Most Valuable Ingredient: Lentils

They’re not glamorous, but they are delicious, nutritious, fast-cooking and inexpensive. What more do you need?
LentilsMost Valuable Ingredient

The Stats
  • Lentils are small, but they pack a huge nutritional punch: They’re among the best plant sources of iron; a very good source of filling, cholesterol-lowering fiber; and a good source of protein. They also offer good to excellent amounts of two B-vitamins and six key minerals.
  • Prices range from under a dollar up to $10 a pound, with brown being the least expensive and French green costing the most.
  • One pound dried yields from five to seven cups of cooked lentils, so even the pricier varieties are still a bargain.
  • A full pound of dried lentils has only 29 PointsPlus™ values and yields 10-14 1/2-cup servings, so the cost per PointsPlus value ranges from just pennies to $.33 — a price that’s hard to beat for such enormous nutritional benefits. (A 1/2-cup serving of cooked lentils is just 2 PointsPlus values.)
The Score
Though lentils come in a rainbow of colors, the easiest to find are brown (sometimes labeled green — they’re khaki colored, really), French green (also known as Lentils du Puy, they’re the most elegant — and the most expensive), red (more of a salmon shade, they turn golden when cooked), and black (sometimes called Beluga, since they resemble caviar).
When buying lentils, make sure they’re a uniform color, firm, smooth, and dry. If you’re buying in bulk — often the cheapest option — make sure the lids are covered and that the store has a bustling turnover. Lentils don’t go bad, but older ones take longer to cook. For this reason, don’t mix newly purchased lentils with those you already have — their cooking times may be different.
Store dried lentils in a cool, dry place. Like age, exposure to heat and humidity makes them harder to cook. Keep cooked lentils in the refrigerator for up to five days.
In Play
  • Before you start cooking, spread the lentils out on a light-color surface and remove any pebbles, debris, or damaged lentils. Put into a colander and rinse under cold water
  • Unlike most dried beans, lentils require no pre-soaking, and they cook quickly — if you put on a pot when you come home from work, dinner should be ready in under an hour. Cooking time will depend on your planned use, as well as the age of the lentils themselves — for most varieties, it could be as little as 20 minutes. To use in salads, where you’ll want them to retain their shape, start testing at the 18-minute mark and drain as soon as they’re tender — they’ll turn to mush if left in the hot liquid. For soups and stews, cook them 10 minutes longer, and for purees longer still. Red lentils, which have been hulled, are a faster-cooking variety; they’re done in as little as 6 to 12 minutes. Don’t expect to use them in salads, though: Red lentils turn creamy quickly, and are best reserved for purees and soups.
  • Because acid slows lentils’ absorption of liquid, add tomatoes, wine, and other acidic ingredients towards the end of cooking time, or simply plan for cooking to take longer.
Here are some simple — but remarkably tasty — ways to use this versatile ingredient:

  • Toss cooked lentils with whatever vegetables you have on hand, diced — carrots, red or yellow peppers, and tomatoes are a great mix — and add a bit of crumbled goat or feta cheese and your favorite vinaigrette. Even better if you’ve got some fresh herbs, too! Serve warm or cold.
  • Make a quick soup: sauté one diced onion and one sliced carrot in two teaspoons of olive oil. Add four cups chicken or vegetable broth, one cup brown lentils, half a teaspoon of dried thyme, a bay leaf, and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 45 minutes. Remove bay leaf and add salt to taste. Recipes:

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