Humanity-Saving (Beef Reducing) Lentil Taco Recipe

There is almost unanimous agreement that in order to realize a sustainable food future AND dramatically reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to limit the impacts of climate change for our kids and their kids, we’re going to have to eat a lot less beef. This does not mean a sad and flavorless food future, and it doesn’t mean we have to all turn vegan. Small changes can result in huge impacts and lentils are a great way to start – BUT you have to know a few tricks to up your game on the lentil / ground beef switcheroo….

Why does this matter to the world?

First of all, let’s all get on the same page regarding our food choices impact on the environment. I’m going to just focus here on greenhouse gas emissions but there are other environmental comparisons such as land and water use and they all also favor a low-beef diet! Environmental Working Group produced this Meat Eater’s Guide and in it is this graph showing the comparison of the equivalent greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions of various food items. As you can see – beef is GHG heavy, lentils are GHG oh so very tiny.

If you don’t know how greenhouse gases impact the planet and our global temperatures, watch this cheezy film my kids and I filmed and edited (watch from 0:30 to 1:47 for this explanation).

Transitioning your diet from meat-heavy to veggie-heavy does not have to happen over-night. It’s OK to gradually introduce more and more veggie alternatives and steadily increase this amount until you will likely realize you rarely crave the animal counter-part. Bonus points – meal prep and clean-up is so much easier when you take out the animal, money spent on food drops dramatically AND most of these alternatives are healthier options.

Slightly undercooking the Lentils is KEY to great texture

One of the best places to begin is to use lentils as a ground beef replacement. This can be a total replacement, half beef/half lentils or any mix that works for you. I have found that one of the keys to this successful transition is knowing how to cook the lentils to most closely match the “mouth feel” of beef. Cooking them passively (with minimal energy) helps them not get too agitated while cooking so they stay intact as perfect little lentil gems AND keeps them a bit on the firm side which makes them “feel” like beef when you eat them. Overcooked lentils are fine if you’re making a soup and looking for a little creaminess (recipe coming soon) but for the ground beef switch-out, undercooking is best. This also allows you to jazz them up after they’re cooked without them turning to mush.

I learned this lesson the hard way – I was teaching my energy efficient cooking physics course and singing the praises of replacing beef with lentils…”really, you all are not going to believe how much this will taste like beef…” So – I had the student split into groups and prepare lentil tacos AND I may have left out this critical “don’t overcook the lentils” instruction. So – they basically ended up with this taco-ish refried bean-like mushy blob … Um, safe to say I was not on track to win their trust in me that this point and that lentil mush remained one of our running jokes through out the semester - live and learn!

To make life easy, I make at least 2 pounds of lentils at a time, I use what I need immediately and freeze the rest in wide-mouth pint mason jars for the recipes of my future. I find that 1 pound of lentils, when cooked properly, provides the ground beef replacement for more than 1 pounds of cooked ground beef. A pound of dry lentils has about the same amount of protein as a pound of beef and typically costs about $1.50. Got your attention?

Buy dry green lentils, with little to no packaging (BYO reusable bag and scoop from bins available in many grocery stores).

Cooking the Lentils – Standard pot

Rinse the lentils and put them in a large pot (enameled cast iron works great because it’s fantastic at retaining thermal energy, but any pot will work). Add 5 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of dry lentils. Bring this to a boil and once you have a rigorous boil, turn off the heat but keep the pot on the cooling burner, put a lid on the pot and walk away.

Here’s where the passive cooking begins…Let the water’s awesome thermal resilience (high specific heat) do the cooking as it slowly cools. Since it will no longer be actively boiling, this method does not break up the lentils and they will look beautiful and intact – no separation of the skin from the insides. Let them sit undisturbed for 45 minutes (don’t go too long – they’ll turn to mush). Test a few to make sure they’re cooked but slightly firm and drain the water and remove the lid. Let them cook 5-10 more minutes if they’re too firm. We now want to cool them quickly so they don’t over cook. A quick rinse of cold water will also help.

Cooking the Lentils – InstantPot

If you have an instant pot (and I would really recommend an electric pressure cooker!), it’s even easier (and quicker). Rinse the lentils and put them in the InstantPot. Add 5 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of dry lentils. Set the InstantPot to “Steam” for 4 minutes. It will automatically bring the water to a boil and pressure cook at the lower pressure setting. Four minutes and you are DONE – once the cooker beeps, indicating that the 4 minutes are done, release the pressure manually (flip the vent knob to “vent”) and open the lid. Test a few lentils to confirm they are cooked. If they are tender with a bit of firmness, drain the water. If they could use a bit more cooking time, just let them sit in the hot water (no need to re-pressurize the cooker) for 5 minutes and taste again. Drain the water when they reach the desired texture (remember the goal is to slightly under cook them since we'll still be sautéing them). We now want to cool them quickly so they don’t over cook. A quick rinse of cold water will also help.

Now the fun part - Using these lentil wonders in recipes

Great – now you have oodles of ground beef replacements – great for tonight’s meal and a few more to come (fast food redefined!). Use what you need now and store the rest in wide-mouth mason jars in the freezer - ready at a moment's notice (2 minutes in the microwave makes these quick to defrost).

Use these in any recipe that calls for browned ground beef. A few minutes in a skillet with taco seasoning, for example will produce the start of amazing (and super inexpensive and healthy) tacos – add some salsa, onions, lettuce, cheddar, avocado and a tortilla shell and you have a great, quick meal.

Tacos with Lentils

Mix the following together to replace a pre-packaged taco seasoning packet

  • 1 teaspoon Onion Powder

  • ½ teaspoon Salt

  • 1 teaspoon Chili Powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon Cornstarch

  • 1-2 cloves Garlic (use garlic press)

  • 1/2 teaspoon Cumin

  • 1/4 teaspoon Dry Oregano (or ½ teaspoon fresh – easy to grow in a container)

  • 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional but yummy!)

Heat a skillet (cast iron is best) to medium high

Add 2 Tablespoons canola oil

Add 2 cups of undercooked lentils (cook as described above) and the spice mixture listed above

Add ½ cup water

Allow mixture to cook until it just boils.

Leave is on a simmer for a few minutes without a lid for the water to evaporate.

Turn off the burner, load in a taco shell, top with anything that makes your taco happy and ENJOY!

Your Lentil Taco Awaits!

But don’t stop there – try replacing ground beef with these lentil wonders in your other favorite ground beef recipes such as sloppy Joes, stuffed peppers or shepherds pie. The options are endless! Every time you replace all or some of the ground beef with these, you are making an enormously positive impact on your food’s environmental impact. Have fun with it!

Delicious lentil stuffed peppers!

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