I fell in love with lentil soup out of a sense of obligation. On a cold winter day on an early trip to Paris, I stepped inside a small bistro to get out of a frigid winter mist. Why ever did I book a trip to France in January, I wondered? Shivering and cold, all I thought I wanted was a cup of tea. But it was lunchtime and people were eating. I felt compelled to order something to warrant occupying a table. Low on cash, I chose the soup du jour, a casual French green lentil soup studded with bits of smoky bacon.
Ever since, on cold winter days, I yearn for lentil soup. The quality of the lentils does make a difference. While it’s good with the supermarket-variety brown lentils, it takes on a heightened flavor if you use French green or other quality lentils. What’s great about this soup is its inherent versatility. You can make it gluten-free vegan or dose it with bacon, ham or sausage to satisfy a carnivore craving. Use chicken stock or vegetable stock. Want a smokier flavor? Try fire-roasted canned tomatoes. Want it spicier? Twist the flavor with some curry at the end.
What are lentils?
A lentil is a small, flat, round seed that’s a member of the bean and pulse family known collectively as legumes. Like other legumes, lentils pack a lot of protein and fiber in each bite, but in general, they cook much faster than their bean-y relatives. Americans are generally familiar with just three types of lentils – brown, green and orange – but there’s a whole world beyond that. India grows more than 50 varieties.
Lentils are a great pantry item as they have a long shelf life. They also can be added to recipes such as soups for added protein and fiber, and are a great option if you’re trying to cut down on your meat consumption. My husband loves my mushroom and lentil burgers.
I prefer to use dried lentils over canned lentils. While the latter is convenience, they tend to be packed with sodium.
Dried lentils are sold either with the skin (“seed coat”) as “whole lentils” or with or with the seed coat removed and cut in half, or “split lentils.” Whole lentils are the best choice when you want them to retain their shape for soups, side dishes, salads and so on. “Split lentils,” are best used when you want to cook them into a puree.
Free lentil cookbook alert!
My husband, Mike, graduated from Washington State University in Pullman, home to an annual National Lentil Festival every August. The state is the largest producer of peas and lentils in the United States, with most grown in the Palouse, the gorgeous rolling hills near Pullman. (Photo above) It’s one of my favorite drives anywhere.
Highlights of the summer festival include a lentil cook-off with the best recipes from cooks all the country collected in a downloadable cookbook. Just flipping through it gave me a newfound respect for the humble lentil. Recipes include Cajun lentil-shrimp hush puppies, caramel Indian-style curry and a red lentil crusted salmon with beluga black lentil caviar potatoes.
Most lentil soup recipes make a huge pot. I’m a fan of making smaller pots of soup, hence the recipe below makes about a quart, or four servings. If you’re feeding more, it’s easily double.
Like other legumes, dehydrated lentils expand a lot as they absorb liquid through cooking. Allow about 1/4 cup or 2 ounces (60 g (2 oz) of uncooked lentils per person/serving. Cooking instructions vary depending on the type, so just see the package you’re using for guidance.
However, the following applies to all lentils:
- You don’t need to soak dried lentils before cooking, but do rinse them well in a colander and remove any that float.
- Adding anything acidic, such as vinegar, tomatoes, lemon juice or wine will increase the cooking time slightly.
- Canned lentils are already cooked, so just rinse before using.
Using an Instant Pot is a quick and easy way to make tender lentils. For standard green or brown lentils:
- Use a ratio of 1 part lentils to 3 parts water
- Cook under pressure for about 9 minutes
- Let pressure naturally release for 15 minutes
Easy Lentil Soup
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 small onion chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 stalk celery chopped (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 large carrots chopped (about 1/2 cup)
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 3 cups-plus vegetable broth or chicken stock or water
- 1 cup dried lentils rinsed
- 1 teaspoon thyme mix italian herbs or other seasoning
- 1/2 can diced tomatoes
- 4 oz. cooked ham bacon or sausage in bite-size pieces (optional)
- Balsamic vinegar optional
- Handful fresh chopped herbs optional
- Heat oil in heavy 2-quart or larger saucepan or pot over medium–high heat. Add onions, celery, carrots, and garlic; sauté until vegetables soften and begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the stock or broth, lentils, tomatoes with juice, herbs and bacon or ham (if using). Be sure there's at least an inch of water above the lentils. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium–low, cover, and simmer until lentils are tender, adding water or broth as needed. This should take about 30 minutes, or as specified on the package.
- With a vegetable masher or immersion blender, briefly puree about a quarter of the soup if desired for a creamier texture. Alternately, carefully transfer 1 to 2 cups of the soup to a blender and puree until smooth; be sure to remove the lid and instead cover the hole with a kitchen towel to avoid creating a vacuum in the blender and then return the puree to the pot. Thin the soup as desired with water or broth if you think it’s too thick. Taste and season with salt, pepper and a bit of vinegar and chopped fresh herbs if desired.
NOTE: This post may contain affiliate links. Originally published in 2016, updated in 2021. Finished soup image by Nina Firsova. Lentil types illustration by Everlida. Palouse image provided by ScenicWa.com. Generic lentil image from Pulses USA. I received no compensation from the lentil folks for this one; I just like them. 🙂