Weeknight Cooking

How to Make Lentil Soup Without a Recipe

December 29, 2014

Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Lentil soup will hold your hand as you transition from holiday season to resolution season, and you don't even need a recipe to make it. Alicia Sokol of Weekly Greens will show you how.

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Was that a third holiday cookie I just sampled? Yes, it surely was. Or perhaps it was the sixth. I've lost count. While I dab at my eggnog mustache having thoroughly relished every last drop, my head drifts to another place. It's a cold and dark place you may know -- we call it January. And if you are like me and countless others who have spent the last several weeks stuffed with stuffing and tipsy with holiday cheer, January brings with it a welcome opportunity for balance, repentance, and a lot of vegetables -- the real kind that aren't all starch.

The body must be eased back into normalcy. To go right from cookies to carrots seems rude, so I like to work my way back to baseline gently, with a hearty soup packed with protein and vegetables. Satisfying on the tongue, yet nourishing to the partied-out body. Healthy fats are critical here -- they add needed flavor and staying power. Olive oil is a stalwart go-to, but you may also consider coconut oil (particularly nice coupled with the coconut milk option at the bottom!). 

Here is how to make a basic lentil soup that can be readily adapted to your preferences and pantry inventory: 

1. Start with a bag of lentils. You can use any kind you like. I've had luck with red, green, brown and black beluga, but whatever is in the pantry will do. Check the cooking time on the package, which can vary from one type to the next. It may be as little as 15 minutes or as long as 45, so make a note before you begin cooking and plan accordingly. Luckily, you do not have to soak lentils before cooking as you do with other bean varieties, but you'll still want to sort and rinse them before adding them to the pot.


2. Get some vegetables sautéing. Set a heavy-bottomed soup pot on the stove and add a couple of glugs of olive oil. Begin warming the oil over low heat as you chop vegetables. Chop a yellow onion, a couple carrots, and a few stalks of celery, making relatively uniform pieces. Smash a couple cloves of garlic, then roughly chop those as well. Turn the stove up to medium heat, then add the chopped vegetables, garlic, and a generous pinch of kosher salt to the pot. Stir frequently as the vegetables soften and become fragrant. 


3. If you're going for a vegetable-heavy soup (and shouldn't you be?), now is the time to add a few more chopped veggies. Consider a bell pepper (any color), cubes of winter squash (acorn squash is pictured below), or finely sliced fennel. Toss additional vegetables in with the onion mixture and stir to combine.

This is also the right time to add spices. I'll walk you through my favorite soup -- a lemony, curried variety -- but I've got ideas for other flavor profiles below. Add dried curry, turmeric, and cumin to taste (for me, that's about 1/2 teaspoon of each to start), as well as a couple strips of lemon zest. Stir for another minute or two, just until the spices are toasted and aromatic. 



4. Now you'll add the lentils and cooking liquid. I use about 1 to 1 1/2 cups lentils for a moderate yield (4 to 6 hearty portions) and 4 to 6 cups of liquid. If you like a very thick soup, use closer to 4 cups of liquid. Make it vegetarian by using vegetable stock or water, or use chicken stock for deeper flavor. Turn the burner up to high heat and allow the soup to come to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered until lentils are just tender but not mushy (you should have an idea of how long this is thanks to step 1). You will also want to make sure any hard vegetables, like winter squash, are soft. 



5. When the lentils are almost tender, add a couple generous handfuls of chopped greens. Spinach, kale, or Swiss chard work well here, but you may also try collards, beet greens, or anything else you like. They'll only take a minute or two to wilt -- remove the pot from the burner as soon as the greens are wilted and bright green. Finish with a lot of freshly squeezed lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt, and a drizzle of fruity olive oil. Sometimes I like to add a dollop of cold plain Greek yogurt to add a cool, creamy contrast. 


Want to change it up? Check out these variations:

  • Tomato-y: Add a can of diced tomatoes and their juice along with the cooking liquid and skip the lemon zest, curry, turmeric, and cumin. Instead, add dried oregano and thyme (or a few sprigs of fresh herbs) and a bay leaf. Other additions that complement this variety include oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes, chopped kalamata olives, and/or chopped fresh basil. 
  • Spicy: Follow the tomato-based prep but add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne to the onion, celery, carrots, and garlic in step 2.
  • Smoky: Follow the tomato-based prep but add a bit of pimentón de la vera (Spanish smoked paprika, hot or sweet -- your choice!). If you like the smokiness of bacon, cook a couple strips of bacon in the pot before sautéing the vegetables in step 2. Remove the bacon, add the olive oil to the remaining bacon fat, and proceed with step two from there. Either reserve the bacon for another use, or just chop it up and add to the soup later. 
  • Creamy: Coconut milk adds complexity and richness to this soup. I've used it with both a tomato-based broth and a lemony curried base. Freshly grated ginger goes nicely with a lemon/curry/coconut base, as well. When I feel a cold coming on, I love the antioxidant punch of turmeric, curry, garlic, and ginger with the soothing creaminess of coconut milk. Add the ginger with the additional vegetables in step 3, then add the coconut milk at the very end with the greens. Heat through and serve. 

Photos by Mark Weinberg

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Jenna M. September 30, 2021
You helped me so much with dinner tonight! Thank you! I did green lentils with onion/carrots/celery/garlic and curry/turmeric with lemon rind and chicken broth and kale. The lemon rind was a revelation! I’m bummed I missed the notes on adding extra lemon juice and olive oil at the end. But I’ll have to do that next time. My little family loved it - husband and toddler. Will definitely become a staple. Thanks for this flexible, beautiful recipe!!
Jane P. June 2, 2018
This is perfect! So good. Good over rice, too. Thanks so much.
Rita January 9, 2017
We loved it; my first time cooking lentils; I used lots of vegetables,red lentils, curry, turmeric and made it in the Slow Cooker; Perfection!
Wk I. October 16, 2016
Any reason a slow cooker could be used to finish the soup off and keep it warm too?
Jaime S. May 10, 2016
When in this process would you recommend adding mushrooms?
crc532 January 15, 2016
There are many cooks that fiddle with recipes all the time. Often, they're better than the recipe, and often, they're not. I just like the ingredietns listed first. Easier to try a recipe as written first. Just that much easier to read. Recipes are created from people who like to try new things. I appreciate their work.
Laura415 January 15, 2016
This "no recipe" recipe is just what budding cooks need to learn to build confidence and skills. In cooking the "method" or way the dish is made is everything. This way if you do not have an ingredient in the "recipe" you can sub out for something else and still have a beautiful soup. Basically just about every soup has this method:
1. saute aromatic vegetables: onion, garlic, carrot, celery until softened and aromatic but not browned.
2. Add larger cubes of more veggies if desired: winter squash, potatoes, fennel, bell pepper more...
3. add dried lentils or overnight soaked beans 1-1.5 cups and water/broth 4-6cups
4. When lentils/beans are soft add chopped greens, salt, and acid (lemon in this case.
5. Garnish with fresh chopped herbs, tomatoes, sour cream, yogurt, olive oil etc.
Follow these steps for almost any soup with beans. Easy Peasy:)
aleeda January 14, 2016
I too celebrate the flexible creativity of this recipe. If a standard recipe is needed there are many easily accessible sources online (or in one of my many cookbooks or recipe collections. In this way I think you allow people to follow their tastes and not just follow instructions, giving them confidence to try something new and create a recipe of their own to cherish and prepare and share.
Lea A. January 12, 2016
I love lentils in the winter. You can also add to the tomato version some chili powder, cumin, chipotle chili powder for a lentil chili. Oh, and a diced seeded jalapeno.
caseymsy January 12, 2016
To crc532. You have a valid comment, but recipes are handy for cooks just learning , or for those with little confidence . I read a recipe the through initially and then make to my requirements. I love experimenting, but it's handy to have a basic plan to work off
RavensFeast January 11, 2016
Just made this for lunch - delicious! I always give a good splash of Sherry vinegar before serving...something I learned from the Spaniards. Similar to the lemon juice, it gives a lovely bright contrast.
Jenna M. September 30, 2021
OOoh! I want to try the sherry vinegar splash next time. Love a little dose of acidity. Did you use the lemon AND the vinegar? Or just the vinegar?
crc532 January 11, 2016
I have to say that this recipe sounds delicious, but the way it's written makes it hard for me to make the recipe. It takes a lot of time to read through the recipe and personally, people spend a lot of time creating recipes which is why people think I'M a good cook. I follow them. I don't like Joy of Cooking precisely for this reason. It's hard to scroll down to use the many versions they offer.
Tami January 11, 2016
To print this recipe, just copy and paste it (including the pics) into a "new email", then click on the pics and hit delete, and they disappear. You can even hit delete between the instructions to get rid of the extra space where the pics were. Then email to yourself or just print it. Can't wait to try this soup!
Emily D. January 11, 2016
I've just emailed this to my husband with the subject line "life-changing". I love it because it's such a confidence-building teaching piece: anyone can make a soulful, delicious, nurturing pot of soup that tastes exactly how you want it to.
FoodPinup September 17, 2015
I love this soup, this soup recipe made me big fan of your cooking ideas. You are a great cook. Keep it UP!!!
Wendy January 25, 2015
Just made this soup for dinner, it's my new fav soup. Soooo delish!! Thanks for posting.
WeeklyGreens January 28, 2015
Fantastic! Glad you enjoyed.
jess January 10, 2015
This is a wonderful soup! We made it per the diced tomatoes and spicy suggestion--will be a go to soup for sure. Thank you for sharing the tips!
WeeklyGreens January 15, 2015
Thanks for sharing your feedback. Glad you liked the spicy tomato version. I've not tried that variety in a while...it's next up.
Drop T. January 9, 2015
Just made this!....it's great! Perfect for a cold night...and lunch tomorrow. =)
WeeklyGreens January 15, 2015
Fantastic! Enjoy.
folkboy January 7, 2015
I did the creamy version and added some sweet potato I had around and it was a truly wonderful dish I'll be making again.
WeeklyGreens January 15, 2015
Kate January 7, 2015
When printing is not an option I "book mark" it on my computer. It's kind of like my secondary recipe box. This works well for me but we all have our own ways of doing things! Maybe thus can help some of you who like me, lack the ability to remember all detail of a recipe or a "non-recipe".
Lastly, can I just say as someone who doesn't have that ability yet to just throw things together, I'm loving this "non recipe" thing. I think it will help me to exercise that and to become more flexible in the kitchen. New to me and love it. Thank you!
WeeklyGreens January 15, 2015
The "non recipe" thing comes with time. I've been cooking for years but only in the last few have I ventured away from the cookbooks. It's liberating!