Hi there!! If you are an Indian, and if you ever found yourself staring at your pantry looking at different Daals – chana, moong, toor, masoor, Urad etc (split/non-split, hulled, non-hulled) and feel kind of lost on how to use them all up; don’t worry, you are not alone, this post will give you a bird’s eye view on different ways to cook/process them.
If you are not an Indian…maybe you are a vegan learning about lentils and peas, maybe you are not….maybe you are just curious about the different ways Indians cook lentils or daals and had a million questions while reviewing recipes or looking at Youtube videos like:
- Why does the recipe ask me to soak lentils?
- Which ones can I sprout?
- Can I pressure cook any lentil?
- What does roasting a lentil achieve? etc, etc..
I hope I can help you find answers below.
A brief sojourn into nomenclature:
Let’s just get a basic understanding of these terms. The words daals, lentils, legumes get thrown around a lot. Are they the same? The answer depends on how technically accurate you want to get.
According to “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee, (a scientific bible for food researchers), he describes lentils so: “The Latin word for lentil, lens, gives us our word for a lentil-shaped, or double convex, piece of glass.” He goes on to give examples of lentils as French lentille de Puy, the black beluga, the green Spanish pardina, and our very own masoor dal.
So, technically speaking, all the Indian daals comes under the umbrella of Legumes or Pulses. Toor Dal belongs to the family of Pigeon Peas, Mung bean, and Urad dal (also called as black gram) come under legume genus Vigna and Chana dal comes from the bean family Cicer Arietinum.
But, I think I know why we use the word lentils on a colloquial basis, rather than legumes. It is because – the way they appear in our pantry looks very different from the way they appear in the plant. If you take urad, toor, moong or chana – all of their skins have been removed and they are split to produce a somewhat lentil-like shape.
Now, I could use the word dal (daal, dhal) and that’s ok too… just 1 thing to note…The word Dal refers to both the dry uncooked legume and also a cooked dish made with it – a thick, cooked stew. This stew can be as simple as: pressure cook the split legumes with water until soft and mushy, then add salt. Or it can be more complex with onion-tomato tadka, etc.
Similarly, you will also see the words paruppu, pappu or bele which are the tamil, telugu, and kannada language equivalents of the Hindi word Daal. I am sure there are lot more regional Indian names for Daals (India is a land of many languages, after all), but again they all refer to both the dry version and the cooked stew version. Ok, I hope I haven’t confused you all too much. Now, on to the cooking part, or should I say: “denaturing the protein” part.
Denaturing the protein in a Legume
Cooking the legumes with water, making them into a mush, and eating them with roti or rice is probably the most popular way of assimilating the protein from the legume. However, that is not the only way. You can access the protein from the legume via:
- Roasting + powdering
- Soaking + grinding
- Soaking, grinding + fermentation
- Soaking + Sprouting
What is happening to the protein inside in these different cases? They are all different ways of accessing the protein (denaturing) from the daals. Harold McGee states that “denaturing protein means undoing their natural structure by chemical or physical means. This means breaking the bonds that maintain the molecule’s folded shape.”
He goes on to say: “Denaturing is not a change in composition, only a change in structure”. But – and this is important – “Structure determines behavior and denatured proteins behave very differently from their originals.”
So, using different ways of cooking the same daal – for e.g. – say Urad dal – pressure cooking gives you a creamy dal makhani, fermenting gives you a soft, spongy idli, or grinding and frying gives you a crispy vada. The same legume, through different ways of processing, can give you such different results in texture and taste. Isn’t that amazing??!!
Different ways to cook the Legumes
Let us start with the simplest, most intuitive way of cooking a daal. Boil or pressure cook it till it gets soft.
Can you boil/ pressure cook any daal? Yes, absolutely!! First of all, pressure cooking is just boiling on steroids – just a much faster way!! That too pressure cooking with an Instant Pot – it is a damn delight!!
Secondly, the devil is in the details. Most commonly boiled/ pressure cooked legumes are toor, masoor, chana and moong. The time needed to pressure cook will depend on the size of the daal. The smaller the dal, the lesser the time.
Also, Chana dal never gets mushy soft like Toor (Toor is from the peas family, after all). So, there will be textural difference to watch out for. Urad dal gets slimy when pressure cooked. As you get familiar with cooking different lentils, you will pick up these nuances.
But, if you are entirely new to cooking… Stick 1 cup any dal, 2 cups water in a saucepan, cover it with a lid – and cook it for 20-30 minutes (or pressure cook for 5-10 minutes).
If it looks soft, add salt and you can eat it; else boil it some more. Congrats, you have made your first daal, well…sort of a lame one (sorry :)), but, yay, you did it…your first baby step!!
Roasting the Daal (Legume)
Whenever you bake bread, fry falafels, or make crispy dosas, the lovely brown color, the wonderful aroma and the sharp rise in flavor happens because of Maillard reaction. For Maillard reaction to happen, you need proteins and sugar. It also happens more prominently at temperatures 285 F/140 C or above.
- Boiling – 212F/ 100C
- Steaming – 212F/ 100C
- Pressure Cooking – 250F/120 C
- Maillard reaction – 285 F, 140 C
- Caramelization – 330- 400F, 165-200 C
The temperature of water can’t rise above 212 F/100 C (unless it is in high pressure in a pressure cooker). So, foods that are cooked in hot water or steam will never exceed 212F. But, the outer surface of foods cooked in oil, or hot pan quickly reach the temperature of the pan – 300F or more.
Ok, back to our legumes – South Indians use this Maillard principle all the time when making Sambar powders, idli milagai podi and all kinds of flavoring powders.
They will roast the lentils directly on a pan (no water involved) on low heat (to prevent burning), but stirring constantly until it changes color to a golden brown and smells heavenly. At this point, the lentil starts to behave like a spice.
The roasted lentils along with other roasted spices, salt get powdered. This powder can be eaten along with rice, idli’s or used to flavor and thicken stews, vegetable curries etc.
Ok, if Maillard reaction is so awesome, why don’t we just roast all the dals this way and then boil/pressure cook them? Unfortunately, you can’t do that – remember I talked earlier about how denaturing the protein changes its structure. The roasted lentils become hard in texture. This makes it tougher – yes, you heard that right – tougher to cook. See the results for yourself in this real-life experiment of roasting the daal and cooking it.
There are exceptions though (Indian cuisine, really all complex cuisines, have exceptions to rules….but I digress). Legumes with skin (hull) are prone to attracting insects. One way to keep them fresh is by roasting them. Whenever this is done, however, almost all recipes will then call to grind it after the roasting; reducing the size thereby making the cooking time reasonable.
Another exception to the rule is if the legume is really small – e.g, split moong dal. Normal pressure-cooking time is just 5 minutes. But roasting it (e.g. for pongal or dal payasam recipes) adds flavor and aroma. In order to compensate for the roasting, we have to add extra cooking time to the roasted lentils. In the case of pongal, the roasted moong dal now matches the cooking time of rice (the other ingredient in the recipe) – which is 10-12 minutes. So, it all works out!!
Soaking the daals (legumes)
Boil/Pressure cook the soaked legumes
When you soak any legume in water for a few hours or overnight, first thing that happens is, it absorbs the water and expands in volume.
I studied the changes in volume after soaking lentils overnight:
- 1 cup Toor Dal becomes 2.5 cups
- 1 cup Chana Dal becomes 2.25 cups
- 1 cup Urad Dal becomes 2.25 cups
- 1 cup Moong Dal becomes 2.125 cups
With the legume now hydrated, it should boil/pressure cook much faster than its dry counterpart. This process especially makes sense for the larger dals – like chana.
Very rarely, will you ever find anyone asking to soak a small lentil like – split moong or masoor, which easily turns to mush within 5 minutes of pressure cooking. The exception is if they are going to process it differently – e.g. – roast like halwa or fry like pakoda.
Grind the soaked legumes
When you soak the legume overnight, at one point it stops absorbing water. We now have a swollen legume, which can be ground and made digestible with heat, but with the addition of very little extra water.
Why am I harping on about hydrated legumes? You see, rather than you deciding “let me add 2 or 3 cups of water for 1 cup of dry lentils”; the lentil is now telling you – “I have drank enough water to hydrate myself. Just grind me up, then heat me up (via roasting, frying, etc)”…and you have yourself a high-density snack like vada, halwa or paruppu usili.
This soaking and grinding method denatures the legume protein in such a way that it starts to behave like a grain. No more mushy, soft, disintegrating dals. Now we have solid, granular cooked legumes – see my Chana Dal laddu and steamed moong salad as examples.
Ferment the soaked legumes
The above step of soaking and grinding gives out great dishes:
Soak – > Grind
But, given the low-levels of water in the overall dishes (and high density), it makes it tougher for old people, or people with weak digestive systems to digest.
But in the wonderful world of Indian cuisine, they figured out that you can add 1 extra step to it – ferment and you get a batter that yields delicious, easily digestible dishes like idli or doklas. Remember, now the process has become:
Soak -> Grind -> Ferment
If all this seems too long a process for you, then don’t worry. Most Indian stores carry Idli, Dosa batter where the steps have already been done for you.
A few quick notes about legume fermentation. Hands down, Urad dal (black gram) is the queen of fermentation compared to the other lentils. The Urad dal needs no starter, grabs bacteria from the air and using lactic acid fermentation produces a slightly sour-tasting voluminous batter. You can also try and ferment other lentils, but they won’t fluff as much as Urad.
*A not-so-scientific tip here – you will notice when you soak urad dal, bubbles start to form at the top. This itself is a clue that it is most amenable to being fermented. You will see the same effect with fenugreek seeds too.
For traditional fermented doklas, made with chana dal, yogurt is used as a starter culture.
If you have the legume in it’s original form with hull and non-split; then soaking it and draining will yield sprouts in a few days.
You can, of course, eat them raw. Which is the most popular way of thinking about sprouts – and sadly, the terrible way.
The following is my opinion only… If I offend any sprout lovers, I apologize in advance.
Who came up with the idea of eating sprouts only raw? Yes, yes, I know the argument – you will tell me that cooking it will kill all the nutrition.. etc, etc. But, I hate eating raw sprouts – the wet crunch is a non-starter for me – Me!! a health-nut, by most accounts – I cannot stand the thought of raw sprouts.
But, if I can cook the sprouts, increase the digestibility of the protein, and actually like eating it that way, then why the heck not?
I think, the Maharastrians have figured this all out much earlier. They have made a dish – Matki Usal, that is so finger-licking delicious, that you forget that the Moth beans has been sprouted. I also love to steam sprouts, and add it to chaats.
I hope you found this overview of different ways of cooking legumes in the Indian cuisine useful. Have you tried making the recipes mentioned above? What is your favorite method? Please post in the description box below. I would love to hear from you!! If you want to read similar posts on Indian Ingredients, do check out:
Amazon Affiliate Link
On Food and Cooking