The Difference Between Lentils and Beans
What are you going to have for dinner tonight? Tacos with spinach and black beans? Risotto with brown lentils? If you aren’t sure how you’d possibly cook either dish or even know the difference between the main ingredients of beans or lentils, it’s time to get in the know.
There are so many types out there, such as black-eyed peas, pigeon peas, kidney beans, mung beans, black lentils, French green lentils, and a host of other peas, legumes, grains, and seeds out there that are a great source of dietary fiber. To understand more, you need to learn about what makes beans and lentils different and what makes them similar to get a better handle on how to cook with either or both of these incredible ingredients.
What’s the Difference?
There are a few immediately noticeable differences between lentils and beans. For one, most beans are larger than lentils and beans also tend to hold their shape better when they’re cooked. This means you’re more likely to see bean tacos than you are lentil tacos. Other than these basic culinary differences, though, this isn’t an easy question to answer.
In short, lentils and beans are members of the same legume family. They’re both legumes and, more specifically, they’re both grain legumes, meaning they’re grown primarily in a controlled agricultural setting as a food product for humans and, to a much lesser extent, animals. Things get trickier from there, however. Yes, both beans and lentils are legumes, but whether a lentil is actually a different class of legume from a bean is a matter of interpretation. Some people might even classify lentils a type of bean, meaning there is effectively no difference between the two.
This is one of those vegetable/fruit type questions in the sense that the difference between a lentil and a bean is mostly subtle and may not actually matter all that much in terms of how we eat and enjoy these healthy plant-derived foods. Think of it this way. If you ask most people whether a cucumber is a fruit, they’d say no. It’s not particularly sweet and we tend to eat them in salads and with savory foods, which is how most people think of vegetables. However, cucumbers grow from flowers and bear seeds, which technically makes them fruit. The same goes for pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplant, and other produce we tend to think of as vegetables. Lines are blurry as far as these classifications are concerned and it might not be entirely useful to draw hard category boxes around either lentils or beans.
So, really, the difference between lentils and beans is a matter of interpretation that may not be worth debate. Far more important than understanding which category each falls into is trying to understand what these foods are, why they’re good for you and how you can cook them to enjoy their health benefits.
What are the Similarities?
Perhaps a better question is asking how beans and lentils are similar. Since they belong to the same family and can be argued to essentially be one and the same, beans and lentils have a lot in common. Both are the protein-packed seed of a legume plant. Beans of all kinds and different kinds of lentils grow in seed pods and are harvested by removing the pod from the plant and, in most cases, removing the seed from the pod.
Both of these vegetables are also extremely healthy and affordable sources of both protein and fiber. The combination of protein and fiber means that eating beans or lentils helps you feel fuller on less food, which can be great for those who are trying to or need to eat modest portions for any reason, whether it’s motivated by health or financial necessity.
That’s part of the reason why beans and rice is such a great meal for those who are on a strict budget, especially if brown rice is chosen over white. The combination of the amino acids, soluble fiber and insoluble fiber in both beans and brown rice makes for complete proteins and gut-healthy fiber that is filling with minimal fat. The same goes for lentils, too, which is why Indian dishes such as daal, which is made from red lentils, are a great option for those who are getting sick of regular beans and rice.
Another important similarity—there are several types of beans and there are several types of lentils. There are way more legume types classified under the “bean” category than the “lentil” category, but they both offer plenty of room for exploration in terms of size, shape, color, texture, and taste.
How to Buy Lentils and Beans for Cooking and Eating
Though there are a lot of similarities between the two and they may, indeed, even be the same thing, shopping for different kinds of beans and lentils brings up some important differences you’ll want to become familiar with if you want to cook with these ingredients.
You can find just about every kind of bean or lentil available in dried form, often for sale in ultra-affordable bulk quantities at most grocery stores. Lentils are smaller and cook much faster than most dried beans, which means they can cook without pre-soaking. Dried beans such as kidney or black beans usually need to be soaked before they’re cooked to reduce overall cooking time, though some culinary experts disagree with the need for soaking. Try it yourself and see if you agree!
Both brown lentils and various types of beans, including kidney, navy, cannellini, and pinto, are available as a canned and preserved vegetable. Though they’re theoretically more expensive than dried beans, if water and gas, and electricity are expensive where you live, the cost to rinse, soak, and cook dried beans may even out with the cost of canned. Softer red lentils aren’t usually available in cans, though, and due to their small size, canned brown lentils often seem quite mushy.
Borlotti, fava and lima beans and the kind you might find sold fresh—as in just picked, straight from the plant, still in their pods—at a farmer’s market. It is highly unlikely that you’d find lentils sold fresh at a farmer’s market unless you live in a very agriculturally diverse area.
Roasted or Cooked
Roasted chickpeas and fava beans are gaining popularity as a snack that stays fresh because it’s been dried out and preserved. Lentils aren’t likely to get the same treatment as a grain, though you may find some crisped lentils in their pods sold as a salty snack. These lentil crisps deliver a surprisingly healthy level of fiber and protein compared to similar crunchy, salty snack items like potato chips. However, most people don’t have the ability to make crisped lentils at home while anyone with an oven and some time can make roasted chickpeas and fava beans.