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Tasting Brown and Green Lentils

By Kate Shannon Published

Lentils are the perfect pantry staple: inexpensive, elegant, and packed with nutrients. Which are best?

Lentils are among the most versatile foods in our pantry. We use them for soups and stews, in salads and rice pilaf, and in classic pairings with proteins such as salmon, pork chops, and sausages. Although we like tiny, firm French lentilles du Puy and vibrant, tender red lentils, our recipes call for them only on occasion. More often we reach for brown or green lentils, which we’ve found are similar enough in flavor and texture to be used interchangeably in recipes. We like that these lentils are inexpensive and easy to find and tend to hold their shape when cooked. But which ones are best? We purchased five kinds of lentils labeled as brown, green, or simply “lentils,” priced from about $1.50 to about $6.00 per package, and sampled them in three blind tastings: plain, in a hearty vegetable soup, and tossed with vinaigrette in a simple salad. 

Flavor Differences Were Minimal

When we cooked the lentils plain on the stovetop, their flavors were mild but still pleasant. But when we added salt and mixed them with other ingredients in soup and salad, their earthy and nutty flavors really came through. Tasters said that the flavors reminded them of the mild sweetness of green peas or beans. Only one product stood out slightly from the rest: It was sprouted, or germinated, which the company says partially breaks down the lentils’ protective coating so that they cook more quickly and have more nutritional benefits. In addition to tasting earthy and sweet, the sprouted lentils had a mild mushroomy and sesame-like flavor. It surprised us, but we liked it. 

For our first test, we prepared the lentils according to packaged directions (cooked on the stovetop) and sampled them plain.

For a Firm Texture, Use a Gentle Cooking Method

Although the lentils tasted more or less the same, their textures varied dramatically. When we followed the instructions on the lentils’ packaging—boiling or simmering them on the stovetop until tender and then draining them—several became disappointingly soft and mushy. The sprouted lentils cooked quickly, but they also split open and looked messy. Two other products also became very soggy. Even the high scorers weren’t as firm as we wanted. We also noticed inconsistencies within individual samples: Some lentils were soft, while others were still almost crunchy.

Differences Begin on the Farm

Our tastings revealed textural differences between the lentils—some packages produced firm lentils that were all or mostly intact, while others gave us softer lentils whose texture varied from lentil to lentil. To try to understand why, we examined the lentil packages. All contained just one ingredient—lentils—and the slight variations in fat, fiber, and protein contents between the products didn’t track with our notes on textural differences. They had all become similar shades of brown once cooked, and we didn’t prefer one color to another. The packages offered very little information: Three were labeled as green, one was labeled as brown, and one simply said “lentils.” 

 

After pressing the companies for more information, we learned that a few use “laird” lentils. Kirstin Bett, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, near where much of the world’s lentils are grown, explained that “laird” is a marketing term denoting a broad style of lentil, not a specific variety or strain. In fact, Bett estimated that there are about a dozen different varieties of green and brown lentils currently cultivated and packaged for sale, and they all have slightly different traits. Farmers generally pick a variety for practical reasons, such as disease resistance and seed availability. Some varieties are prone to losing their seed coats during cooking, which could explain why two samples had so many loose skins while others did not. Bett said that researchers are still studying this phenomenon with the aim of breeding varieties of green and brown lentils with hardier seed coats that don’t slip off so easily. 

 

We also learned that although most farmers grow just one variety, some lentil processing plants mix lentils from multiple farmers and fields. This creates inconsistency, as the different lentil varieties may require different cooking times to become tender. The environment they were grown in also influences the lentils’ quality and firmness. It’s possible that the packaged lentils that were inconsistent in texture, with both firm and mushy lentils in the same bite, were from a mix of different growers or had been harvested at different times. While we didn’t know which lentil varieties were used by the manufacturers of our higher-ranking products, it was clear that they were prioritizing consistency and lentils whose seed coats remained intact.

 

All the lentils were better when we used the cooking instructions in our recipes. Though the soup recipe also called for simmering the lentils on the stovetop, the lentils’ textural flaws weren’t as readily apparent when mixed with the escarole and tomatoes. The texture of the lentils improved in the salad tasting because the recipe calls for two test kitchen tricks: soaking the uncooked lentils in a saltwater solution to tenderize their skins and prevent blow-outs as they cook and cooking the lentils in the gentle heat of the oven instead of simmering them on the stovetop. Even so, not all the lentils were perfect. The sprouted lentils still tended to split apart. The seed coating also slipped off some of the other lentils, similar to the way skins slide off chickpeas, creating a mix of textures that distracted our tasters from the lentils themselves. Our favorite lentils were perfectly intact and firm without being crunchy and had tender, creamy interiors.

The Best Lentils: Eden Organic Green Lentils

One big takeaway from our tasting was that lentils should be cooked gently and in seasoned water or broth. This helps keep them from bursting or becoming mushy and gives them a nutty, sweet, earthy flavor. But for the very best texture, seek out our winner, Eden Organic Green Lentils. Their firm yet creamy texture was just what we wanted, and we loved that these “attractive,” “caviar-like” lentils kept their shape in soup and salad. Whether you’re cooking a quick weeknight side dish or putting together an elegant entrée for a party, these lentils are sure to impress.

Taste Test Lentils

Lentils are the perfect pantry staple: inexpensive, elegant, and packed with nutrients. Which are best?

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.