How to Sort Lentils

So, you’re about to follow a recipe involving lentils, but the recipe unhelpfully suggests that you must first sort the lentils. Of course, this leaves you wondering: how do you sort lentils? What happens if you sort lentils incorrectly? Why are all of these lentil recipes so assuming?

Actually, sorting lentils is quite simple and rewarding. Properly sorted lentils yield a fuller, richer flavor and have a more consistent texture than unsorted lentils. Also, unless you’re allergic to them or fall victim to an unlikely accident, sorted lentils will not kill you. This article describes the minimal procedure you must follow to guarantee that your lentils are properly sorted. It should serve as a solid fundamental technique that you can extend with your own refinements as you pursue your culinary career.

Before sorting the lentils, wash them thoroughly and allow them to dry completely. Once they’re dry, begin the sorting process by distributing your lentils over a flat surface about 1 lentil deep.

Unsorted lentils spread over a cutting board

You’ll notice that your lentils vary greatly in size, color, and shape. You might even find misshapen lentils and small pebbles. Remove imperfect lentils and anything that’s not actually a lentil. Set these bits aside for fun or other recipes.

Unsorted lentils spread over a cutting board with broken lentils and a clove sitting next to them

Some improperly-formed lentils have obvious color differences or look unappetizing. Others may simply be chipped. Be sure to remove these as well.

Broken, mottled, and misshapen lentils

Lentils tend to have a broad color range–even within the same lentil family. The lentils in these photos are green lentils; however, you’ll notice they range from a brownish color to a deep green. Continue sorting your lentils by dividing the lentils into two piles by color. In either pile, no lentil’s color should be more than one standard deviation away from the pile’s mean. If a lentil does not fit in either pile without violating this rule, it should be discarded. You’ll find that a good spectrophotometer can help improve your accuracy.

A large pile of green lentils next to a smaller pile of brownish lentils

Larger, unripe lentils take longer to cook than smaller, ripe lentils. To ensure that your lentils are evenly cooked, you need to sort the lentils by size and color (color being the indicator of ripeness) so that you can quickly accommodate the varying cooking times. Size is slightly more important than color, so proceed to measure each lentil in both of your piles with recently-calibrated digital calipers. Lentils are metric, so be sure your calipers are set correctly.

Digital calipers measuring a 6mm lentil next to a pile of green lentils

Arrange the lentils by size and color on a cutting board that you can easily lift and carry to a boiling pot of water. Ideally, you will have large brown lentils near one edge of your cutting board, and small green lentils (assuming you’re making green lentils) away from the edge, with a progression of colors and sizes in between. Again, size is more important than color, so prioritize size and worry only a bit if you are unable to achieve a pleasing color gradient.

Tweezers holding a lentil that's about to be added to a series of neat rows of sorted lentils

Continue arranging by size and color until the lentils are completely sorted. If, after your first pass, you think you can improve the color layout without affecting the size ordering, you should probably go back for another pass. Just watch that your zeal does not cause you to place a larger lentil further away from the cutting board edge than a smaller lentil.

Neat rows of lentils perfectly sorted by size and color

Now that your lentils are completely sorted, you may proceed to follow your recipe. When it is time to add the lentils to boiling water, use a sharp knife to slide each row of lentils off the cutting board and into the pot. Your sorting pays off when you compensate for lentil variance by adding the lentil rows at 150 millisecond intervals. No kitchen is complete without a NIST-traceable stopwatch.

A chef's knife sliding a row of lentils away from neat rows of sorted lentils

During cooking, dead lentils will float to the top of the pot. You’ll want to carefully remove these and discard them.

A sieve skimming a dead lentil floating on the surface of a pot of water containing cooked lentils

Continue cooking and serve as your recipe directs. You should be pleasantly surprised by a robust, differentiated flavor and the even texture that distinguishes this process. If you are not, you probably did it wrong.

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