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I don't know if I am doing things right. How can I improve my recipe?

The recipe. Only 2 ingedients water and lentils.

I buy 1 plastic package of lentils from the supermarket. Around 500g.

I open the package and toss them into a sieve.

I hold the sieve under running water.

I tip the sieve into a boiling pan and add some water.

I turn on the stove - for some time.

I drain the excess water.

I don't know how much water to use, I don't know at what level (3 being the highest) should I set the stove, I don't know how long should I boil them (I want them very well done).

I have my grandmother telling me to change the water mid cooking to get rid of the sludge, but I often spill it and burn/scald myself. Trying to hold the sieve with one hand and turn the boiling pan into the sieve.

The kitchen sometimes smells like popcorn (I burned the lentils they absorbed all the water and) some times there I barely make it (I put just enough water but there is no water to drain) some times I am too bored to drain the excess water and spoon the lentils into the plate trying not to get too much water.

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  • 6
    If you’re burning yourself trying to pour with one hand and holding the strainer with the other, I’d suggest either using a colander (which can stand by itself) or one of those long-handled mesh strainers that you place across the top of the sink (don’t know if there’s a specific term for them, but like this one). That way you’ve got both hands free for handling the hot pot and can pour the water away from yourself. Apr 21 at 17:11
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    It’s of course your decision, but I’d rather scrub some cooking equipment that scald myself.
    – Stephie
    Apr 21 at 17:34
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    Respecting that OP doesn't want to add any other ingredients... but also... salt?! Apr 21 at 19:47
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    @GeorgeNtoulos I don’t understand your comment at all. Why would using a different strainer have any effect on cleaning? It’s still just one pot and one strainer to clean. Apr 22 at 9:54
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Because it is bulkier and has a different shape. Apr 22 at 10:30

6 Answers 6

16

For lentils, there are a few rules of thumb, but not necessarily a hard and fast set of values (like cooking time), because of the natural variability and changes during storage.

But with some minor tweaks, you should be able to significantly improve your results.

First, ratios:
The minimum amount of water you should add is double the amount of lentils. If you plan to drain (and possibly rinse, if the starcy residue puts you off) the lentils, don’t hesitate to go higher, e.g. triple. Especially if you don’t soak the lentils first. If you notice at some point that you underestimated the required amount of water (water level running low but the lentils are clearly not soft enough yet), just top up with more water. You may need a few more minutes in total, but that’s better than burning your food.

Second, stove settings:
Both the starch and the protein can cause the pot to develop foam, spill over and generally make a mess. Therefore choose a pot that’s so large that it’s only half full, perhaps two thirds. Then as soon as the water & lentils have come to a boil, reduce the stove so that the pot just barely simmers. I’m not giving you a number, just observe how the content of the pot behaves. These visual clues will help more than a specific setting, which will get you confused as soon as you use another amount, another pot or another stove. The foaming is also the reason why I suggest you don’t cover the pot with a closed lid.

Third, cooking time:
This depends on the type of lentils, please check the package, which will often have some sort of information. If not, there are various websites that will provide recommendations. (“Brown” is not precise enough that I would dare to answer here.) a few minutes before the planned cooking time, start tasting a few lentils every minute or so, until they have reached the desired doneness, which is entirely up to your personal preference. Note that value for the next batch, so that you can over time find out which cooking times will give you your preferred results - it’s called “experience” and a good way to learn. You may also find that older lentils (and beans and other legumes) need more time to soften, but that’s perfectly normal.

For the draining in between, I would probably skip that, instead use more water right from the start and strain just at the end, if “sludge” really bothers you, rinse with fresh water (cold to stop cooking e.g. for salads or hot from the kettle to keep them warm). And consider another type of lentil, some will tend to disintegrate! Others hold their shape much better.
If you struggle with maneuvering a hot pot and a sieve, think about either smaller portions (500g lentils it a lot) or a sieve that you don’t have to hold. Sometimes you just need the right tools for the job.

A general bit of advice from someone with four decades of experience: You should monitor your cooking processes carefully while you still develop your cooking skills and instincts. So when you cook your food, stay with it, watch, learn and adjust accordingly.

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  • The problem with a sieve which I don't have to hold is that they tend to be bulkier and harder to clean. Guess that is better than burning myself but I am lazy (my laziness often has comed back to bite me). As for 500g being a lot the lentils are supposed to be my main meal (often 2 of them Lunch and Diner). Some times those 500g are the only thing I eat the entire day. And I am worried about how clean the tap water actually is (I avoid drinking from the tap and even consider using bottled water for cooking). Can I really rinse my lentils with water I wouldn't cook with? Apr 21 at 17:40
  • For clarification: When I write “a lot”, I simply mean the volume and weight you need to handle. Purely practicality.
    – Stephie
    Apr 21 at 17:55
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    @GeorgeNtoulos The rinsing depends on the water quality in your locale. In Europe and North America tap water is drinking water quality so using it to rinse is fine. In some places it is almost drinking quality so rinsing is probably fine. In some places tap water is not safe to drink so shouldn't be used for rinsing either.
    – quarague
    Apr 22 at 6:32
  • @quarague Athens Greece. People often drink from the tap. I feel reluctant to even cook with it (especially when the food absorbs the water like rice). Apr 22 at 10:29
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    @GeorgeNtoulos I've never had a problem with Athens water, and have drunk plenty of it (although I don't live there). The public water supply is generally good, unlike in some more remote places. A lot of water taste issues are about what you're familiar with (ie the minerals in the water) rather than water safety. If you're rinsing, the food is unlikely to absorb many minerals because it's already absorbed as much water as it can during cooking. Apr 22 at 11:15
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Stephie has given you a great answer and you should follow every word of it. (You should also click the grey check mark next to it to indicate that it’s answered your question.) Here’s a more general answer: when you don’t know how to cook something, find a recipe (ideally one in a cookbook) and follow it exactly.

Your grandmother doesn’t cook lentils using a recipe, because she’s been cooking for decades and doesn’t need a recipe. You’re not there yet, and that’s okay. And what will make you better at cooking lentils without a recipe is cooking lentils with a recipe. Measuring “some” water is something you do when you’re proficient and confident in your proficiency, but it is not how you build proficiency, at least not at first.

And I should mention that that even holds for things like lentils which don’t always cook exactly the same way and where the recipe you choose may not quite work for the particular lentils you’re working with. Even in this case, the recipe gives you a good starting point such that you can (as Stephie explained) test things and refine them.

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  • If only I had a recipe I would follow it to a t. I don't want a stew or a soup. I don't want any ingredients other than lentils and water. Apr 21 at 15:38
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    Pick any recipe that has some form of “cook the lentils until done” step. It doesn’t matter much, but I would probably choose a salad recipe, because here cooks want to keep the lentils whole and not as mushy as e.g. for a dal. Then omit all ingredients except lentils and water and all steps that deal with these ingredients. You may find that the instructions will likely boil down to “cook <amount of lentils> in <amount of water> for <time approximation> until done”.
    – Stephie
    Apr 21 at 16:42
  • I just added a temporary answer to showcase what I wrote in my comment above. There are literally hundreds out there, because the variations come from what you do with the cooked lentils, not the lentil-cooking per se.
    – Stephie
    Apr 21 at 17:21
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    I'm a moderately experienced cook and I find a great deal of value in READING many recipes before I begin to cook.
    – arp
    Apr 22 at 0:44
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For the sake of the exercise, taking your comments under @Sneftel’s answer into account, here are three random recipes for lentil salad (I chose salad because the authors here aim for lentils that keep their shape, which is easier to handle that very mushy kinds that you can’t strain well.).

If we filter these just for the lentil cooking step (and omit any aromatics in the water, if mentioned), we see the following:

Lentil type Amount Water Time Instructions
Puy (green) 1 cup / 200g a medium saucepan full 20-23 min. Add lentils to boiling water, reduce heat to a simmer until lentils are al dente. Drain them over a colander.
brown lentils 1 cup enough to cover lentils in a medium saucepan by 1 inch 16-20 minutes Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until lentils age tender but not mushy. Drain lentils.
brown or green 1 cup 4 cups 20-30 min In a medium pot, combine lentils and water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until lentils are tender. Drain any excess water.

(Sources: 1, 2, 3)

You may note that each of them can serve as starting point for your own work.

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Frame challenge:

If you often find it so difficult to keep an eye on your lentils as they cook that you burn them, you may want to consider using a rice cooker, pressure cooker, or Instant Pot to make your lentils. This page suggests a 2:1 ratio of water to lentils in a rice cooker: https://homecookedroots.com/how-to-cook-lentils-in-rice-cooker/

You can also bake lentils, rice, and similar foods in a covered dish in the oven; while you do need to remember to take them out of the oven, they are less likely to burn or boil dry. This page suggests 325°F (163°C) for 30 to 60 minutes: https://www.jessicagavin.com/how-to-cook-lentils/

(Me: I regularly mix brown rice, lentils, and other grains in my rice cooker, and used to make baked chicken on a bed of lentils in the oven, but I have never used either method to make plain cooked lentils.)

However, as other people have said, the best way to learn to cook is to follow recipes EXACTLY for unfamiliar foods and then slowly modify them as you gain experience with the process.

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    No need to supervise is one reason we like our rice cooker so much. The downside of that is that you cannot try it during the process; you may need a few tries until the outcome is exactly what you like. The second reason is that it pressurizes and cooks faster, even obviating the need for an overnight soak for legumes. Apr 23 at 10:16
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    Upvote here specifically because "rice cooker" fits the OP's criteria of inexpensive and easy to clean, cooks similarly to a regular pot, but also makes it impossible to burn the lentils. And the frequent use makes it worth sacrificing the bit of counterspace. Though an Instant Pot is an excellent investment for anyone who eats a diet heavy on beans, whole grains, and/or stews/braises.
    – Bloodgain
    Apr 24 at 4:47
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You don't 'need' to pour out the water halfway to get rid of the scum/sludge. You can skim it off the top and just dump that away, topping up the water if needed.

The 'sludge'/scum is just 'excess' proteins and starch. The reasons might differ with grandmothers, but I was told the scum causes gas and joint pains by older folks.

Also 500g is a lot, unless you're cooking for the week or lots of people, it might be worth trying cooking it in smaller batches.

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Brown Lentils or as they are also known Raj lentils take a long time to prepare. I soak my brown lentils for two days. Refreshing the water three times per day.

You are going to have to cook it after soaking it for several hours. I make Dhal Makhni with them but it takes almost three days to make.

Make sure not to use any acids when cooking them. No salt and lemon juice or tomatoes. The flavouring only goes on at the very end when the lentils have been properly cooked.

Be careful for spice blends that often have salt added and do not add bouillon powder/cubes.

Cook them in just water and finally when they have been cooked until soft then make a gravy/sauce to eat them with..

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  • That seems overly complicated and tedious? And the question is explicitly only about the cooking step which is where you don’t go into detail. OP very much emphasized that they don’t want any extras and no preparation beyond the pure cooking the lentils part.
    – Stephie
    Apr 22 at 14:51

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