The essential guide to beans, pulses, legumes and lentils

What's the best way to cook all those different beans and lentils? Do they need soaking. And - ahem - do they really cause gas? 

"Every pantry needs a pulse"
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“Every pantry needs a pulse!” says Parveen Ashraf. The cooking teacher and cookbook author is not talking about a heartbeat. She’s talking about the glorious array of lentils and dried beans we now have increasingly easy access to. But if you haven’t had much experience cooking with beans, it can be confusing. Do they all need soaking? How do you cook them? And – yes, we’ll tackle this one too! – do they actually cause gas?

With World Pulse Day coming on February 10 – and Ashraf delving into pulses in her TV show, Parveen’s Indian Kitchen (currently screening on SBS Food Ch. 33) we’re here to cut through the confusion – or as Ashraf says, “the dal debate!”

Read on to learn more about the power of pulses, and how to cook with them, or if you’ve got your bean game sorted, hop straight over to SBS Food’s collection of dried bean recipes or lentil recipes. We feel it our duty to point out that as well as what you might expect – delicious dips, sensational stews, soups and salads, and more, there are choc-chip cookies, bean brownies and even vegan meringues made with aqua faba, the liquid from canned chickpeas.

Bean, pulse, legume or lentil?
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Before we dive into all those wonderful options for putting some pulses to work in your kitchen, let’s sort out what’s what when it comes to names. ‘Legumes’ encompasses all types of beans, peas and lentils, both fresh and dried. ‘Pulse’ is a term usually used to refer to the dried seeds of various legume plants. Pulses include chickpeas, lentils, lupins and dried beans such as kidney beans, black beans and butter beans.

As well as being used right around the world in a wide array of delicious soups, curries, stews, flatbreads and more, pulses are also used for animal fodder.

Lentils are usually shaped like a lens (or a flying saucer, for sci-fi fans!), dried peas can be whole (and thus round), or split, while beans come in a variety of sizes and colours.

And what about dhal/dal/daal? You’ll see various spellings, but the simplest way to think of it is that the word refers to both a group of ingredients and the soup/stew/curry-style dishes made with them. When applied to an ingredient, dal usually refers to the split forms of pulses – dried peas, lentils and beans; think red lentils, also known as masoor dal (delicious in this Gujarati dhal from the North-west of India), or yellow split peas, also known as toor dal (sublime in a Malaysian dhal, served with flaky roti canai!). Confusingly, you might also hear dal used to refer to the whole form of some pulses, but more commonly, it means the split form.

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Can you guess Australia’s most popular pulse?
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The SBS Food team LOVE hummus, so we were not surprised to learn that chickpeas are top of the list when it comes to Australia’s favourite pulse. It’s the one we grow the most of and the one we eat the most of, too.

“The major pulse crops grown in Australia are chickpeas, lentils, dried peas, lupins, faba (fava) beans and mungbeans (moong dahl),” explains Nick Goddard, CEO of Pulse Australia, the umbrella organisation for the pulse industry, representing growers, researchers, traders and more.

“The annual production fluctuates quite a bit, as seasonal conditions, especially drought, and prices of alternate crops - canola, wheat, barley, etc - will influence a farmer’s intention to plant a particular crop.”

Chickpeas are definitely top of the list though – Goddard says Pulse Australia figures show that in the five years to 2019, the annual chickpea harvest was 920,000 tonnes. Lupins were second (690,000 tonnes), followed by lentils (412,000).

Those round creamy chickpeas top our eat list too; research conducted in 2018 found that chickpeas are the most consumed legume in Australia. Yay for hummus and falafel and chickpea salads!

But not everyone is on board with beans. To meet Australian Dietary Guidelines, overall we need to increase our consumption of legumes such as beans, lentils and peas by 470 per cent, says Jaimee Hughes, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutrition Manager at the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC). Yes, that’s correct 470 per cent!

“Legumes are nutritious, sustainable and inexpensive. However, most Australians don’t include these healthy, convenient foods in meals regularly,” Hughes tells SBS.

Consumer Understanding and Culinary Use of Legumes in Australia, a paper published in the journal Nutrients in 2019, gives more detail: as much as 44 per cent of the population don’t eat legumes at all. A survey conducted for the paper – the respondents were mostly regular legume eaters – found that those who do eat them love legumes for their health benefits and taste. And what do we eat when? The survey found that baked beans were the breakfast favourite, chickpeas were the most commonly consumed legume in lunches, and lentils topped the list for dinner.

They taste good, and they're good for us, too
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Here at SBS Food, we’re fans of all the delicious dishes you can make with dried beans, peas and lentils (check out our Bean, pulse and grain recipe collection). But they don’t just taste good.

“Legumes are a nutrient powerhouse, providing a range of essential nutrients, plant protein and dietary fibre, they are virtually free of saturated fats, and are a good source of iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. Legumes are also naturally gluten-free, suitable for those with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity,” says Hughes (it’s her job to know these things – as the name suggests, part of the mission of the GLNC is to share evidence-based information about the nutrition benefits of legumes)

“The health benefits of regularly consuming legumes are well known. They have been shown to help manage both cholesterol and blood glucose, with increased intakes linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers,” Hughes says.

Beans make a great addition to Buddha bowls or salads, such as this chickpea, egg and potato bowl. 

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But what about gas?
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Let’s be honest. For some folk, this is a big part of why they don’t eat beans. But does it have to be this way?

“Many people don’t eat legumes for fear they will experience an increase in gas and flatulence. As legumes are high in dietary fibre, rapidly increasing legumes in the diet may lead to gas in some individuals as the body adapts to the higher fibre intake. However, rather than being an unhealthy side effect, research indicates that resistant starch (a type of fibre) found in legumes is a good source of food for healthy gut bacteria, important for achieving and maintaining good gut health,” Hughes says.

“For many adults, flatulence decreases with consistent consumption of legumes, with symptoms usually residing after a few weeks of following a higher fibre diet. Gradually increasing intake, regular exercise and drinking plenty of water will all help reduce the effects of increased fibre. Soaking and rinsing dry legumes before cooking can also reduce these side effects by making it easier to digest and absorb nutrients.”

“However, from a food safety point of view, it is not essential to soak legumes (except for kidney beans).”

The Food Safety Information Council says that as few as four or five raw kidney beans can cause severe stomach ache, vomiting and diarrhoea.

The FSIC advises: “To destroy the toxins, soak the beans for at least five hours and then boil them briskly in freshwater for at least 10 minutes. Do not cook beans at a low temperature, for example in a slow cooker, as it may not destroy the toxin. Improperly cooked beans can be more toxic than raw ones. Tinned beans can be used without further cooking.”

Legumes can cause issues for those who have difficulty digesting FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides and polyols). Monash University, which pioneered much of the research on FODMAPs, has a good article on why legumes can potentially cause digestive troubles and how they can be included in a low-FODMAP diet.

Soaking and short-cuts
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Lentils – especially red lentils – cook quickly. They can be ready to eat in less than 20 minutes (see Lentils tab, below). But the traditional method of preparing beans can take 8 hours or more. Luckily, there are two solutions: tinned beans, and the quick-prep method, which can be used for most legumes. Click here for a handy chart showing both traditional and quick methods for lentils, split peas and beans.

NOTE: It is very important to soak and correctly cook kidney beans as they can be toxic. See the previous tab for more information. 

Start with lovely lentils
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If you don’t cook with pulses much, lentils are a great place to start. Lentils are the quickest to cook, and very versatile. Some break down beautifully in soups, stews and curries, others, such Puy lentils, hold their shape when cooked and are great in salads.

For Parveen Ashraf, red lentils are her very favourite pulse.

“First on my list and in my pantry is red split lentils, sometimes called masoor dal. I don’t know why they call it red, clearly, it’s orange! When it’s cooked, it turns a beautiful golden colour. This is the one that I cook about two or three times a week. It’s like a sponge and it soaks up any flavour you give it. Red split lentil is usually the dal you would have in a takeaway or restaurant, [in a dish] called a tarka daal, and it’s one of the first recipes I learnt to cook,” she says in her TV show, Parveen’s Indian Kitchen. (Get her recipe for tarka daal here).

Red lentils get a thumbs up from Donna Hay too - "I always have this soup in the freezer on standby for those nights when I’ve just run out of time to make dinner,” Hay says of her bacon and lentil soup, which takes only about half an hour to make.

Other lentils include beluga lentils, brown lentils and Puy or French green lentils. Many are sold whole, but some are sold split.

Hughes is also a fan of lentils:  “My favourite way to cook with lentils is adding them to a delicious tomato and red lentil soup with crusty wholegrain bread. A quick and easy recipe that’s sure to be a winner. “ She gives them a big thumbs up on the nutrition front too: “All lentils, including red, green, yellow, brown and black varieties have a similar nutrient composition. They are rich in iron, a good source of protein and dietary fibre and low in sodium and saturated fat. Like most legumes, lentils contain prebiotic carbohydrates which are important for feeding the ‘good’ bacteria in the colon, contributing to a healthy gut microbiome.”

If you’d like to explore the wide world of wonderful ways with all kinds of lentils, hop over to the SBS Food lentil recipe collection, where you’ll discover dishes such as a Greek vegetarian lentil and eggplant moussaka, Afghani eggs with fragrant lentils and pita, a Mexican taco salad or this vibrant Turkish lentil salad.  

Chickpeas
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Their creamy, almost buttery texture when processed is what makes chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans, Egyptian peas, Bengal gram or chole) so very good in hummus, of course, but they are used in many other ways too. While the sort we see most commonly here in Australia is a creamy-coloured pea about the size of a smallish hazelnut, there are two main varieties – the Kabuli chickpea is the kind common in Australia, while Desi chickpeas are a smaller, darker variety more common in the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East.  Variations mean there are some forms that appear dark, greenish or even with a reddish hue. Chickpeas are also sold split (aka chana dal), and of course, used to make besan flour. 

Chickpeas contain magnesium and potassium and are richer in phosphorus and calcium compared with other legumes.

There are endless ways to enjoy chickpeas. Keep a couple of cans in the pantry and you can try Parveen’s chickpea and spinach masala, which uses canned chickpeas and is ready in around 45 minutes, or a Tunisian breakfast chickpea soup, perfect ladled over pieces of yesterday’s bread.  

If you’ve got time to soak and cook, try an Iranian lamb and chickpea stew.

Or take a step on the sweet side – these double-choc chip cookies are made with chickpeas and peanut butter, no flour at all!

Peas and split peas
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Australia grows around 400,000 tonnes of field peas a year. Some we eat fresh, as green peas, while around 270,000 tonnes are consumed as dried peas. You’ll see dried peas sold whole and split.

At a quick glance, some split peas and lentils can look alike – little roughly disk-shaped pieces in a range of colours, from pale white to bright green and yellow. While both are legumes, there is a botanical difference. As the name suggests, split peas are a field pea, grown specifically for drying, rather than eating fresh. After harvest, they are hulled and then split. The smaller pieces make for quicker cooking, and don’t need pre-soaking. Both yellow and green split peas are widely available.

Our favourite dried pea recipes include this split pea and cauliflower curry and this Moroccan green pea dip.  

Kidney beans
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The familiar red kidney bean is a study little number that is used in many cuisines. The next time you tuck into a bowl of mixed baked beans or chilli con carne here's something to make it taste even better: “Due to their red/purple skin, kidney beans contain anthocyanins – a type of antioxidant which may protect against chronic disease,” says Hughes.

Give them a go in Heston Blumenthal’s chilli con carne with cornbread muffins, a rainbow salad with quinoa and beans or this incredible gluten-free chocolate cake – it really is made with kidney beans!

Mung beans and moong dal
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Mung beans are a versatile crop. They make good sprouts, and they make a great dried bean too – and those dried beans are in Ashraf’s top three pulses to have in your pantry.

“There’s all types of moong dal. You can get green moong dal, which is whole. You can get split moong dal which is green, and white, or you get this lovely little nutty yellow moong dal, which is my favourite. I love it. Tastes quite creamy when it’s cooked, and I serve it with hot chapatis,” she says.

The various forms of mung bean can be a little confusing: the fresh bean is a greenish colour, as seen in sproutetd mung beans and in dried whole mung beans where the skin is still on the bean (also known as green gram). The split bean - mung dal or moong dal - can be sold shows the paler interior, which can vary from creamy to bright yellow. And those bright yellow split mungbeans are sometimes called split yellow lentils, although usually lentils will be rounder and mung beans more, well, bean shaped! 

A great way to make the most of mung beans: this Korean prawn and vegetable mung bean pancake (they can also be made with green split peas). If you soak the beans overnight, the pancakes come together quickly:

Urad dal
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On Ashraf's list of her top three pulses is what she calls “my prince of pulses”.

“Urad is used for special occasions. It needs lots of planning in advance. You have to soak it for  hours, and it takes quite a long time to cook. Serve it with lashings of butter and ghee. Usually it’s served in a dal makhana … quite a decadent dal.”

As Ashraf’s description suggests, dal makhana is a rich, creamy dish. It comes from Northern India, and is one of the classic uses of urad dal (the SBS Hindi program shares a recipe here).  

Most commonly, urad refers to the whole form - a small back-skinned pulse with a pale white-cream interior - while urad dal refers to the skinless, split form. Whole skinned urad dal is another variation.

Try whole urad and urad dal, also known as black gram dal, in Kumar Mahadevan recipe for black lentils; in Madhur Jaffrey’s stir-fried orange pumpkin or in Holly Davis' fermented idli and dosa.

Other pulses that are also perfect for your pantry
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Faba/fava beans, also known as horse beans, broad beans and field beans, are green as a fresh bean but range from grey to brown or may even have a reddish tinge as a dried bean. Most types of fabas need to be peeled before eating. Australia is among the top five producers of faba beans in the world and is the leading exporter – most of our crop goes overseas.

Use them in dried board bean and cashew dip or this lamb and bean cassoulet.

Cannellini beans are pale white or creamy beans that may be slightly curved or almost straight. They have a mild taste and creamy texture, so can be used in dips, but they also hold their shape well.

Use them to add protein to a classic in beany mac and cheese, use them to make Boston baked beans for a baked bean and cheddar jaffle or use in this classic Greek bean soup.

Lupins are a rising star on the Aussie agriculture front. “There are two types of lupin produced in Australia, the Australian Sweet Lupin (ASL) and the Albus Lupin, popular in the Middle East and Europe. The ASL is a round with a yellow speckled pigment whereas the Albus Lupin is white with a flattened and oval shape. Immature lupin seeds can be used as a salad vegetable, in stir fries or for pickling. Lupin flour can easily be used to prepare similar foods to the full wheat foods by substituting 5-20 per cent wheat flour with lupin flour in the recipe,” Hughes tells us.

Black beans used to be hard to get outside specialist retailers, but these days you’ll find canned black beans on most supermarket shelves, and dried black beans are easier to find, too. They are particularly popular in Mexican dishes, but used in many other countries too.

Use them in Caribbean-style black bean soup, arepa (South American corn cakes) stuffed with beef and beans or black bean tacos with slaw.

A visual guide
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We’ve focussed on the more common varieties, which make a great starting point if you’re adding pulses to your pantry, but there’s plenty more to explore.

For visual guides to common pulses, here are some good resources: this guide to dals, legumes, lentils and beans; Sukhi Singh’s guide to guide to dals and lentils, part of a series on the Basics of Indian Cooking; and this visual guide from the Global Pulse Confederation (the GPD website also has some tips on cooking pulses). The veganricha blog has an easy to follow guide to both what various pulses look like, and their names in English and Hindi.

And a final note: In this guide, we’ve focussed on the whole and split forms of pulses, but of course bean and lentil flours are another way to enjoy them, from the crunchy glory of pakoras to chickpea pancakes (how about these French socca!).