Can You Ferment Lentils?

Lentils are tiny legumes packed with nutrition and a fantastic staple in a healthy diet. Dried lentils are so fast and easy to cook that many people even skip soaking them, just cooking and preparing them in a range of soups, stews, and other dishes.

Usually when we cook lentils, we boil them, but can you ferment lentils as well? You certainly can. Fermenting lentils unlocks a whole new aspect of their flavor and nutrition. Let’s get into the details.

orange lentils in a wooden spoon, green lentils in a wooden spoon, yellow lentils in a small bowl

You Can Ferment Lentils, and Here’s Why You Should

Beans and legumes are famous for causing gas and digestive issues when we eat them. This is because they’re seeds, and nature has equipped them with some defenses that allow them to survive being eaten so that a new generation can grow.

Lentils are full of complex starches, fibers, and enzymes that specifically make them difficult to digest. Even though they’re full of protein and nutrition, those nutrients are difficult for the body to access.

Most of the traditional methods of preparing lentils aim to improve their digestibility, so we can access more of their nutrients. Soaking, grinding, and cooking are all ways of making them easier to eat and more nutritious. But people have been fermenting lentils for centuries. Fermenting not only makes them more digestible and taste good, but it actually adds important probiotics and beneficial compounds, making lentils even healthier than they were to begin with. 

Fermented Lentils Benefits

Fermentation transforms lentils in many important ways, as it:

Improves Digestibility

Fermentation disrupts the compounds that make the proteins and starches in lentils more difficult to digest, so your body can access the natural nutrition inside the legume.

Reduces Anti-Nutrients

Although lentils are incredibly nutritious, they also contain “anti-nutrients.” The lectins and phytates in lentils can bind to vitamins and minerals inside our bodies, preventing us from absorbing those nutrients. In other words, lentils are difficult to digest. They reduce the accessible nutrients in the lentils themselves, and eating them can also reduce the levels of calcium, zinc, iron, and other essential nutrients already present in our bodies. Fermentation breaks down the lectins and phytates and stop their “anti-nutrient” action.

Improves Flavor

Lentils are naturally high in tannins, which not only bind to and reduce the digestibility of proteins, but also create an astringent flavor, which can be reduced by fermentation. Red lentils, in particular, are high in natural tannins, so fermentation decreases the natural astringency of these lentils. As bacteria digest the natural sugars in foods, they reduce sweetness and produce a more complex, savory flavor. 

Adds Probiotics

Fermenting foods adds beneficial enzymes that support our digestive systems and improve our health.

Fermenting or sprouting beans and legumes are the best way to make the proteins and nutrients digestible. However, sprouting can be messy and time-consuming. Fermentation is simple and doesn’t require any special equipment.

green lentils in a pot on the stove

How to Ferment Lentils

Fermenting lentils can be done in two ways. You can harness the natural “wild” bacteria in the air to ferment lentils, or you can use a “starter” to create a more reliable and predictable fermentation. For the best results, I recommend using a starter.

While lentils will naturally ferment in the right environment, even when they are uncooked, it’s essential to cook your lentils before fermenting. Cooking lentils before fermenting has several important benefits:

  • Cooking lentils removes the natural bacteria, creating a better environment for your fermentation starter to grow.
  • No matter when or how you ferment lentils, you will need to cook them to make them edible. If you ferment first, you will still need to cook them after.
  • If you cook lentils after fermentation, you will destroy many of the beneficial bacteria you cultivated during the fermentation process.

For these reasons, it’s best to cook lentils before fermenting them. Here are the steps to follow:

Cook the Lentils

  1. Inspect your lentils. It’s always a good idea to look at the dried lentils and ensure that they are free of rocks and sand.
  2. Rinse the lentils. Rinse the lentils in cold running water to remove dust and debris.
  3. Soak the lentils. Add the lentils to a large pot and cover with cold, clean water. Allow them to soak for 2-4 hours.
  4. Drain and rinse the lentils again. Drain off the soaking water and rinse the lentils in clean water.
  5. Boil the lentils. Place the lentils back in the pot, fill it with cold water, bring to a boil, then let it simmer on low heat until tender. Do not add salt or any other ingredients to the pot.
  6. Drain and cool the lentils. Once they are cooked, drain the lentils and allow them to cool to room temperature

Ferment the Lentils

In a sturdy, airtight container, add:

  1. 1 pound of cooked lentils
  2. 1 tablespoon sea salt
  3. 4 tablespoons of lactobacillus starter (whey, kombucha, or a previously-used starter)
  4. You may also add optional ingredients like minced onion or garlic, or spices and seasonings
  5. Leave at least one inch of headroom in the container
  6. Seal tightly and store out of sunlight at room temperature (between 65-72°F) for 2-3 days

As they ferment, lentils will have a pungent (but not unpleasant) odor. It’s a good idea to keep your container tightly sealed and leave headroom so that the escaping gasses do not push the lid open.

Dishes with Fermented Lentils

The most famous fermented lentil dish is the traditional dosa from India. Dosas are a thin pancake or crepe and, like crepes, can be made sweet or savory, with a huge range of flavors, ingredients, or sauces.

two dosas on a plate

Another Indian dish made from fermented lentils is idli, a savory dumpling.

Fermented lentils can also be used in the same way as any cooked lentils in soups, stews, and sauteed dishes. Fermented lentils are highly suited for baking and can be used to make gluten-free bread or ground down for an excellent flour substitute.

In Summary

Fermenting lentils is not only possible, but it’s a great way to make their nutrition more bioavailable while adding healthy bacteria and enhancing the flavor.

Fermenting lentils is also incredibly easy and can be used in a wide range of cooked and baked goods. If you aren’t already fermenting lentils, you should be!