You and so many other cooks probably have a bag of lentils in the pantry. That's because they're one of the most popular forms of protein: They're inexpensive, flavorful, hugely plentiful, and keep well (dried) for up to a year. As a result, they star in the daily menus of millions and millions of people, in dishes like dal, mujaddara, and lentil soup.
The most important distinctions between types of lentils are their color: brown, green, French green (aka Le Puy), red, or black (aka Beluga). They help you discern how they'll taste, how quickly they'll cook, and whether or not they hold their shape when cooked. Regardless of the type, though, the first step is always the same: Empty the lentils into a colander, rinse, and pick through them for any small stones that might have gotten into the mix.
Then pick the recipe that's right for your lentils and forever avoid mushy soups and pebbly dals. Here's some help:
What they are: Semi-firm and savory, brown lentils are one of the most oft-used lentil varieties. They're probably what you make lentil soup with—but their slight meatiness also makes them a natural contender in meatless bolognese or "meatloaf." They often have golden insides.
How to cook: Simmer 1 cup of lentils in 3 cups of liquid for about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain any leftover liquid.
Texture when cooked: Soft-firm. They retain their shape when cooked.
What they are: Somewhere on the lentil spectrum between brown lentils and French green lentils (see below for more on those), green lentils are usually sold whole and are super versatile: They're firm enough that they'll hold their shape in salads, but are just as at home in a soup. They're slightly pea-tasting and can be used anywhere you'd use a split-pea. Recipes often don't distinguish between green lentils and French green lentils—so go with your gut: If the recipe seems to call for lentils that are still firm once cooked, they probably mean French green; if softer, regular green lentils.
How to cook: Simmer 1 cup of lentils in 3 cups of water 20 to 25 minutes—or longer. Drain any leftover liquid.
Texture when cooked: Soft-firm, and retain their shape.
What they are: Firm, speckly, and peppery, French lentils—also called Le Puy lentils after the region in France where they are grown—are one of our favorite choices for tossing into salads, since they retain their shape so well. Only lentils grown in the Le Puy region of France can be labeled Le Puy lentils. (But if a recipe calls for French or French green lentils, it's asking for Le Puy lentils.)
How to cook: Simmer 1 cup of lentils in 2 1/2 cups of water for 25 minutes. Drain any extra liquid.
Texture when cooked: Firm.
What it is: Red lentils are typically sold split and hulled—that is, in tiny halves that cook very quickly and become creamy once cooked. They're just slightly sweet, and are often used for dal or to thicken other soups. You can even purée them into a "hummus"!
How to cook: Simmer 1 cup of lentils in 3 cups of water for about 15 minutes.
Texture when cooked: Soft to the point of being becoming indistinguishable from each other.
What they are: Tiny and shiny-black, these little guys are aptly named for their resemblance to Beluga caviar. They're earthy in taste and can be used anywhere Le Puy lentils are used—salads, braises, you name it.
How to cook: Simmer 1 cup of lentils in 2 1/2 cups of water for 20 to 25 minutes. Drain any additional liquid.
Texture when cooked: Firm, holding their shape.
Do you have a favorite lentil variety? Or a favorite way to cook them? Tell us about it in the comments.