How to Make a Simple Red Lentil Dal at Home

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This masoor dal, or red lentil dal, is aromatic and simple to make at home. It's a flavorful weeknight meal, paired with basmati rice, quinoa, roti or naan.

This recipe for dal is quick, simple and flavorful, so it’s perfect to make at home on busy weeknights. This simple recipe can be cooked half a dozen different ways with slight variations, including a variety of lentils. Here I have used red lentils to make masoor dal.

This recipe is very forgiving. If you haven’t tried making dal at all or if you have recently turned to a vegetarian or plant-based diet, dal is going to be your friend for life. If you are new to using Indian spices, this is a good experimenting ground to test out simple variations and combinations. Take a minute to learn how to make paneer at home.

What Is Dal?

Comforting bowl of red lentil dalEat More Art by Sonal for Taste of Home

The word “dal” is used interchangeably for the raw form of lentils, as well as for the dishes cooked using these lentils. Lentils hold a significant place in the Indian pantry and are an indispensable part of Indian meals.

In ancient Indian texts, some recipes for dal date back to 303 BC. The recipes have evolved over decades, but the significance has only become stronger with more and more people converting to a vegetarian or plant-based diet. A significant percent of the Indian population follows a vegetarian diet and for them, dal is one of the primary sources of protein and fiber.

Types of Dal

There are many different types of lentils, or dal. Each state across India has different dal recipes that are popular in that specific region. In addition, most households have their own signature dal recipes with distinct twists and variations.

Dal Ingredients

There can be hundreds of different permutations and combinations of a dal recipe! The most important components of a dal recipe are the variety of lentil, the kind of spices and tempering used, the vegetables added or skipped and the texture of the finished dal.

The most simple form of a dal recipe is prepared by boiling the lentils and tempering it with various spices, in addition to onion, ginger, garlic and tomatoes.

Some of the commonly used lentils in Indian households are yellow split pigeon peas, skinned black gram lentils, split Bengal gram lentils, red lentils and split and skinned green gram (shown in this order below).

Variety of lentilsEat More Art by Sonal for Taste of Home

Red Lentil Dal Recipe

Ingredients

Ingredients used to make the best dal at homeEat More Art by Sonal for Taste of Home

  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ghee/butter (use oil for vegan version)
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup tomato, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cloves
  • 1-inch piece cinnamon
  • 1 black cardamom pod
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder (or to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 dried red chili pepper, optional

Note: The whole spices are optional. It does give great aroma and taste to the dal, but if you don’t have all of these spices, feel free to skip them.

Tools You’ll Need

  • Pressure cooker. You’ll need an Instant Pot or a stovetop pressure cooker. This Instant Pot comes highly recommended by our Test Kitchen.
  • Nonstick saucepan. This simple nonstick saucepan is ideal for tempering spices.
  • Serving bowl. I love the warm wood color of this serving bowl from Crate + Barrel.

Directions

Step 1: Prep the ingredients

Soak the lentils for at least 30 minutes. Once soaked, drain the water and wash the lentils well with fresh water.

Chop the onion and tomato. Finely chop ginger, garlic and cilantro.

Step 2: Boil the dal

You can boil the dal, or lentils, using one of three methods:

  • Instant Pot method: Add the washed dal, 1-1/2 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon chopped ginger to the Instant Pot. Close the lid and pressure cook on high for 4 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally. (This is how natural release works.)
  • Stovetop pressure cooker method: Add the washed dal, 1-1/2 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon chopped ginger to a pressure cooker. Close the lid, put the whistle on and pressure cook for 3 whistles. Let the pressure release naturally before opening the lid of the pressure cooker.
  • Stovetop saucepan method: Add the washed dal, 3 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon chopped ginger to a saucepan. Close the lid and cook for 20-25 minutes over medium heat, or until the dal is soft and mushy.

Step 3: Temper the dal

This step is called tadka in Hindi—and it adds a whole new layer of awesome flavors to the dal.

To start, heat a tablespoon of oil, ghee or butter. When the oil heats up, add the whole spices (star anise, cinnamon, black cardamom, bay leaf). Saute for 30 seconds. Add 1/2 teaspoon of cumin seeds.

When the cumin seeds splutter, add the chopped garlic and ginger. Saute for 30 seconds. Add the remaining chopped onions and saute for about 2-3 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes. To get nice red color, add tomato paste. (I added half a chopped tomato and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste.)

Then, add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of garam masala powder, 1/2 teaspoon of red chili powder and 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric powder. Add 1/4 cup of water if the the spices stick to the bottom of the pan. The spices should cook well, but not burn. Saute for 5-7 minutes. The tempering is ready!

Step 4: Mix the tempering with the dal

Add the boiled dal to the tempering, including all of the water.

Note: If you have used the stovetop method to boil dal and there is excess water, you may remove some. Add an extra 1/2 teaspoon of garam masala, and bring the dal to a boil over medium heat.

If you like the dal to be smooth, mash the dal with a masher. Simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and garnish the dal with chopped coriander leaves. The dal is ready!

Step 5: Make another tempering, optional

This step is completely optional. However, it adds extra flavor and aroma to the dal.

This tempering is added when serving the dal. It also allows you to add additional chili powder, in case you have made the rest of the dal mild.

For this, heat a tablespoon of ghee, oil or butter. Add 1/2 teaspoon of cumin seeds, dried red chili and some julienned ginger. Once the cumin seeds sputter, turn off the heat. Add 1/2 teaspoon of red chili powder. Pour a spoonful of tempering on each serving of dal, and you’re ready to eat.

How to Serve Dal

A platter of Dal, rice, & naanEat More Art by Sonal for Taste of Home

To serve the dal, pour it into a bowl and top with a spoonful of the second tempering. Garnish with chopped cilantro leaves. You can also serve a wedge of lemon on the side. The dal goes well with rice, quinoa, roti, chapati, naan paratha (Indian flatbreads) or any other kind of bread.

The dal can be enjoyed with rice or roti, naan, paratha (Indian flatbreads) or any other kind of Indian bread. The dal also tastes great as a soup. For the soup version, add extra water when boiling the dal.

Dal Cooking Tips

  • Soaking the dal helps reduce the cooking time, plus it’s beneficial for digestion. In case you do not have time to soak, increase the cooking time to make sure the dal is boiled well.
  • In order to make quick weeknight meals, you can pre-boil and freeze the lentils. It stays well in the refrigerator for up to 2 days and in the freezer for 7 days. The best way to prepare quick meals is to boil and freeze the lentils. When making the meal, just defrost the dal and then prepare fresh tempering in less than 20 minutes. This will cut out the soaking and boiling time.
  • For tempering, a combination of oil and ghee goes really well. A dollop of ghee takes the flavor of the dal up several notches. If you follow a vegan diet, olive oil works just fine.

How to Make This Recipe Your Own

You can meal prep for the whole week by pre-soaking the dal. Boil the lentils with some salt over the weekend and freeze them. When ready to eat, make fresh tempering, and the finished dal will be ready ASAP!

Here are dal variations that you can make using boiled lentils:

  1. Follow the above recipe, but use a different lentil variety.
  2. Add a handful of spinach or other vegetables of your liking to the first tempering and make spinach dal.
  3. Skip the first tempering all together and whisk the dal to make it into a smoother consistency. Then, add lots of ginger or garlic, and nothing else. Bring to a simmer and then top with lemon juice and cilantro to make a delicious dal soup.
  4. Make panchmel dal by mixing 5 different types of dal. This “combination dal” can also be made using less than 5 different dals.
  5. Add some salt, ghee and turmeric to the boiled dal, bring it to a simmer. Skip the rest of the tempering to keep the meal simple and comforting.

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Eat More Art by Sonal
Sonal is the founder of the award-winning, vegetarian food blog Eat More Art. Eat More Art is ambrosia celebrating love, beauty, and wholesomeness on a platter.