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Lentils

Published August 2019

How we tested

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: 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 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. 

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. 


Methodology

Panels of 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled five lentil products, priced from about $1.50 to about $6.00 per package. Three of the lentils were labeled as green, one was labeled as brown, and one was labeled as simply “lentils.” We tried them in three blind tastings: plain, in a hearty soup with tomatoes and escarole, and tossed with vinaigrette in a simple salad. The products were purchased in Boston-area supermarkets and online, and the prices shown are the prices we paid. The products are listed below in order of preference.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*