When you think of eating beans, chickpeas, or lentils, we bet the first foods that come to mind are hummus, lentil salads, black bean tacos, and split pea soups. But what if we told you these are just the beginning of what you can do with the little things?
It’s safe to say that pulses (that’s the official term for beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas) are pretty much the chameleons of the food world. Thanks to their mild flavor and creamy texture, these superfoods are some of the most versatile ingredients in your kitchen and can blend seamlessly into just about any recipe, from cookies to pizza crusts to creamy sauces. And because they’re loaded with protein, fiber, and antioxidants, pulses are pros at taking the place of other less-healthy ingredients, giving your meal or snack a big nutritional boost.
Here are 16 delicious, unexpected ways to do just that.
1. Trade croutons for popped lentils.
They might be small, but they sure are mighty. Lentils add major crunch to your salad, so there’s no need for croutons.
Try it: Place cooked lentils in a skillet with olive oil and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until they start to crisp up and pop open like popcorn kernels. Use them as a salad topper or as a garnish for soup.
2. Cut the meat in chili.
Swap in black or kidney beans for half the ground beef or turkey in any chili recipe. You’ll still get the rich, meaty flavor you crave while slashing saturated fat and bumping up fiber. Plus, beans are cheaper than most meats, so that’s a win.
Try it: If a recipe calls for a pound of ground beef, use half and then add a cup of black or kidney beans.
High in plant-based protein and fiber, pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas, and dry peas) are nutritious powerhouses. They’re easy to add into weeknight meals and on-the-go lunches. Sign up for the Half-Cup Habit challenge to eat a half cup serving of pulses three times per week for better health. For recipes, shopping lists, and lots of inspiration, go to pulses.org.
3. Use puréed pulses to thicken soups and stews.
Instead of traditional cream or roux (a mixture of cooked butter and flour), use pulses. We promise you won’t miss the heavy cream, and you’ll be adding in extra protein and fiber.
Try it: Try stirring puréed white beans into vegetable soups or chowders, or adding puréed kidney or pinto beans to gumbo. Start by swapping in an equal amount of puréed beans for the amount of heavy cream your recipe calls for.
Puréed navy or Great Northern beans have a rich, creamy texture that makes for an awesome mayo alternative.
Try it: Purée the beans in a food processor with olive oil, lemon juice, and a garlic clove to taste, until smooth. Slather on sandwiches, wraps, or burgers. Or use it in place of mayo in potato and pasta salads.
5. Use chickpeas in nondairy cream sauces.
You don’t need whole milk, butter, or cheese to make a delicious cream sauce. Give a combo of chickpeas and dairy-free milk a try instead.
Try it: Add equal parts chickpeas and unsweetened almond or cashew milk, along with your favorite seasonings (you can never go wrong with garlic), into a blender until smooth. The chickpeas will thicken into a rich, velvety sauce. Want it cheesy? Add nutritional yeast to taste.
6. Make lentil taco “meat.”
Hop on the Meatless Monday train by skipping the ground beef in favor of lentils for your next Tex-Mex meal.
Try it: In a food processor, pulse 2 cups whole, cooked lentils with 1/2 cup walnuts, 2 cloves garlic, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, and a squeeze of lime juice, until slightly crumbly. Scoop into taco shells and add your favorite toppings.
7. Trade chips for roasted chickpeas.
Chickpeas turn crisp and crunchy when roasted with olive oil, making them a delicious, nutrient-dense alternative to the usual salty snacks.
Try it: Toss them with cumin, smoked paprika, or shredded Parmesan before baking at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until the chickpeas are browned and crispy. Pro tip: Drying the chickpeas in a salad spinner after rinsing them will help the olive oil and spices add more flavor.
Adding beans to your blended drink might sound a little strange. But white beans and chickpeas have a neutral flavor and a smooth texture, so they’re great for adding an extra shot of protein and fiber to your smoothie.
Try it: Try white beans in place of your usual protein powder or nut butter the next time you’re making your morning smoothie. We think 2 to 4 tablespoons is a good place to start.
9. Use split peas as a binder instead of bread crumbs.
They’re not just for soup, guys. Cooked split peas have a dry, crumbly texture that binds just as well as bread crumbs.
Try it: Pulse them in a food processor and fold them into meatloaf, salmon burgers, or crab cakes. (Green and yellow split peas both work, but yellow split peas won’t alter the color of your food as much.) You can swap processed split peas 1:1 with bread crumbs.
10. Get super-crispy pizza crust with chickpea flour instead of white.
High-protein chickpea flour is a star stand-in for white flour in pizza crust, especially if you like it ultra thin and crispy. An added bonus? There’s no need to knead the dough or wait for it to rise.
Try it: Whip up your crust batter (use 2 parts chickpea flour to 1 part water, plus a teaspoon of olive oil for every cup of chickpea flour used—for example, 2 cups chickpea flour, 1 cup water, 2 teaspoons oil), bake it in a 375-degree oven for 15-20 minutes until crisp. Add toppings and bake again until cheese is melted and toppings are warmed through, about 5-7 minutes.
11. Make flatbreads out of red lentils instead of whole-wheat flour.
Even whole-wheat, store-bought flatbreads can be high in sodium and added sugar. But homemade red lentil flatbreads are free of unnecessary ingredients—and they’re packed with protein and fiber.
Try it: Soak 2/3 cup dry red lentils overnight; rinse; and blend with 1/2 cup water, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of baking powder. Spread the batter on a baking sheet in your desired shape (you know you want to do a heart), brush with olive oil, and bake in a 375-degree oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden.
Want to know a crazy secret? Using puréed black beans instead of white flour is the secret to ultra moist, fudgy brownies. Plus, it makes the brownies high protein, high fiber, and gluten-free.
Try it: Use equal parts puréed black beans in place of flour in your favorite brownie recipe (for example, if your recipe calls for 1 cup flour, use 1 cup black bean purée). If the mixture seems too wet, add back a tablespoon or two of flour (or almond flour, if you want to keep the brownies gluten-free). If the mixture seems too dry, add some water.
13. Swap chickpeas for flour in chocolate chip cookies.
Black beans aren’t the only pulse that’s great for baking. With puréed chickpeas, you can achieve chewy chocolate chip cookie perfection—without white flour, eggs, or butter. (Amazing, right?)
Try it: Substitute a 15-ounce can of chickpeas and a 1/2 cup of nut butter for the flour, eggs, and butter in your favorite cookie recipe. (The nut butter will act as a binder and make the cookies richer.) Bake them like regular cookies for a crisper texture, or roll the dough into balls and refrigerate for no-bake protein bites.
14. Use black beans in healthyish chocolate pudding instead of avocado.
Avocado isn’t the only ingredient that can take the place of whole milk and butter in chocolate pudding recipes. Puréed black beans are just as delicious, and they pack even more protein and fiber.
Try it: Substitute a cup of black beans for each avocado that your recipe calls for, and add in a tablespoon or two of melted coconut oil or almond butter to add some extra richness.
15. Make cookie dough dip with navy beans instead of flour.
What do you get when you purée navy beans, almond butter, brown sugar, vanilla extract, almond milk, and chocolate chips? A seriously delicious, nutrient-dense cookie dough dip that you can eat with a spoon or dunk fresh fruit into. Can’t say that about cookie dough made with flour, butter, and eggs, can ya?
Try it: Process a 15-ounce can of navy beans, 1/2 cup almond butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in a food processor until smooth. If the mixture seems too thick, add unsweetened almond milk, one tablespoon at a time, until it reaches your desired consistency. Fold in 3/4 cup dark chocolate chips. Get out a spoon and dig in.
16. Use pulses as a bed.
Give your plate a nutrient-dense base by using beans, chickpeas, lentils, or peas in place of white pasta, rice, or potatoes.
Try it: Serve tomato-rich dishes like chicken parm over white beans, layer fish over lentils, or try tempeh and veggie stir-fries over chickpeas. Their starchy texture will absorb the flavor of your sauce.