Get to know these versatile legumes.

Lentils are versatile, going into stews, soups, dips, and salads. And, major bonus, they're cheap. But not all lentils look and cook alike. Here are the top varieties of lentils that are widely available, and a guide on how to properly prepare these colorful legumes so they don't turn into a sad puddle of mush. Let's take a look at lentils!

What Are Lentils?

Lentils are the dried seeds of the lentil plant, a legume. Unlike beans, which are also legumes, lentils are never eaten fresh but always dried right after ripening.

Different Types of Lentils

Color, size, shape, consistency, and taste vary greatly from lentil to lentil variety. Depending on what you are cooking, picking the right lentil is important so that your lentil soup turns out smooth and creamy, and your lentil salad still has a nice bite.

1. Brown lentils

brown lentils
Photo by Leslie Kelly

The most common type of lentils are brown lentils, also called European lentils and sometimes simply labeled as "lentils." They cook in 20 to 30 minutes and are best used for soups and stews.

Use three parts water to one part lentils. Or, reduce the amount of water to two parts if you're wanting a thick, smooth consistency that's good for veggie burgers as well as a filling for samosas.

2. Red Lentils

red lentils photo by Leslie Kelly
Photo by Leslie Kelly

Red lentils, also called split lentils or Egyptian lentils, are not really red in color but rather orange. Because their seed coat has been removed, they can cook as fast as in 10 minutes and become very mushy, which makes them ideal for soups.

Beloved for their quick cooking time red lentils can also be transformed into a velvety dal when simmered slowly with fragrant spices, a splash of cream at the end to add richness. In Turkey, a soup made with red lentils is fed to the bride on her wedding day to help power her through the celebration.

3. Green Lentils

french lentils photo by Leslie Kelly
Photo by Leslie Kelly

Green lentils are about the same size as brown lentils but with a glossy surface. They cook longer, about 45 minutes yet they hold their shape well after cooking, which makes them a good choice for salads. Green lentils are often described as earthy in taste and texture. That makes them prized among chefs and home cooks looking for an alternative to traditional starchy sides.

French lentils are French green lentils or du Puy lentils: small, slate-gray or green lentils with a peppery taste. They cook in 15 to 20 minutes and hold their shape very well, thus they are a first choice for salads.

When brought to a boil and  in broth and mushrooms, green lentils make a fantastic perch for grilled salmon, roasted chicken, or a baked pork chop. Put any leftovers to good use in a fab French Lentil Salad.

4. Black Lentils

black lentils photo by Leslie Kelly
Photo by Leslie Kelly

These teeny gems look like caviar, earning them the nickname Beluga. About the size of a peppercorn, black lentils cook in water or stock between 20 and 30 minutes. Because they hold their shape well during cooking, black lentils, like Puy lentils, are excellent for salads and side dishes. When braised in stock and aromatic veggies, black lentils turn into a satisfying side dish that's going to make Lamb Meatballs shine extra brightly.

5. Yellow Lentils

dried yellow lentils with label on white background
Credit: Blaine Moats/Meredith

Mainly used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, yellow lentils cook in 15 to 20 minutes and turn mushy so they are also best for soups and stews.

Health Benefits of Lentils

With 12 grams of protein per ½ cup of cooked lentils, they are a highly nutritious plant-based source of protein. Lentils are also rich in fiber and minerals such as folate, potassium, iron, and manganese. All types of lentils are equally nutritious and healthy.

What is the Difference Between Split Peas and Lentils?

Split peas, either yellow or green split peas, are from field peas that have been dried and split in half. Lentils come from a different plant, and their natural shape is flat, not round like peas.

How to Cook Lentils

Two of our favorites methods for cooking lentils include the classic stovetop method and the Instant Pot method. For a step-by-step guide to cooking lentils these two ways, refer to our guide on how to cook lentils, which includes water-to-lentil ratios and cooking times for each variety.

How to Store Lentils

Keep dried lentils stored in an airtight containers for up to a year. Cooked lentils can be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to five days.