Knowing how to cook red lentils is a valuable skill that can enhance the nutritional value of your meals. Red lentils are loaded with fiber, protein, and essential nutrients, plus they cook quickly, making them great for busy weeknights. This comprehensive guide will help you learn everything you need to know about cooking red lentils on the stovetop and in the Instant Pot.
If you’re looking to add a new ingredient to your meal rotation, look no further than red lentils. They can be the star of the show or a flavorful side dish. They’re an incredibly versatile ingredient that’s budget-friendly. Loaded with nutritional benefits, red lentils are an excellent source of protein and fiber.
What are lentils?
Lentils are small round red-orange legumes. These flat disk-shaped lentils are split, meaning they have the seed coat removed and are separated in half. Splitting gives them faster cooking times, making them excellent for quick meals. Red lentils are ideally used for thickening sauces and in soups and stews rather than in recipes that require extensive cook time because they can quickly become mushy.
Lentils are pulses in the Fabaceae family, the same family as chickpeas, black beans, peas, and more. Pulses are edible seeds from legume plants. There are multiple colors of lentils, including green lentils, brown lentils, black lentils, and red/yellow lentils.
Each of the types has a similar mild, nutty taste but has slight differences in texture that determine which kind of recipes for which they're best suited. The varying colors of lentils are mainly due to the differences in nutrients they contain.
You may notice that yellow split peas look similar to lentils. While they have a similar shape and are both legumes, yellow split peas are not lentils.
Do red lentils need to be soaked before cooking?
Because red lentils are split, they do not need to be soaked before cooking. Other varieties, however, may require that you soak lentils to reduce the cooking time.
Red lentil nutrition
Red lentils are a highly nutritious addition to your diet. They're an excellent source of plant-based protein. Bob's Red Mill says that just ¼ cup of their red lentils contains 12g of protein.
In addition to protein, a serving of lentils contains 7 grams of fiber. Red lentils are also a good source of folate, B6, and phosphorus.
How to flavor red lentils?
Because of their mild flavor, dry lentils can be cooked in various spices and fit with many cuisines. Adding your favorite herbs and vegetables to dishes with red lentils enhances their flavor and makes for a delicious and cohesive dish.
- Spices- Chili powder, cumin, and cajun seasoning give lentils a warm flavor. They work well in lentil recipes like my Pumpkin Soup and Crockpot Lentil Soup. You can even add taco seasoning to lentils and use them as a tasty alternative to meat.
- Curry- Curry powder is commonly used in preparing lentils. When cooked down, lentils make a lovely creamy curry soup that tastes delicious by itself or alongside rice.
- Aromatics- Garlic, ginger, and fresh herbs can add lots of flavor to lentil dishes and can be adapted to the flavor profile of your meal.
- Broth- Cooking lentils in vegetable broth or chicken broth can help impart flavor that will boost the entire recipe.
How to cook red lentils
You can easily learn how to cook lentils on the stove and Instant Pot. They cook quickly using both methods, so it comes down to preference. All you need is salt, water, and lentils as a base to get started. Lentil cooking times differ depending on the color, so these times are for red lentils only.
Prepare the lentils
Before cooking lentils, it's ideal to rinse the lentils and sift through them and remove any pebbles or shriveled lentils you may find. The best way to do this is to measure them out into a colander, run them underwater for a minute or two, and remove any hard pieces or debris that float to the top.
How to Cook Red Lentils On The Stovetop
Bring the water and salt to a boil and add the lentils. Cover the pot and reduce the heat. Choose a cook time that best fits your intended outcome.
3-5 minutes for firm lentils
10-12 minutes for extra soft lentils
How to Cook Red Lentils In the Instant Pot
Place all of the ingredients into the Instant Pot and stir. Place the lid onto the Instant Pot and click to close.
3 minutes on high pressure + quick release for firm red lentils
4 minutes on high pressure + natural release (5-7 minutes) for extra soft lentils.
Water Ratio For Red Lentils
When cooking red lentils, the ideal water ratio is 1 cup of dry red lentils to 2 ½ -3 cups of liquid.
This amount also works in rice cookers.
Storing and Reheating Red Lentils
Store dry lentils in an airtight container in the pantry for up to one year. Lentils exposed to sunlight and moisture or not fully closed can mold or attract pests.
Once cooked, lentils will keep in the refrigerator for 5-7 days. Be sure to keep them in an airtight container or closed storage bag to keep them from drying out in the fridge.
To freeze cooked lentils, place them into a freezer storage bag and lay them in a flat layer if possible. This will help them defrost more evenly. To defrost frozen cooked red lentils, place the storage bag on the counter or in a pot of cool water until softened and reheat.
For reheating lentils, place them in a saucepan over medium heat and warm for 3-5 minutes, adding 1-3 tablespoons of water if needed. To reheat lentils in the microwave, place them into a bowl and cover with a damp paper towel. Microwave for 1-2 minutes, stirring halfway through cooking for even heating.
Types of Lentil Recipes
- Salad- Lentils add protein and fiber to salad and make it more filling. Cook lentils until tender, and then you can mix them into your favorite salad or grain bowl. You can even use sprouted lentils like in my deliciously crunchy Asian Style Slaw.
- Soup/Stews- Lentils add bulk to soup and taste delicious when cooked with vegetables and broth. They can also be cooked until extra soft or blended to make a gluten-free thickener for soup.
- Curries- Lentils give curries an earthy, complex flavor. They absorb the best attributes of the spices, creamy coconut milk, and tomato puree that flavor the dishes.
- Casseroles- Red lentils have a unique texture that works well in casseroles with grains and small vegetables. They can often be mixed in unnoticed for a nutritious boost that won't greatly change the flavor or texture.
- Meat Alternative- Lentils make an excellent meat alternative. They can be used as a ground meat substitute or formed into patties to make veggie burgers and seasoned to your liking.
Tips for Cooking Red Lentils
Cook with adequate liquid- To ensure that your lentils cook correctly, you will need lots of water. Measure lentils and water properly to avoid cooking issues. Be sure to use a dry measuring cup or food scale for lentils and a liquid measuring cup for water.
Add the seasoning early to allow the flavors to be absorbed by the lentils as they cook. Consider cooking with broth for a more flavorful liquid option that will complement the other flavors in your dish.
Before cooking, rinse the red lentils in a colander until cool water to remove dirt or any pebbles.
Watch them during the cooking time and adjust as needed. The first couple of times you cook lentils may have a learning curve, but soon you'll learn your preference for their texture and find the magic number that allows you to have your ideal red lentil perfectly cooked every time.
How to cook red lentils
- 1 cup red lentils
- 1 ¾ cups water or broth
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Start by bringing your liquid and salt to a boil over medium heat.
- Rinse your lentils in a fine mesh strainer.
- Add in the lentils, cover, and reduce the heat to low. Cook for about 5 minutes, then remove it from the heat. If there is extra liquid you can drain it off. If you want mushy lentils, cook them for 10-13 minutes.
- Rinse your lentils. Then add them, the liquid, and salt to the pressure cooker.
- Cook on high pressure for 3 minutes. Release the pressure and they are ready. For mushy lentils, let the pressure naturally release for about 5-7 minutes.
- Cook with adequate liquid- To ensure that your lentils cook correctly, you will need lots of water. Measure lentils and water properly to avoid cooking issues. Be sure to use a dry measuring cup or food scale for lentils and a liquid measuring cup for water. Add the seasoning early to allow the flavors to be absorbed by the lentils as they cook. Consider cooking with broth for a more flavorful liquid option that will complement the other flavors in your dish. Before cooking, rinse the red lentils in a colander until cool water to remove dirt or any pebbles. Watch them during the cooking time and adjust as needed. The first couple of times you cook lentils may have a learning curve, but soon you'll learn your preference for their texture and find the magic number that allows you to have your ideal red lentil perfectly cooked every time.