Like beans and chickpeas, lentils are categorized as legumes. Legumes are generally packed with fiber, protein, antioxidants, and nutrients, making them a powerful choice for health. Legumes are also fantastic as low-cost ways to increase your protein and fiber intake. This is powerful, given that the cost of living is so high these days.
However, legumes are also controversial. Part of the problem is the presence of antinutrients. These compounds sometimes lead to side effects and may decrease your absorption of nutrients (hence, their name). Lectins are one of the most well-known type of antinutrients and are especially relevant when it comes to lentils.
If you’re looking for health benefits, then the way you prepare your ingredients makes a big difference. It’s often assumed that raw food is healthier, as cooking destroys some nutrients. Yet, things are more complicated than that.
So, can you eat lentils raw or should you cook them instead? The short answer is that no, you can’t eat raw lentils. The lectin content means that raw lectins can make you very sick. Even undercooked lentils may be a problem.
The only exception is sprouted lentils, as the sprouting process decreases some of the lectins. However, you’ll need to be careful if you’re sprouting lentils at home, to ensure you create a safe product.
Can You Eat Lentils Raw?
If we’re talking about regular lentils, then eating them raw is an incredibly bad idea. The risk of side effects is far too high. We’re not just talking about minor side effects either. In rare cases, raw lentils could even lead to death.
Sprouted lentils are a little different, but then again these aren’t truly raw. They’ve been germinated instead – a process that changes many of their properties.
For the moment, let’s talk a little about why raw lentils are so concerning and why you should take them seriously.
Lectins are the big reason to be cautious about raw lentils. These compounds can bind in our digestive tracts, leading to serious side effects, such as diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, and nausea. Sometimes the effects can be mild, while other times they may feel like full blown food poisoning.
These lectins are sensitive to heat. As a result, cooking is enough to destroy many of the harmful compounds and make lentils safe to eat. You can soak lentils beforehand to decrease these compounds still further.
Beyond this, raw lentils are much more difficult to digest than cooked ones. This can lead to a variety of side effects, including stomach cramps and gas.
The side effects aren’t always obvious, either. The compounds in raw lentils may also have subtle long-term negative effects. As such, it’s best to avoid raw lentils entirely, even if you don’t notice any side effects.
Undercooked lentils are somewhere between raw and fully cooked. So, while the lectin content has been decreased, some lectins are still present.
The lectin content is high enough that undercooked lentils could still easily make you sick. They could also have the same long-term negative effects as raw lentils. It’s best to avoid the risk entirely and fully cook your lentils before eating them.
The Exception – Sprouted Lentils
The only safe alternative to cooking your lentils is to sprout them instead. The process helps to break down many of the starches and other compounds in the lentils, making them easier to digest and improving health benefits.
Sprouting also decreases the lectin content of your beans, which is why they become safe to eat raw. The approach is especially relevant for raw food dieters, offering them a valuable source of protein and nutrients they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
However, it’s important to follow instructions carefully and make sure you sprout your lentils for long enough (often a few days). Consuming your lentils too soon or sprouting them in the wrong conditions could put your health at risk.
The basic approach is to soak your lentils in a jar overnight, then rinse and drain them and leave them in a jar where they can begin to sprout. The lentils should have good air circulation so that there’s no risk of mold. The sprouts should be rinsed in water each day and then drained to reduce the risk of fungus.
Your lentils don’t need sunlight to germinate. Keeping them out of the sun might actually be best, as this stops them getting too warm. Regardless of whether they’re in the sun or not, the lentils should start to develop small tails within 24 hours.
To be safe, you should wait two to three days before eating them. Once the lentils have sprouted sufficiently, you can store them in the fridge.
While sprouted lentils are generally safe, they may contain more lectins than cooked ones. As such, they could still cause side effects. The risk is higher if you have a sensitive digestive system. To keep yourself safe, only eat a small amount of sprouted lentils at first, then see if you experience any side effects.
Types Of Lentils
Yellow And Red Lentils
These lentils may be yellow, orange, or red and are a common sight at grocery stores. They’re also sold as split lentils rather than whole lentils. This split nature is why these lentils cook so quickly.
Notably, the lentils become very soft after they’ve been cooked and lose much of their texture. They’re excellent in soups and dal, plus any recipe where creaminess is a bonus. Yellow and red lentils are the fastest type to cook, taking between 15 and 20 minutes to cook fully.
Because the skin has often been removed, these lentils aren’t suitable for sprouting. You’ll need to choose one of the other types if you want to sprout your lentils.
Brown lentils live up to their name, as they have an earthy and nutty flavor. This makes the lentils fantastic in meat substitutes, such as burger patties. The flavor is also relatively mild, which makes the lentils a versatile ingredient.
Unlike red lentils, brown ones keep their shape after cooking. This is perfect for recipes where you want the lentils to still be recognizable in the final meal.
These lentils do take longer to cook. You’re often looking at around 30 minutes and occasionally a little longer.
Green lentils are slightly smaller than brown lentils. They have a similar nutty taste, but also offer a mild pepperiness not found in green lentils.
Plus, while brown lentils will sometimes become mushy, green lentils tend to remain firm and well-defined. The catch is the cooking time, as green lentils can take around 45 minutes to cook. Still, you can decrease the cooking time by soaking the lentils overnight or by using a pressure cooker.
You’ll also see puy lentils. These are one specific type of green lentil that’s grown in France. They have similar features to other green lentils, although they may have a better flavor.
These lentils are much smaller and look a little like caviar. These tiny lentils have a rich earthy flavor, making them a powerful addition to your meals. Try using these lentils on salads. They offer a fantastic flavor and texture contrast, especially as they hold their shape so well.
When cooking, these lentils should typically be boiled for between 35 and 40 minutes, perhaps longer. Still, they’re well worth the wait.
While black lentils are more difficult to find than other types, they can still be found in some grocery stores in the United States. If you have no luck in local stores, try buying the lentils online instead.
How To Cook Lentils
Choose Your Lentils Well
First, consider the type of lentil you want and how it will behave in your recipe. For example, red lentils cook quickly but don’t hold their shape and quickly go mushy. This style works well in some recipes. In others, you may want a bit more texture.
Make sure you know how long the lentil takes to cook as well. After all, the different lentils vary in their cooking time.
If you can, look for fresh lentils. Bulk bins can be helpful here, as there’s a regular turnover of lentils. Or, try to find a specialty store that focuses on fresh products.
Rinse And Sieve Your Lentils
Once you’ve chosen the lentils, you need to rinse and sieve them. The sieving helps to remove any debris that’s in with the lentils. There may even be some pebbles present – so don’t skip this step!
Simmer Your Lentils
Lentils are easy to cook – you just need to simmer them in water on your stovetop. There isn’t even a specific ratio of water to lentils to worry about. As long as there is plenty of water in your pot, you’ll be good.
Lentils cook best at a gentle simmer. This prevents the skin from splitting and ensures you end up with firm rather than mushy lentils. To do this, try bringing your pot to a boil first, then turning down the heat until the water is only just simmering.
You can add aromatics like bay leaves during this simmering process. This is an easy way to make your lentils taste much better.
Cook Them For Long Enough
Undercooked lentils aren’t ideal. They may still make you sick because of the lectin content and don’t taste that great, either.
You’ll need to simmer the lentils until they are tender, but not mushy. The cooking time for each type of lentil is a guide for how long to cook them. However, you’ll often still need to test your lentils by gently biting into one.
Do You Need To Soak Them First?
Some people soak lentils before cooking them, while others skip this step. The soaking is helpful, as it decreases the cooking time and may help with the lectin content.
However, because lentils contain smaller amounts of lectins than beans, soaking isn’t essential. You can easily skip this step if you’re short on time.
Delicious Lentil Recipes
This Lentil Bolognese uses red lentils, walnuts, and crushed tomatoes to mimic the texture of ground beef, while also including plenty of ingredients for flavor. The end result is an entirely plant-based meal that still tastes much like you would expect.
Brown lentils could be used instead of red lentils here to create a richer and more earthy flavor profile. You’d need to adjust the cooking time if doing so, as brown lentils take longer to cook.
These Lentil Burgers are another case where lentils are being used instead of meat. This time, the recipe features either green or brown lentils. These lentils work well, as they provide an earthy flavor while holding their shape (red lentils would simply give you mushy burgers instead).
The recipe also calls for familiar ingredients, like mushrooms, sunflower seeds, garlic, and tomato paste. While the sunflower seeds are an unusual addition, they add an interesting texture to the burgers and make them much more exciting.
Mediterranean Black Lentil Salad
This Mediterranean Black Lentil Salad takes a different approach and would be a fantastic side for any outdoor event. It’s also a very healthy dish, as it relies on black lentils, kale, and almonds as the main ingredients.
Beyond this, there are plenty of other additions for flavor and texture, ones that make the recipe taste even more exciting. The salad also keeps surprisingly well. It even manages to be delicious three days after you first made it.