Healthy eating is important, but for most people (myself included) there are two factors that will almost always trump your best intentions to eat well: taste and time.
In the long run you will not win a battle of wills against your taste buds, and if you think about it you probably don’t even want to. If you hope to build long-term healthy eating habits I suggest focusing your efforts on making the food you cook at home taste as good or better than your default, less healthy alternatives.
Convenience is also a big factor in our daily food decisions. Time is one of our most precious resources, and although I recommend eating slowly I am a big advocate of cooking simply and quickly. In fact, one of the reasons I most often decide to cook at home is that making my own food is much quicker than visiting even the closest taqueria. It is also healthier and cheaper.
On a typical weeknight, I sit down to dinner 15-20 minutes after walking in the door. Granted, I usually cook for just myself, but doubling my recipes is fairly easily and doesn’t cost much in time.
This kind of efficiency does require a bit of planning, however. My meals are typically composed of a big pile of vegetables and either beans, lentils, eggs, fish, intact whole grains, or some combination of these. Half the battle is being sure these things are in your home when you need them.
My fridge is always stocked with fresh vegetables and herbs from my weekly farmers market trip. I also usually set aside a little time each week to cook a large batch of either beans or lentils, which are among my absolute favorite foods for adding substance, texture and a world of flavor to dishes.
I’ve written before about how I make beans using a pressure cooker, but today I want to focus on lentils. Lentils are smaller and more delicate than most beans. As a result, they cook faster and don’t require as much culinary foresight (beans require an overnight soak, while lentils do not).
There are many varieties of lentils. Some are more firm and keep their shape after cooking, making them ideal for adding to stir fries and salads. They can also be used as a substitute for or addition to grain dishes. Examples of firm lentils are French green, black beluga and the most common Spanish brown varieties.
Yellow, red and orange lentils are even smaller and more delicate, which causes them to fall apart and turn to liquid during cooking. These lentils are common ingredients in soups, stews and Indian food.
Because I frequently use lentils as a last minute addition to vegetable dishes to make them more substantial, I have worked to optimize the cooking and storage for a few of the firm varieties. My preference is for the French green and black beluga, but since black lentils are harder to find I performed my experiments exclusively on the green and brown varieties.
My goal was to find the optimal cooking time and the best freezing methods for lentils. Specifically I was hoping to find a convenient method of freezing individual servings that could be stored indefinitely and used within minutes at any time, similar to my method of freezing brown rice.
Traditionally I cook lentils on the stove top in a regular covered sauce pan, but this time I also tried the pressure cooker to see if it could reduce cooking time. In each of my experiments I used 1 cup of dry lentils and 6 cups of water with salt. I added the lentils to a pot of cold water and started my timer when the pot hit the flame.
When preparing lentils, always be sure to rinse them and check for small pebbles before cooking. I do this by slowly pouring my dry lentils into a fine mesh strainer (while checking for pebbles), then rinsing them under the faucet for 30 seconds or so.
A few things surprised me during my experiments. The first is that French green lentils have a much more robust, complex flavor than brown lentils, which have a more subtle flavor and creamier texture. Brown lentils also retained more water and didn’t hold their shape quite as well as the green lentils, and took substantially longer to cook. For these reasons, I strongly preferred the green lentils in my experiments, though I would happily use brown lentils in a hearty stew or as a bed for meat or poultry.
Additionally, because brown lentils didn’t hold their shape as well, I was unable to freeze them in individual plastic wrapped servings like rice. However this method worked wonderfully for green lentils.
As you might expect, my success at freezing lentils in plastic wrap depended on how much liquid I could remove from them before freezing.
For best results, strain lentils very well using a fine meshed strainer before wrapping in individual servings. Carefully place 1/2 cup of lentils in the center of a square of plastic. Fold two opposite edges over the lentils, twist the ends and tie them in a half knot at the top, trying to avoid folding plastic into the lentil ball. To use, run the frozen ball under warm (not hot) water until you can untie the knot. Place lentils in a bowl and microwave 2-3 minutes. Stir with a fork and use.
Both brown and green lentils also froze well in plastic tupper containers. If you know you will be using lentils regularly, you can split a batch you prepare into two or more containers, keep one in the fridge for use and freeze the others. When you are ready, transfer your frozen lentils from the freezer to the fridge the day before you want to use them. Alternatively you could freeze them in Pyrex or glass containers and simply microwave when you want to use them.
I was also curious if a pressure cooker could reduce the time necessary to prepare lentils. For beans a pressure cooker provides an obvious advantage, since on a stove top they can take hours to cook thoroughly. But lentils take only 30-40 min and do not require pre-soaking as beans do. Boiling lentils requires very little attention (make the rest of your food while they cook) and cleanup is easier, so I was curious if there would still be a time advantage using a pressure cooker.
I got different results for the different varieties. For green lentils the pressure cooker did not provide much of an advantage over regular boiling. I found the optimal pressure cooker time for green lentils to be 5-6 minutes, but it takes about 15 minutes for it to pressurize (could maybe be reduced with less water) and another 5 for depressurizing after cooking. Given the extra cleanup/hassle of using the pressure cooker over a sauce pan, the 35 minutes it took to boil the same amount of lentils feels like a better deal.
Another advantage of not using the pressure cooker for green lentils is it’s possible to check the texture as they cook. With the pressure cooker I found it was easy to undercook or overcook the lentils, and the time window was very narrow. This is not ideal if you want the lentils to keep their shape for freezing.
On the other hand, the time advantage gained by using a pressure cooker for the bigger brown lentils was substantial. Brown lentils cooked completely in 7-8 minutes in the pressure cooker, bringing the total cook time to under 30 minutes. However it took well over 45 minutes for them to soften up with boiling alone.
Though I didn’t test them in these experiments, my experience with red and yellow lentils is that they cook in a pressure cooker in about 4 minutes, much faster than simply boiling. This substantially cuts the amount of time it takes to cook with them.
French green lentils were my favorite for flavor, ease of cooking and storage. They are easiest to prepare by boiling with salt in a regular covered sauce pan for approximately 35 minutes. If well strained, they freeze beautifully in either individually wrapped balls or in a tupper. They can be kept 4-5 days in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
Brown lentils take longer to cook and time is saved by using a pressure cooker. These lentils can be frozen, but do better in a large solid container than in individually wrapped servings.
Either variety stores well in the freezer and has the potential to substantially cut down on daily cooking times when prepared in large batches and used repeatedly.
Do you freeze lentils? Do you prefer to use a pressure cooker?