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All You Need to Know About Cooking Kale
I feel like I didn’t hear the word “kale” until 5-7 years ago.
It’s very possible I was living under a culinary rock. And by rock I mean eating the same thing every day because I didn’t know how to cook anything else.
These days, I can’t imagine life without kale. We seem to have a never ending supply from spring to fall because we pack it in our garden (we’ll talk more about planting kale below). And I couldn’t be happier about it.
Yes, kale is super healthy (again, more on that below).
But, my favorite thing about kale? It’s versatility.
Kale is the perfect leafy green to always have in your fridge when you’re as busy as you are. It keeps well and can be used a ton of different ways. Salads, stews, braises, smoothies, soups, roasted dishes, sauces, grilled, the list goes on.
Once you learn how to cook kale – eat kale raw – you’ll always be just a few minutes away from instantly adding a nutrition packed veggie to your simple weeknight meals.
So, let’s learn everything you need to know about how to eat kale so you can simplify your life by using one leafy green instead of many.
What is Kale?
Kale is a hardy, leafy green that is part of the Brassica family. It has gained popularity because of its nutritional benefits, versatility, and ease of growing. At this point, it is muscle memory for me to pick up a bunch of kale during my weekly grocery store visit. I know that I will use it at some point.
Kale has a slight bitter taste and is often eaten cooked because of its fibrous leaves. However, it makes a great raw salad with the right preparation. It is often used in stews, braises, stir-fries and roasted dishes where you want to add some green because it holds up well during the cooking process. Cooking kale also reduces bitterness.
Kale Nutrition Facts
According to the USDA, 100 grams (about 1.5 cups) of kale has the following nutritional values:
- Calories: 53
- Fat: 0.88 grams
- Protein: 3.54 grams
- Carbohydrates: 9.73 grams
- Fiber: 1.8 grams
- Sugar: 0 grams
Health Benefits of Kale
Kale is a popular “superfood” for its dense nutritional value. According to the Mayo Clinic, kale is packed with vitamins A, K, B6 and C, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese. In fact, it has more vitamin C than any other green. Studies have even shown that it may decrease some forms of cancer.
For more kale nutrition, check out this article on the 12 Health Benefits of Kale: Why You Should Eat More Kale.
Potential Downsides to Kale
Kale is a very nutrient dense food. But, there are a few risks to watch out for.
First off, it is one of the higher risk vegetables for pesticide contamination. According to the Environmental Working Group, kale was the third most at risk fruit or vegetable in terms of pesticide contamination. So, if you purchase non-organic kale, be sure to give it a good wash before eating.
Raw kale is also high in a potentially harmful compound called goitrin, High amounts of goitrin may be harmful to thyroid function and lower iodine levels. However, studies have shown that consuming a moderate amount of raw kale per day is not harmful to thyroid function.
Types of Kale
You will most likely find several types of kale at your grocery store or farmer’s market. Here’s a rundown of each and when to use them.
Probably the most widely available kale. If there is kale at your grocery store, it’s most likely curly kale. It is green to pale green with leaves that frill (or curl) at their ends. You can often find this in a bag or in a bunch. This is the most bitter version of kale. Versatile and easy to grow, this kale is great for tossing in soups, a saute pan, or smoothies.
Lacinato Kale (also known as Tuscan, Dinosaur, or Dino)
Dark green kale with straight, slender leaves. This kale is more tender, sweet, and easier to eat compared to the curly type. I see this in most grocery stores, but it’s definitely not in every single one. This is the best type of kale for eating raw. Thinly sliced and dressed, this kale makes a killer salad.
This more colorful kale variety has large bluish-green leaves and magenta stems that intensify color as the weather gets colder. Basically, there are a bunch of different hues ranging from blue to red going on. Red Russian kale is the most mild compared to the other types of kale on this list. It’s great raw because it’s leaves aren’t as fibrous.
Redbor (or Red) Kale
Another colorful kale variety is one that you may also see at your grocery store. I see Redbor kale at my local Whole Foods. It looks very similar to curly kale except the leaves and stems are a mix of deep red, maroon, and purple. It all just looks purple to me. Its flavor is milder than curly kale, but it is great for adding a blast of color to your dishes.
How to Buy Kale
Look for kale with bright, sturdy, and rigid leaves without wilting. Stay away from bunches with slimy, yellow, brown, or bruised leaves.
You will most likely have the choice to buy a bunch or a bag of kale. I like using bunches of kale, so I can easily manage stems and leaves. Kale leaves and stems need to be cooked at different lengths. Plus, they can be cooked completely differently.
When you buy a bag, you’ll often have chopped up kale leaves with stems attached. It would be a pain to separate kale after it has already been chopped.
But, if you’re using kale for a soup or stew, a bag could save you some prep time.
Where to Buy Kale
As always, the best place to buy fresh produce is at your local farmer’s market. If that is not an option because of the season or you don’t have a market near you, no worries. Kale is widely available.
My local Whole Foods has bunched curly, Lacinato, and Redbor kale varieties. Plus, chopped bagged kale. That is some nice variety right there. In most cases, your local grocery store will at least have curly kale and maybe chopped bagged kale.
Another option is buying your produce online. I write all about the best places produce delivery services in this post.
When is Kale Season?
Kale is a hardy, cool season green that is harvested in the spring, late summer and into fall. It can tolerate light frosts, so its season even goes into early winter. Typically, September is considered prime time for kale. That is one of the reasons you see it in so many soups and braises.
If you’re just getting started out with an gardening, kale should be on your list of the first edibles to plant. It is one of the easier greens to grow. Just watch out for groundhogs once kale leaves have grown because they’ll reduce your plants to a single stem. Unfortunately, I know this firsthand.
Planting From Seed
Place kale seeds directly into soil in early spring, about 1/2 inch deep. After 2 to 3 weeks, you should see some seedlings popping up. Pluck some of the seedlings out of the ground so each plant is 8 to 12 inches apart.
Planting From Seedling
You can also buy a kale plant and place directly into soil. Remove the plant and soil from its container and place at the same depth as the container. Space plants 18-24 inches apart.
In our garden, we plant kale seeds directly into the ground in early spring. The area is pretty shady, so we actually get kale starting in early summer through late fall. If you have questions about planting kale, let me know by leaving a comment and I’ll reach out to my garden manager (aka my wife).
Want more directions on planting kale? Check out the Old Farmer’s Almanac here.
How to Prepare Kale
How to Store Kale
Store kale in a plastic bag or sealed container in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. It should keep for several days and up to a week. It stores better than more delicate greens like spinach and lettuce.
Understanding Kale Leaves and Kale Stems
A kale leaf has two parts: a stem and its leaf. It’s important to understand that these two pieces cook at different rates and have very different textures.
A kale stem is more like a piece of broccoli (which is actually in the same family – brassica – as kale) than a leafy green. It needs to be treated as such. Leaves are typically the star of the kale show.
In most cases, your kale preparation starts with separating the leaves and stems. Strip leaves from kale stems by tightly pinching the stem and running your fingers along it. Or rip each leaf half off the stems.
I hate wasting food. So, I always use my kale stems. If I’m cooking kale, I’ll chop up and add stems to the heat a few minutes before I add my leaves. For example, if I’m cooking kale in a pan, I’ll chop up the stems and add 3 or so minutes before adding the leaves. Or if I’m roasting, I’ll add stems to the baking sheet 10 minutes or so before I add the leaves.
There are a bunch of other uses for kale stems. Here are some ideas from the Kitchn.
How to Wash Kale
There are ways to wash kale and other greens. And then there is the best and easiest way to wash them. That is by using a salad spinner.
Using a salad spinner is the only way I wash greens anymore. But, it wasn’t until I learned how to use it correctly that I became a devout user. So, I made this post on how to use a salad spinner to help you make cleaning greens less of a hassle. Here is the salad spinner I use that made my life easier.
If you don’t have a salad spinner, you can use a similar technique. Fill a large bowl with ice water, add kale leaves and give them a good swirl to shake off that grit. Let sit in the water for 10 or so minutes for the dirt to fall to the bottom of the bowl. Then remove the greens, shake off excess water, and pat dry with a towel..
How to Cut Kale
The main piece with cutting kale is separating the leaves from stems which we already talked about. How you cut the leaves and stems after that depends on how you’ll be eating them.
If you’re eating kale raw, thinly slice leaves and reserve stems for another use. In most other cases, tear are chop kale leaves into large bite-sized pieces. Chop stems or reserve for another use.
How can I make raw kale easier to eat?
Raw kale is fibrous and tough. It isn’t very pleasant to chew. So, soften kale by salting and massaging it. This tenderizes and softens raw kale to make it more enjoyable to eat.
After you slice up the kale leaves, place them in a large bowl. Toss with salt, a hit of acid like vinegar or lemon juice if you please, and massage the kale for about 1 minute until they just start to wilt. You want crispy, not chewy or mushy – which you can get if you massage too much. While you prep the rest of your ingredients, the kale will continue to soften up.
Alternatively, dress kale with an acidic vinaigrette or other dressing ahead of time. Let it marinate while you prepare the rest of your meal. This will also help soften.
In all cases, thinly slice kale leaves when eating raw. Thinner leaves means less fibers per leaf to chew through.
Do I need to massage kale?
Who doesn’t love a good massage? Kale does in some cases.
For a good rule of thumb, you should massage kale when you’re eating raw pieces that are not thinly sliced. If you’re dressing it ahead of time and letting it marinate, you don’t need to massage.
Cooking kale? Skip the massage. Using baby kale? Again, skip it.
Is raw kale bad for me?
Generally, a moderate amount of raw kale is safe to eat. But, eating a ton of raw kale day after day may be harmful to thyroid function. This is because raw kale is high in a potentially harmful compound called goitrin.
So, introduce kale to a nice hot pan or oven every so often.
Can you eat kale stems?
You can definitely eat kale stems! Sure, they’re not the tastiest. Or easiest to eat. But, they’re packed with nutrition and can add some valuable green to a stir fry, grain bowl, or frittata.
So, I have a challenge for you: Eat all of your kale stems for the next month.
How to Cook Kale
How to Eat Kale Raw
Lacinato (aka dinosaur or Tuscan) kale is the best type of kale to eat raw. It is sweeter, more tender, and easier to thinly slice than other varieties.
To prepare kale raw:
- Separate kale leaves from the stems. Reserve stems for another use.
- Thinly slice leaves and add to a large bowl.
- Toss with a pinch of salt and splash of acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Alternatively, toss sliced kale with salt and a prepared vinaigrette.
- Let sit for 5 minutes for kale to soften and serve.
Raw Kale Recipes
- Everyday Simple Kale Salad (pictured below)
- Shaved Brussels Sprouts and Kale Salad
- Simple Chickpea and Kale Salad With Avocado
- Kale and Quinoa Salad with Avocado
- Vegan Kale Pesto
How to Make Kale Into A Sauce
I love using kale in place of herbs during the fall and winter when fresh herbs aren’t in season. Think pesto and other green sauces. Just chop up kale like you would a leafy herb like parsley or cilantro and substitute.
Kale Sauce Recipes
How to Make Kale Into a Smoothie
One of the most popular uses for kale is to add to a smoothie. You’ll instantly have a nutrition packed, green smoothie with a handful of kale in the blender. Whatever else you add i
To make a kale smoothie:
- Add 1-2 cups of kale leaves to a blender.
- Add a liquid ingredient like milk, almond milk, orange juice, or another of your choice.
- Add additional healthy ingredients such as frozen fruit, nut butter, yogurt, and/or chia seeds.
- Blend until smooth, adding more liquid as necessary.
Kale Smoothie Recipes
How to Roast Kale
Who needs bagged kale chips when you can make your own with all the fresh kale you planted? Roasted kale is a great snack. It’s also a great crispy addition to grain bowls and other dishes.
The below steps are for leaves only. If you want to roast the stems as well, chop them up, toss with olive oil and salt, and add to the oven 10 minutes before adding the leaves.
- Toss kale leaves with olive oil and salt on a baking sheet.
- Use your hands to make sure each leaf is coated.
- Then toss it into a 350 F oven for 8-12 minutes. You want the kale to be crispy, but not yet turning dark brown.
Roasted Kale Recipes
- Roasted Kale Chips In the Oven (pictured below)
- Winter Squash and Wild Rice Salad
How to Saute Kale in a Pan
A meeting between a hot pan, oil, salt, and kale may be the easiest way to get some cooked kale in your life.
- `Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. Toss in a few smashed cloves of garlic if you’re feeling it.
- Add chopped kale a handful at a time and cook, tossing frequently, until wilted, 3-4 minutes. Add a splash of vinegar or soy sauce with the kale if you want a more wilted consistency. Season with salt.
Sauteed Kale Recipes
- Quick Sauteed Kale With Garlic and Sesame (pictured below)
- Healthy Kale and Egg Fried Rice
- Red Pepper, Potato, and Ricotta Frittata
How to Braise Kale
The method for braising and sauteing is very similar. The difference is that you use more liquid and cook kale longer with braising. This will give you a softer, more tender veggie. Honestly, I never braise kale because sauteing it is way easier. But, in case you’re interested, to braise kale:
- Add olive oil to a large pot. Heat over medium. Build flavor by adding in ingredients like garlic, onion, and/or spices.
- Add kale a handful at a time until just beginning to wilt, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add in a braising liquid such as vegetable or chicken stock.
- Return to a boil and reduce heat to low. Simmer 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Braised Kale Recipes
- Anchovy and Garlic Braised Kale (pictured below)
How to Steam Kale
Cooking kale reduces some of its nutritional value. But, steaming is the cooking method that affects this the least. To steam kale:
- Place chopped kale leaves into a steamer basket.
- Place basket over steaming water, cover, and let steam 5-10 minutes, tossing halfway through until tender.
How to Blanch Kale
One of the quickest and easiest ways to turn tough kale stems into something easier to eat is by cooking in a pot of boiling water (aka blanching). To blanch kale:
- Separate kale leaves and stems.
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
- Add stems and cook for 1 minute. Add kale leaves and cook for 2 more minutes.
Blanched Kale Recipes
- How to Blanch Kale Leaves and Stems (pictured below)
How to Grill Kale
Grilled kale is a lesser used method. But, in the summertime, it seems appropriate to grill anything you can get your hands on. So, kale it is.
To grill kale:
- Prepare a grill for medium heat.
- Toss whole kale leaves (stem + leaves) with olive oil and salt.
- Place over indirect heat on your grill either on a grill rack or over a burner that is off.
- Grill until kale is slightly charred and crispy, 4-10 minutes depending on how hot your grill is. Watch carefully, because they can go from green to black quickly.
Grilled Kale Recipes
- Grilled Kale Salad With Citrus and Scallions (pictured below)
How to Pickle Kale
Yep, that’s right, pickled kale. Pickled kale stems is a great way to use up those leftover stems. You’ll pickle kale stems just how you would pickle any other veggie. Make your brine, add in your kale stems, and let time run it’s course.
Check out this pickled kale stems recipe for a quick pickle method to avoid water baths, sterilization, and all that jazz.
How to Use Kale in a Soup
Kale is a great addition to both creamy and not creamy soups. Simply add kale to the pot of soup during the last 3-5 minutes of cooking until it is bright green and tender.
Kale Soup Recipes
- Creamy Vegan Kale and Cauliflower Soup (pictured below)
- Easy Chicken and Rice Soup
Ready to Eat Some Kale?
How to buy kale? Check.
How to prepare kale? Check.
How to cook kale? Check.
How to eat kale? Now, you’re up.
If there is absolutely anything else you’d like to know about kale, leave a comment and I’ll be sure to add it to this post. This should be the only place you need to come for everything you need to know about kale!