in big batches and freeze really well, a bonus if you’re conserving your cooking strength for big bursts. If you’re not sure where to start, try this lentil and chickpea soup that uses mostly pantry staples, and sub in whatever you have. Another great mostly pantry option is this lentil and linguine soup, which cooks the noodles in the same pot as the lentils for a lovely, starch-rich broth.
The firmer lentils, like French green or black lentils, are nice to add to grain bowls and salads once cooked and cooled. Try these lentils with red wine and herbs, or this lentil salad with pecans, spinach, and cheddar. If you have a few root vegetables hanging out in your fridge, those are also great with lentils, like in this lentil salad with roast beets and carrots. Lentils are particularly nice with cheese, as in this goat cheese, potato, and lentil salad, too.
If you have lentils, spices, rice, and some kind of onion, you have the makings of mujadara, a delicious Middle Eastern dish. The formula is basically lentils and rice, cooked down and topped with caramelized onions. You can garnish it with herbs, if you have them, or lemon juice and a dollop of yogurt. Trade in farro, bulgur, quinoa, or any other grain for the rice. If you have split mung beans instead of lentils, you can also make kitchari, a delicious, stewed mixture of basmati rice and yellow split mung beans.
Now, more than ever, is the time to experiment. Add lentils to a quesadilla, or plop them in a chili. Why not? The worst that’ll happen is a little extra fiber.