Why You Should Be Cooking With Red Lentils

Of all the colors of lentils — orange, green, yellow, black and brown — the red lentil proves sweeter and nuttier than its brethren. That's saying a lot, given that there are hundreds of lentil, or pulse, varieties. It should be noted that the lentil packs a wallop of nutrients, and that one cup has about 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of dietary fiber, plus 37 percent of your daily iron, 49 percent of your needed manganese and a whole slew of other good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Phew!

Where they're from: It shouldn't surprise you that the red lentil comes from India, a country where many of the dishes feature some sort of lentil, or dal, the native word for the food. The name "lentil" is derived from the Latin word for lens, a title the legume was given because the tiny, circular discs resemble a double convex optic lens. For as long as we have known, red lentils have been in the mainstream diet. The legumes have been found at excavation sites dating back about 8,000 years, and they were even mentioned in the first book of the Bible. In this famous tome, the story of Esau appears. As the tale goes, this hungry young man traded his first-born birthright and inheritance for a bowl of red lentil pottage, an act orchestrated by his twin brother, Jacob. Looking back, it's assumed that it must have been a darn fine stew, but unfortunately there is no documentation on the actual flavor.

When they're in season: According to the United States Department of Agriculture, lentils have been grown commercially in the Palouse region of eastern Washington and northern Idaho since 1937. In this area, lentils get harvested in the early spring, so if you are looking for fresh or freshly dried samples, May and early June are the best times to seek them out. Of course, there isn't much benefit, taste-wise, to getting them fresh. A package of dried red lentils from the grocery store any time of year is just as acceptable.

What to look for: When picking a package of red lentils, make sure there isn't moisture in the bag. You also want to avoid small pinholes in the pulse—a sign that bugs have gotten to your legumes first.

How to store them: Like any dried bean, red lentils should be kept in an airtight, dry container in the pantry or another cool, dark spot.

How to prepare them: "Perhaps it's just me, but I have a tough time cooking red lentils and keeping them whole, so I've always turned them into a puree or soup," says chef Tony Maws of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I sweat out some mirepoix [mixture of chopped celery, carrots and onions] along with some ginger and red curry seasoning, and serve with grilled fish. Or I've turned it into a hummus-like spread served chilled with grilled flatbread."

Maws isn't the only one dealing with mushy red lentils — though you only cook them for about 30 minutes, it's one of the traits of this legume. That's why, along with his suggestions, it's good to use them in an Indian-style dal, in soup and mashed up into cakes for deep-frying. Keep in mind, the pinkish-rust color tends to turn a golden brown when cooked, so don't get your heart set on a red-hued side dish.

Here are some red lentil recipe ideas on Food Republic: