Help me unravel the mystery that is lentils
December 31, 2007 6:46 PM   Subscribe

How long to cook lentils? Do I need to soak them?

I want to make lentils with a leftover ham bone tomorrow but my research has resulted in wildly disparate results. Some recipes say cook for only 1.5 hours, others up to 8! Also, the jury seems to be out on whether to soak the lentils or not: some say it's not necessary but makes them taste better, some the opposite.

Also, any recipe advice is most welcome. I'm cobbling together one that has onions (or maybe leeks?), carrots, celery, bay leaves, ham bone, bacon (?) and... and....
posted by sfkiddo to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It takes about 2 hours for me, although I've never used a ham bone in mine. My recipe is usually onions, garlic, celery, a bay leaf, a can of tomato sauce, and cover it all with chicken broth. No soaking, either, I just add the dry lentils straight to the boilng broth, and turn it down to a simmer. It usually thickens up to a nice stew consistency.
posted by deadmessenger at 6:52 PM on December 31, 2007

You won't need to soak them, although I guess you can if you want.

What kind of lentils do you have? Green, red, black? That matters for how long to cook them. Just plain green lentils can be done in 45 minutes to an hour, but that's cooking them covered and without anything else but water.
posted by dilettante at 6:54 PM on December 31, 2007

Response by poster: Per Mr. sfkiddo: "They're kind of vague lentils." I looked and they're brown.
posted by sfkiddo at 6:58 PM on December 31, 2007

You don't need to soak them. They cook pretty quickly; an hour and a half is fine buc cooking them longer makes them mushy-which I like when I am making lentils and sausage.
posted by konolia at 7:07 PM on December 31, 2007

I've had lentils be ready in as little as half an hour, but I generally estimate 45 minutes. I agree that there's no need to soak.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:36 PM on December 31, 2007

Dont soak, wash them a couple of times to get any dirt off. I like my lentils a bit on the firm side, I usually do 1 cup lentils 3 cups water, boil, and when the water is gone the lentils are done. It only takes about 20-30 minutes. I would say 2 hours would be tops with ham bone and all the other bits, just cook until they have the consistency you want.
posted by outsider at 8:00 PM on December 31, 2007

It depends on how firm you want your lentils to be. Most Indian cooks do soak lentils before cooking as we like them quite mushy.
posted by peacheater at 8:21 PM on December 31, 2007

As everyone else has said, don't soak them unless you want them mushy. Cook 45 minutes to an hour and you'll have them tender.

Sort through them first, in case you didn't know--you'll have a few that look worth tossing out, and occasionally a small pebble or two in the bag.
posted by Tuwa at 8:26 PM on December 31, 2007

You can throw them in a rice cooker too; 1 cup water to 1 cup lentils. Usually turns out fine. Also handy for split peas, you end up with really dry but cooked peas, which when mixed with broth make an awesome split pea soup base.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:51 PM on December 31, 2007

Red lentils are the lentil equivalent of white flour (they've had the hulls removed), cook quickly, and don't require soaking.

Brown or green lentils take longer to cook (about an hour gets them to a texture I like), actually taste of something, and are best soaked overnight beforehand to minimize farts after eating.
posted by flabdablet at 9:08 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You can have the lentils done in 45-50 min if you delay adding two ingredients which prevent beans from cooking: tomatoes and salt. Which means I guess holding off on the ham bone, but seriously as someone who eats no pig I have made tons and tons of lentils and they are always delicious without it. Of course, I suppose if you want to use up the ham bone then simply accept that the lentils may or may not cook as quickly. I have found that beans either turn tender, or they do not. If they decide to stay hard, extra time in the pot doesn't help all that much. At the very least, do not add any tomatoes, additional salt, or anything acidic until the lentils are tender.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:12 PM on December 31, 2007

Lentils are really tolerant of a wide range of cooking times. They are usually edible by 30 minutes, good at 45, and still nice (just softer) after 90 minutes or longer. I've never had ham bone / ham hocks / sausage / etc make any substantial difference to the cooking time, but it sure makes the broth tastier. I've never soaked them; lentils cook fast enough (and aren't as gassy as pinto and other beans) that there isn't much need.

Basically, there is no need to time them with any exactness. It is done when it tastes good and the texture is good, but you probably have at least a 30 minute window, if not significantly more, before you start getting into "overdone" territory. And all the other ingredients you are using improve with more cooking, too, so no worries there.
posted by Forktine at 10:39 PM on December 31, 2007

I never soak lentils but I always pick them over for stones and dodgy-looking ones, and I rinse them before cooking. Following Alton Brown's advice, I add salt to the water. He was right, it reduced the cooking time if anything. Also, note that if the cooking liquid is acid (eg from vinegar, lemon juice, or tomatoes) the lentils will not soften as much.

- red lentils take the shortest time, around 20 minutes. They will turn into a yellow/orange paste, but you can call the result lentil soup/pottage if you like.
- coarse brown lentils take about 45. I hardly ever cook these because I don't like the taste.
- green lentils (Puy lentils) and Beluga lentils (the little black ones) both cook in about 25. They will hold their shape. They don't turn to mush unless you seriously overcook them. I like these best of all in European dishes. They are very tasty indeed.

Things that make for bad lentils:
- heat treatment. (Where I live certain legumes have to be heat-treated on importation unless they have a fairly expensive import certification). They never soften right if heat-treated.
- age. Old lentils take longer and don't taste as nice.

I always buy my lentils from gourmet or hippy-organic places with high stock turnover. They're so cheap it's worth paying a bit more for nice ones.

A few suggestions:

Red lentil sauce for pasta

Rinse a cup of red lentils.
Chop an onion.
Slice a celery stalk finely.
Grate a small carrot.
Chop a tin (400g) of tomatoes; save the juice and use it too.

Saute the onion in olive oil until transparent; add the celery and carrot and cook for a minute or two longer.

Add the lentils and tomatoes. Add about a cup of water, stock or wine (or a mixture, whatever you have lying around. Salt and pepper and chopped fresh herbs to taste.

In 20-30 minutes the lentils will be soft and mushy. Serve on pasta (rigatoni maybe?) with grated cheese.

Red lentil dhal

Rinse a cup of red lentils.

Finely chop an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic. Optionally, add a couple of chopped green chillies.

Saute onion and garlic in oil (not olive oil, it will taste wrong in this recipe) or clarified butter. After a minute or two, add a teaspoon of turmeric powder, a half teaspoon of cumin powder and a quarter of powdered coriander seed.

When the onion is transparent, add the lentils and 600ml of water or stock, and salt. It's ready when you have tasty yellow mush. Stir every now and then, it may stick.

Minimalist Puy or Beluga lentils

Rinse a cup of Puy lentils.

Finely chop an onion and saute in olive oil (or duck fat or other tasty fat) until just starting to brown.

Add lentils and 600ml water or stock. Add a couple of sprigs of thyme OR a bay leaf OR a sprig of savoury (Bohnenkraut) OR a few slices of dried porcini, and salt & pepper. Simmer for 20-30 minutes. The liquid will be not quite absorbed. Good with smoked meat, sausages etc.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:49 PM on December 31, 2007 [8 favorites]

The lentils I've made only take 30-45 mins to cook when boiled. They are so much easier and healthier than most bean varieties.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:39 PM on December 31, 2007

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