My mom taught me to cook lentils and rice with lots of rinsing and careful par-cooking, so that everything ends up perfectly al dente, rather than mushing together into a lumpy porridge. Not that I have anything against porridges. It’s just that when it comes to mujadara (and rice more generally), I prefer separate grains.
My mom usually makes her perfect lentils and rice as an easy weeknight meal. But sometimes you want to make something vegan that’s a little more celebratory and special-occasion-worthy. And that’s where this mujadara with plenty of caramelized onions comes in.
why I love this mujadara recipe
This recipe is totally over the top. There are so many caramelized onions, they peek out over the top of the pot like an iceberg. And that’s a very good thing, because the onions are the best part. You slowly caramelize them until they’re the color of salted caramel ice cream, and then you fry a bunch of them until they’re deeply golden brown. These little extra steps set this dish apart as company food. If your guests are experienced home cooks, they will immediately understand the love that went into it. But even if they are clueless, they will enjoy it so much that the message won’t be lost on them.
notes on caramelizing onions
Writing about caramelized onions has become a bit of a fraught issue for recipe-developers after onion-gate 2012. To sum it up real quick, Tom Scocca claims that recipe writers have been deceiving us about the amount of time it takes to caramelize onions (perhaps yielding to editorial pressures to fit the 30-minute-meal format). They all seem to claim it takes 5 to 10 minutes, when we all know it takes a lot longer.
He started a conversation that has made many of us think more critically about the ways we describe onion caramelization. I loved Sarah Jampel‘s response in particular. She says that the problem has more to do with “our lack of specificity in regards to just how those onions should look, taste, and behave. What does caramelized mean?”
So I’ll just say that in this recipe, the onions shouldn’t just take on a little bit of brown color. They need to become totally soft and golden brown all the way through (see photos). Then some of them will get fried and turn even darker brown and crispy-chewy. I first learned this trick from Maureen Abood’s wonderful recipe, and then went way overboard with my own (but, like, overboard in a good way). However much you use, it’s nice to have a little bit of exciting crunch in such a comforting dish.Print
mujadara | lentils and rice with crispy onions
- Prep Time: 55 minutes
- Total Time: 2 1/2 hours
- Yield: 8 servings
To caramelize the onions:
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 pounds 12 ounces sliced onions (from about 3 large or 4 medium onions)
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the lentils and rice:
- One 16 ounce bag of green or brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
- 1/3 of the caramelized onions
- 1 cup basmati rice (rinsed)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
- 2 3/4 cups water
- 1/3 of the caramelized onions (above)
To fry the caramelized onions:
- 1 cup olive oil (plain, not extra virgin; or use another neutral-flavored oil)
- 2/3 of the caramelized onions (above)
- Caramelize the onions: Heat a wide pot (like a large dutch oven) over medium or medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Once the pan is hot, add the oil, followed by the sliced onions and salt. Stir to coat, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 2 or 3 minutes.* They should be loudly sizzling and lightly browning, but not burning on the bottom.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low or medium, and cook for another 20 minutes, stirring and scraping once every 5 minutes or so. They should still be audibly sizzling, but more quietly than before.
- Reduce the heat to low, and cook for 40 minutes, stirring and scraping about every 10 minutes. You should still be able to hear a faint whisper of sizzling.
- Increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring and scraping constantly for 5 to 10 more minutes. The onions are done once they have significantly deepened in color. Divide into 1/3 and 2/3 and set aside.
- Par-cook the lentils: Cover the lentils in a couple inches of water in a stock pot. Bring everything to a boil over high heat. Once they’re boiling, set a timer for 10 minutes, and reduce the heat to medium to maintain a good simmer.
- Start testing the lentils for doneness around the 10 minute mark. The lentils are ready once they are unpleasantly al dente. You should be able to chew one (it should be somewhat soft), but it should still be gritty and mealy. If they still have a hard center, continue to cook for a few more minutes (they shouldn’t take longer than 15).
- Once the lentils are ready, strain them and rinse them until the water runs clear. *
- Use a damp paper towel to wipe down the sides of the pot that you cooked the lentils in until the scum is completely gone.
- Cook the lentils and rice together: Add the lentils back into the pot, along with 1/3 of the caramelized onions, rice, salt, and water. Stir together and shake everything out into an even layer.
- Turn the heat to high. Once the water comes back up to a boil, cover, lower the heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes. Do not open the lid while it’s cooking.
- Once 15 minutes have passed, turn off the heat and keep the pot covered for another 10 minutes (up to 30). While you’re waiting, fry the rest of the onions.
- Fry the onions: Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers (about 4 minutes). Carefully add a scoop or two of the remaining caramelized onions and use tongs to spread them out into a single layer on the bottom of the pan.
- Cook for about 5 minutes until crispy-chewy and deeply golden brown. Before they burn or become too brittle (perhaps with your stove, before 5 minutes), remove them with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate, and add a couple more scoops of the onions to the pan, working in batches until they’re all done. Discard the remaining oil.
- To serve: Once it’s rested, fluff the lentils and rice with a fork.
- I like to stir some of the crispy onions into the mujadara, stir it together, and then top it with the rest (this results in a lot of different textures, which I like). But you can serve them all on top, or even on the side, to give everyone a chance to include as much onion as they prefer.
* At any point while you’re cooking the onions, if they look like they’re browning too quickly, reduce the heat a little. At any point, if there is a lot of fond that’s developing on the bottom of the pot, and you can’t easily scrape it up, simply deglaze with about 2 tablespoons of water, scraping up the bits. If either of these things happen, your onions might be a little on the dark side, but as long as you don’t let them burn, they’ll taste delicious.
Thanks for these recipes! I love your zesty lentil soup, but really need help with this and the piquant lentil rice recipe. I can’t manage to make them without very uneven cooking- mushy rice on bottom, crunchy rice on top of the pilaf. And when par-cooking the standard green lentils, some fall apart they are so cooked, and some are still whole and mealy. So I am unsure when to take the lentils off, and then struggle to get the rice on the top of the misfire cooked, even with a long rest. Should I try a harder boil? Softer boil? Shallower pot? Narrower pot? I don’t understand why I am having such trouble but it’s always a let down as the taste is delicious!
Ah that’s so tricky! Let me try my best to help you troubleshoot: While I could totally be wrong, my guess is that the lid is not quite tight-fitting enough, and perhaps the heat is too low? I’d also try to find a pot that’s similar to the one in these photos—something heavy that will retain heat. And I think perhaps a wider pot, something more like a Dutch oven, would help with the uneven cooking issue. I hope this helps, and that you find your lentils going in the right direction with a little experimenting!
#1 mujadara fan
This is my go-to celebration recipe, or dish I make when trying to show someone how much they mean to me. Including all the little sides I prepare with it, it becomes a very hands-on and labor intensive recipe (shelling pistachios, chopping up herbs for the preparation of different little sauces, etc. ) — closer to 3.5 hours, mostly active time, for sure. Thank you for giving me a new language through this recipe, to express my affection for those around me 🙂 ! I’ve been making it for the past few years, and it’s been wonderful every time.
Aw I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying it!! And it’s so true, it’s such a time-intensive process. I think it takes me a bit less time for me because I’m a very quick at slicing onions, but it’s so true, it can take much longer. And even if you’re very quick at slicing, it’s still such a labor of love. So, so true!
Can Leeks be used instead of white onions? Also, can any spices be added ex: cumin?
Great questions! Leeks don’t caramelize quite the same way as white onions, so I wouldn’t recommend using them here without some significant changes to the recipe’s technique and ratios (but if you’re up for experimenting, I say why not!). But totally feel free to add a little cumin with the onions in the last few minutes of caramelization—that should provide enough heat for it to temper.
Hi there, would red lentils work in this dish? Thank you!
Hi! Sorry for the late response, I’m just now getting to answer the week’s comments. Red lentils won’t work so well here, because they have a much faster cooking time, and are better in applications where you don’t mind a little lentil disintegration (soups, stews, curries, etc.). Hope that helps! Oh and if you’re looking for a way to use up a bunch of red lentils, try my red lentil soup: https://www.cardamomandtea.com/blog/lentil-soup-2
This was so good! I made a sauce out of 2 tsp mild harissa, half tsp white wine vinegar, quarter tsp sesame oil, quarter tsp EVOO, and finely chopped mint and coriander. Next time, I will double the amount of rice and fry the onions for 2-3 min. Thanks for sharing.
Oh yum that sounds like it would be delicious with this! It’s also traditionally eaten with yogurt, and I feel like a few of those ingredients would meld really wonderfully with a yogurt sauce.
Tried this recipe tonite and it was delicious! The directions for the onions were perfect, truly the best carmelized onions I have ever had. I have tried several recipes for mujahdara and this one outshines all of them.
Aw I’m so glad you enjoyed it!! 😀
I was reading Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey, and she writes about mjadara, and then I was curious about what it looked like. A google search later, and your image stood out in beauty and led me to your blog. I’m now a super fan of your work. Great writing and beautiful photos. Bravo.
Oh that is such a beautiful story of finding a recipe! <3 Thank you so much for your very kind words—that means so much!
My guests couldn’t get enough of the crispy caramelized onion. I was worried the dish would be dry – but it was perfect and a great vegetarian meal option.
Aw that makes me so happy! I’m so glad you and your guests enjoyed! 🙂
love, love, love, mujadara. totally obsessed with how amazing those crispy onions look too. beautiful!
Wow thank you so much! I’m such a fan of yours, so cool to hear from you here! 😀
Me, the excitable wannabe geologist : Oh what cool rocks! Wait, why are there rocks?
Me, the rational part: ….
I love mujadara, and can’t wait to try yours! I believe I’ve actually got some caramelized onions in the freezer…
Hahaha, oh my gosh, how did I miss this comment—that’s amazing. I always think seeds and legumes look like dinosaur eggs up close, but now I’m seeing them as funky looking rocks for the first time.
Aah, having a stock of caramelized onions is the bessssst. Hope you enjoy my recipe if you try it!