You can cook lentils in a variety of different ways. Dried lentils can be cooked in the microwave for example and tinned lentils can be cooked in an Instant Pot. You can find out more below.
Lentils are found in dishes around the world but are especially prevalent in Indian, Mediterranean (especially France, Spain, and Italy), Middle Eastern, and African cooking. They come in red, yellow, green, brown, and black, and there are various types. For example, puy lentils (which are popular in France) are green. Beluga lentils, so named because their shape resembles Beluga caviar, are black.
Green and brown lentils are commonly found in soups or mashed into burgers. Red lentils and yellow split lentils are also found in soups, as well as dhals and other Indian dishes. Puy lentils make a regular appearance in French dishes as a side dish or in warm salads. While red lentils form the base of misir wat, a famous Ethiopian lentil stew. The recipe you choose to cook will dictate which lentils to use, whether they can be made with dried or pre-cooked lentils, and if you can substitute one for the other.
In terms of flavour, green lentils have a slightly peppery and nutty taste, black lentils have a 'meatier' flavour, and brown lentils a subtle earthy flavour. Red and yellow lentils are milder and sweeter.
How long lentils take to cook depends on the type and whether they are dried or pre-cooked. If you've opted for pre-cooked lentils you simply need to reheat them before eating. Dried lentils take longer – please see our advice below...
Are lentils healthy?
Although the nutrient content varies slightly depending on the type of lentils, overall they are low in fat and an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and protein. This makes them a good plant-based alternative to meat. They contain fiber and resistant starch (which acts like fiber) and phytochemicals, which are thought to protect against heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Lentils also contain calcium, iron, and B vitamins and are rich in minerals magnesium, copper, phosphorous, manganese, and zinc.
What's more, an 80g portion of lentils counts as one of your five-a-day (but only one).
According to Michael Greger, M.D. of NutritionFacts.org (opens in new tab), the nutritional difference between tinned and dried lentils is minimal. What he does warn against is the salt content in some pre-cooked food. Try to buy pre-cooked lentils with no salt. If you have bought lentils with added salt rinse them – although this can remove some of the nutrients.
How to prepare lentils
Lentils are easy to prepare, though dried lentils take more time. Here, we explain what needs to be done to prepare lentils both dried and tinned...
How to prepare dried lentils
Dried lentils are cheaper than cooked ones and a little goes a long way compared to their pre-cooked counterparts. This makes dried lentils the more affordable option. They are more time-consuming, however, as they need rinsing in cold water before cooking (it's important not to skip this step), then boiling for at least 15 minutes depending on the colour.
Some people prefer to soak lentils before cooking. This is not essential but it can make them easier to digest. Soaking also cuts down the cooking time. If you choose to soak dried lentils, give them 2-4 hours. If you're making a dish that needs a fair amount of cooking, such as dhal, stew, or soups, opt for dried lentils. If you only have pre-cooked ones to hand, you may need to reduce the cooking time.
How to prepare tinned lentils
Unless you have bought a jar or tin of lentils that contain added salt you won't need to rinse them. Simply use a colander to drain any liquid away. If the tin doesn't contain salt you can use this liquid in cooking.
Packet lentils can be added straight to a pan or put in the microwave to be reheated.
How to cook lentils
Here we have broken down the different ways you can cook lentils both dried and tinned...
How to cook dried lentils
How to boil dried lentils
Boiling is by far the most common way to cook dried lentils. When boiling, green lentils take the longest to cook – around 30-45 minutes or more. Even after cooking green lentils remain firm or 'al dente' which adds certain robustness to dishes.
Black lentils take around 15-25 minutes to cook and brown lentils around 20-30 minutes. They also hold their shape well – unlike dried red and yellow lentils, which go soft and mushy in around 20-30 minutes, making them ideal for soups, stews, and for thickening dishes.
These are just guidelines, however – some lentils will take more or less time depending on the brand, so refer to the packet instructions.
- To cook, a good rule to follow is three parts water to one part lentils, although some packet instructions may tell you otherwise.
- Add the rinsed lentils to boiling water.
- Bring them back to the boil then reduce to a gentle simmer and cook as per the packet instructions. The longer you cook the lentils the softer they will be.
How to cook dried lentils in the oven
Some recipes ask you to braise lentils, which means cooking them in liquid (usually stock) in the oven. The stock helps to cook the lentils and stops them from drying out. Braising lentils in the oven calls for slow cooking at a low temperature.
How to microwave dried lentils
You can microwave dried lentils. Rinse as usual then put the lentils in a microwave-safe container and cover with water (usually three parts water to one part lentils) then loosely cover with a lid. Microwave on high for 10-14 minutes, stirring half-way through.
How to cook dried lentils in an Instant Pot
Cooking lentils in an Instant Pot is quick and easy. Add the rinsed lentils and water to the pot (usually three parts water to one part lentils), stir, seal and cook on high pressure – red lentils take around 5 minutes after the pot is at pressure. Brown, black, and green take a little longer – around 9 minutes. Use quick release to open the pot.
How to cook dried lentils in a slow cooker
As the name suggests, cooking lentils in a slow cooker takes longer, but this is useful if you're going out or you're busy and you want to get ahead. Rinse the lentils, add three parts water to one part lentils and cook on low for 6-8 hours. A lentil stew or soup in a slow cooker will take 6-10 hours (depending on the recipe) on low.
How to cook tinned lentils
Pre-cooked lentils come in tins, jars, packets, and cartons. They are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat so treat these the same. Eat pre-cooked lentils cold or simply warm through. They are ideal for salads such as this lentil and beetroot salad (opens in new tab) and quick meals such as Buddha bowls and midweek fish or meat dishes.
How to boil tinned lentils
There is no need to boil tinned lentils – they are already cooked. You can still add them to quick soups or stews where it doesn't matter if the lentils go a little mushy. To heat through simply pan-fry with a couple of tablespoons of water so the lentils don't stick.
How to cook tinned lentils in the oven
Use dried lentils to braise lentils in the oven. This method allows for slow cooking at a low heat and tinned lentils are already cooked so could go mushy.
How to microwave tinned lentils
Microwave according to the brand's instructions. Packet lentils take around 45-60 seconds. Decant tinned and jar lentils into a microwave-safe container.
How to cook tinned lentils in an Instant Pot
There's no law against using tinned lentils in an Instant Pot, although they are more likely to go mushy and disintegrate. This is because they are pre-cooked, unlike dried lentils.
How to cook tinned lentils in a slow cooker
It's preferable to use dried lentils in a slow cooker as tinned lentils are pre-cooked and will go mushy. This won't matter, however, if you want them mushy because you're blending the contents for soup, for example.
How do you know when lentils are done?
You will know when lentils are ready to eat when they are tender. Although cooked green lentils retain a certain 'bite' they shouldn't be crunchy. Red and yellow lentils soften quickly and go mushy, so they are good in soups, dhals, and to thicken sauces or stews.
How to store lentils
Store lentils in an airtight container, in a cool dark place such as a cupboard. If you have opened a packet of dried lentils, keep the rest in a sealed jar. Stored properly, they will last for up to a year.
The sell-by date of pre-cooked lentils tells you how long to store them. Unopened, they last from a few months to a year.
Stored opened pre-cooked lentils in the fridge for up to three days. Eat them within this time.
Store cooked lentils in the fridge for up to five days. If you freeze lentils eat within six months. Thaw at room temperature and reheat until hot. You may need to add a little water before cooking to loosen.
Tips for cooking lentils
- Old or out-of-date lentils will take forever to cook. Avoid.
- Never eat raw lentils.
- It's not essential to soak lentils but if you don't forget it will speed up the cooking time.
- Lentils are a blank canvas so add herbs or spices during cooking to infuse them with flavour.
- Cook lentils on a gentle simmer rather than a rolling boil.
- Salt or an acid such as lemon or vinegar can toughen lentils. Cook the lentils then add.
Easy lentil recipes
Jo Wicks' lentil Bolognese
YouTube's favourite personal trainer Joe Wicks has created this cost-saving veggie twist on a family favourite. The lentils in this dish help to bulk it up making it the perfect filling dinner.
Get the recipe: Joe Wicks' lentil Bolognese (opens in new tab)
Dhals are a thick spicy vegetarian Indian dish packed full of lentils and an excellent source of cheap vegetable protein. Eat with chapatis or rice.
Get the recipe: Dhal
Spiced lentil and kale soup
A weekday savior, this spiced lentil and kale soup add a deliciously spicy kick to lunch or a simple dinner. Heaps of kale make this dish extra nutritional and the lentils bulk it up too.
Get the recipe: Spiced lentil and kale soup (opens in new tab)
This pie contains sweet roasted veggies and nutty lentils. It's a delicious way to pack in plenty of your five-a-day.
Get the recipe: Vegetarian pie (opens in new tab)
Baked salmon with pancetta and lentils
A zingy sherry vinegar dressing and tasty lardons of pancetta liven up the lentils. If you're short of time you can use packet lentils, which take moments to heat through.
Get the recipe: Baked salmon with pancetta and lentils (opens in new tab)
Debra Waters is an experienced online editor and lifestyle writer with a focus on health, wellbeing, beauty, food and parenting. She currently writes for Goodto and Woman&Home, and print publications Woman, Woman’s Own and Woman’s Weekly. Previously, Debra was digital food editor at delicious magazine and MSN. She’s written for M&S Food, Great British Chefs, loveFOOD, What to Expect, Everyday Health and Time Out, and has had articles published in The Telegraph and The Big Issue.