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

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.

Lentils with crap removed

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

Crappy 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.

Lentils grossly sorted by color

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.

Starting to sort lentils by size

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.

Sorting lentils by color and size

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.

Sorted lentils

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.

Cooking sorted lentils

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

Skimming dead 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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25 Responses to How to Sort Lentils

  1. Emily Avesian says:

    This was very helpful! I hope you continue blogging!

  2. katy says:

    hahahah awesome awesome awesome!

  3. Edie Howe says:

    May I suggest a title change? “Lentils for the OCD chef”.

    You had me going until I was the image of the micrometer, and the line “Lentils are metric, so be sure your calipers are set correctly”.

    Thank you for the laugh!

  4. Lyle Hopwood says:

    Recently a friend of mine gave me a bag containing a pound of dried navy beans which he had bought by accident but could not eat, as he doesn’t consume products from China, a country he believes utilizes slave labor. He helpfully pointed out the words “Produce of China” at the bottom of the ingredients list. Having no such qualms, I took the bag home and prepared to soak the beans. The first instruction read “Examine the product and discard all foreign matter.” After I had accomplished that, I found I had no need to go on to step two.

  5. beerzie says:

    I do this with my Ritalin tablets.

  6. ChrisB says:

    The only thing I have to add is that the more traditional ways of sorting lentils may have contributed to the French idiom for lesbians; lentilleuses.

  7. Manasi says:

    Had me going until the spectrophotometer. 🙂

  8. Judy Morman says:

    A very satisfying article, I would very much like to follow this process. However I need your help. Although I already possess a digital caliper, I do not have the other two kitchen items mentioned in your excellent instructions. Can you please let me know the best place to purchase the spectrophotometer and the NIST – traceable stopwatch?

  9. Leigh says:

    Will this work with teh new Kickstarter spectrometer?
    I need to know because it’s go 20 days left.

  10. Kris says:

    Loved this!!!! haha!!! Thank you for taking the time.

  11. JMH says:

    Brilliant! I feel so satisfied after doing that. I think I might just throw these out in the yard and open another bag.

  12. I’m still smiling inside!

  13. GeePeeGee says:

    I’ve been laughing for ten minutes. I’m going to the store to get a bag right now!

  14. Derek says:

    This is just a simplified version of the standard technique for correctly brewing a Chemex.

    • Jeanette says:

      Thanks for your comment! Never knew about about brewing coffee the Chemex way. After watching a few youtube videos I concur. Lentil sorting and the Chemex are partners in crime and I’m really liking tea via teabags and canned beans again.

  15. Donna says:

    O.K. you had me for a bit, so now I am going to wash and throw.hope they hit the pot.haha

  16. Eliza says:

    I am so happy to have found your excellent article. My lentils are not only more robust in flavor now, from using this process, they stay fresh longer. There’s nothing quite so disruptive to a good recipe and fulfilling dish as an expired lentil.

    In the spirit of sharing information, particularly about carbs, I’d like to direct your attention to an edifying documentary which originally appeared on the BBC in 1957….. You may know it already, but in case you don’t, it is named “Spaghetti Harvest”, aka “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest”, and can be found here: I hope the link works; I could use a lesson in successful use of YouTube links. In case this link doesn’t work, the film is posted on YouTube more than once.


  17. Tricia says:

    THis was great! You had me hook line and sinker, and now I cannot stop LOLing!

  18. Amber says:

    You had me crying here. I started having doubts when you sorted them by color and almost decided not to make lentils for dinner after all. Then I saw the spectrometer. Good laugh!

  19. Justired says:

    Finally! An easier way to sort lentils – having to sort them alphabetically (by last name) was such a pain! I only wish my spectrometer wasn’t out for calibration…
    Nice job – Thanks so much!

  20. Jeanette says:

    Hilarious!I laughed so hard I slobbered and snorted in my lentils and had to thow them out!

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