Here is a list of 5 common lentil varieties you'll encounter in the grocery store and how to use them.
The humble lentil has been suddenly elevated to royal status, ever since it was revealed that Prince George is served Puy lentils as part of his school lunch. French newspaper The Local says the news has boosted lentil sales considerably and wholesalers have received calls from people wanting to replicate the young prince's diet. (Oddly, nothing seems to have come of the smoked mackerel served on top.) Said Antonie Wassner, head of Sabarot, a lentil distributor since 1819:
So, in honor of this pleasant boost to our beloved little pulse, here is TreeHugger's introductory guide to lentils and to decoding the common varieties you'll encounter on store shelves.
"It's the 'star effect' - as soon as a VIP is linked to a product! We've had high demand from clients in Britain since the Daily Mail article, notably from restaurants. Maybe the trend won't last on the other side of the Channel. But with the vogue for being vegan, we're hopeful."
(Pictured above) Their name reflects the region in central France from which they hail. Bon Appétit writes:
"[Puy lentils] are cultivated in volcanic soils and have been referred to as the 'Pearls of Central France' for their small size and unique peppery taste. Although they're a favorite for haute cuisine, they're surprisingly very budget-friendly—so much so that the French call them 'poor caviar'."
These lentils are, without a doubt, the most beautiful available. They're tiny (one-third the size of regular green lentils), dark slate-green in color, with blue marbling. They tend to hold their shape better than other lentil varieties and are excellent for salads and side dishes -- or for Middle Eastern mujaddara, if you feel so inclined.
Brown lentils, a.k.a. just plain old lentils, are bigger and cheaper than Puy ones and soften rapidly while cooking. They are widely available and have a mild earthy flavor that melds well into whatever dish you're making. Brown lentils are extremely adaptable and are excellent for soups, stews, braises, baked casseroles, and curries -- anything that can get mushy. They are interchangeable with green, for the most part.
Green lentils look more like brown lentils, but behave more like Puy lentils. They hold their shape fairly well, which is perfect for salads and side dishes, where you want the original shape preserved; but they also work well in stews, braises, and casseroles. Their flavor is milder than Puy and they take well to strong vinaigrettes drizzled over top and grilled meats or vegetables. These are very good combined with rice to make Middle Eastern-style mujaddara (recipe above).
Red lentils are hulled lentils, which means they cook fast and get very soft and mushy; this makes them good for soups and Indian dals (no salads!). Sometimes they're labeled as masoor dal (split red lentils). I get panicky if these aren't in my kitchen; they're such a wonderful quick-cooking staple and source of vegetarian protein.
Beluga lentils are extremely tiny, smaller than Puy, and shiny black with a white interior. They maintain their shininess when cooked and are supposedly named after their resemblance to beluga caviar. They, too, hold their shape well and are perfect for salads; however, they are more expensive than other types. When split and skinned, beluga lentils are called urad dal and are used extensively in Indian cooking, particularly for creating tarkas, proprietary spice blends that are stirred into every homemade dal.
With all lentils, pressure-cooking is not recommended. Most can cook up within 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the variety. They are an excellent source of vegetarian protein, but do require generous seasoning. Braise in stock for better flavor, and season generously with salt, pepper, and spices. Lentils will absorb the flavors you add and can handle a lot; the flavor will intensify over time. All lentils are useful for making meat go further, if you eat it, and add body and satiety to a dish easily.