Lentils are a great way to introduce plant-based protein into your diet. If you're not sure how to use them, our quick guide to this versatile ingredient will help you get started.

Our pantry staples series sees us take a look at the ingredients that most people usually have in their presses – chickpeas, beans, noodles and the like. This time, the focus is on lentils, which have been around a lot longer than you might think. 

Lentils were first grown around 60,000 years ago and domesticated about 12,000 years ago, making them the world's oldest known pulses. They originated in Central and Western Asia, before being brought to Europe around 5,500 years ago by traders.

In medieval Europe, lentils became a staple crop for farmers who began to grow them beside their wheat and oats. Around this time, lentils were also introduced to Africa, becoming a popular addition to local cuisines.

Getty Images.

Getty Images.

Nutrition and storage

In terms of nutrition, lentils are tiny powerhouses of goodness. They provide high amounts of fibre, protein, calcium, and vitamins A and B. This means they're a great source of plant-based protein for vegetarians and vegans, replacing what they might be missing from their meat-free diets. Cup for cup, lentils provide the same amount of protein as beef, although they have a much lower carbon footprint. When cooked in or mixed through sauces, the texture of lentils is very similar to minced beef, making them a great replacement in lasagne and spaghetti bolognese. Price-wise, lentils are far cheaper than meat, so they're a good way to keep protein in your diet when you're strapped for cash. 

Lentils are dried before they reach the consumer, giving them a very long shelf-life. While they can technically be stored indefinitely, they start to lose their flavour after about a year. As they are shelf-stable, lentils are a great product to keep in your pantry in case of emergency. They're often sold in a plastic bag, but it's best to transfer them to an airtight container (such as a jar), then store in a cool, dry area. If you do remove lentils from their packaging, make sure you label the container as they look very similar to split peas, but require very different cooking methods.

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Yesterday's dinner was this delicious comfort bowl which contained my 1-pot Lentil Dal, spinach, and Stuffed Potato Cakes.  . Check the link in my bio (@elavegan) for the Stuffed Potato Cakes recipe. Or search for "potato cakes elavegan" on Google.  You can also check out my Insta stories to see a video + recipe of the Dal.  . How was your week so far? Let me know in the comments. Happy Wednesday!  . Stuffed Potato Cakes recipe: https://elavegan.com/stuffed-potato-cakes-vegan-gluten-free/ . Creamy 1-Pot Lentil Dal recipe: https://elavegan.com/1-pot-lentil-dal-healthy-vegan-recipe/ . . .  Diese leckere Bowl gab es gestern Abend bei mir als Abendessen.  Sie enthielt mein cremiges Linsen-Dal, Spinat und gefüllte Kartoffelküchlein.  . Ich verlinke euch das Rezept für die Kartoffelküchlein in meinem Profil.  . Schaut auch gerne bei meinen Insta Stories vorbei um ein Video + das Rezept von dem Dal zu sehen. Habt noch einen schönen Abend!  . . . . . . . . . #vegan #potatocakes #lentils #dal #spinach #dinner #veganfortheanimals #glutenfree #vegandinner #whatveganseat #plantbased #glutenfreefood #veganfood #vegansofig #healthyfood #foodblog #foodblogger #eeeeeats #bestofvegan #LetsCookVegan #veganbombs #veganfoodie #feedfeed #veganfoodspace #cleaneats #cleaneating #instafood #fitfood

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Types of lentils

Lentils come in an array of colours, shapes and sizes, each with their own flavour and ideal cooking method. Here, we've looked at three of the most common types of lentils and how to handle them.

Green lentils:

These are probably the most commonly seen variety, usually used in generic dishes like lentil soup or curry. They are bigger than lots of other types of lentil, with a flat, disc-like shape. Green lentils are also the quickest to cook, only requiring about 20-30 minutes before they're ready to be enjoyed. However, they do have a tendency to split and turn mushy when cooked, so they're not the best variety to use in salads but are a great natural thickener for soups and sauces.

Puy lentils:

Puy lentils, also known as French lentils, require a lot more cooking time than their green cousins. As they have a thick skin, these lentils hold their shape when cooked, making them a great option for salads. This does mean that they take about 45 minutes to cook through, or a little less if you like them with a bit of bite. 

Red lentils:

While they're called red lentils, this variety can be seen with an orange-yellow tinge too. They work really well in dishes like Indian curries and dahl as they are great carriers of flavour. Similar to green lentils, red lentils cook in around 20 minutes, but can often break down when they're finished.

Looking for some lentil inspiration? Read on for some of our favourite ways to use them up.

  • Lentils really bulk up this vegan spaghetti bolognese dish from The Happy Pear twins, making it a filling dinner option. As a bonus, using tinned lentils halves your cooking time, so you'll have this dish on your table in a flash!
  • Braised cabbage with lentils is an easy main course dish to whip up when trying to limit your meat intake. The addition of spices, lemon and garlic make this dish super fragrant and fresh.
  • Holly White's shepherd-less lasagne uses lentils in place of mince, but you would hardly know the difference! The garlic mash adds an extra boost of flavour to the dish. 

Holly White's shepherd-less pie.

Holly White's shepherd-less pie.

How do you like to eat lentils? Let us know in the comments below.