Less than two decades ago, kale was mostly known by Americans for being a decorative base layer at buffet stations and grocery stores. Cooking kale (aside from maybe a Tuscan bean soup) wasn’t popular and it certainly wasn’t a household name. Thankfully, somewhere in the ‘10s, we realized this nutritious green was worthy of love and it gained superfood status, becoming the darling of the health food scene. But then, as with most things that become cool, it became cool to hate on kale: It’s bitter. It’s hard to chew. It’s too hipster.
I strongly believe kale haters just haven’t had kale that was well-prepared. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve ordered a kale salad from a restaurant or grab-and-go cafe and received a bowl of dry, tough, raw kale that tasted like it wasn’t made for human consumption. It’s enough to turn anyone off.
But here’s the good news: With a few simple steps, you can prepare kale that is a culinary pleasure, and you’ll be doing your body a favor since the green serves up vitamins A, K, B6 and C, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese.
How to prepare kale
First, remove the thick rib at the center of the kale leaf, as this is hard to chew and it adds bitterness. You can do this by running a sharp knife on either side of the rib to cut the leaf off for use, or you can hold on tightly to the stem with one hand and rip the leaf off in one smooth motion with your other hand. If nothing else, it’s a stress reliever.
Once you’ve de-stemmed your kale, you can chop it. Chop or tear it into larger pieces for braises, soups, stews and stir-fries, and chop it into smaller pieces or chiffonade it for salads, pastas or a quick sauté.
Next, wash your kale. You can rinse it thoroughly in a colander or, if it’s really gritty, put the kale in a large bowl of water and swish around until the grit is removed, and then drain.
How to make kale tender and get the bitterness out
Massages make everyone easier to deal with, and kale is no different. Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but this step is a game-changer for raw or slightly cooked preparations, as it breaks down kale’s cellular walls, making it much more tender. For preparations like braises and soups, you can skip this step as the longer cooking time will do the work for you.
Put the kale in a large bowl. Add just a few drops of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice — the acid will combat the bitterness. Then, get in there and show that kale who’s boss. Use both hands to massage the kale for 1 to 2 minutes, almost like it’s dough. You’ll end up with silky pieces of kale that will surrender to your every bite. Toss in your favorite vinaigrette and some Parmesan for a salad or throw into another dish in the last couple minutes of cooking.
If you’re averse to any bitterness at all, you can dry massage the kale before you wash it, as you can then wash away some of the bitter compounds that are released. Then you can dress or cook the kale.
If you’re braising kale, add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice towards the end of cooking and that will balance out any remaining bitterness.
If you’re adding kale to pasta, you can massage or skip that and blanch it for 2 to 3 minutes.
Kale can be swapped in for recipes that use other dark, hearty leafy greens like mustard greens, collard greens or Swiss chard. While you don’t want to overcook kale, it’s tough enough to withstand sitting in a stew without disintegrating. Here are a few easy, healthy kale recipes to try:
White bean and kale soup: Add the kale for the last 15 minutes of cooking this soul-warming soup, and swap the kielbasa for vegan bacon (and/or add in some paprika for smokiness) to make it vegetarian.
Crispy kale chips: Kale crisps up nicely, and with a little salt and Parmesan, it makes for a satisfying, crunchy snack. Al Roker uses curly kale in his recipe, but lacinato or dinosaur kale also works really well for making kale chips.
Sautéed kale: A simple kale sauté is a great side dish, and easy to make even on a weeknight.
Kale pasta: Ribbons of kale pair beautifully with garlic, Parmesan and spaghetti, as a filling for stuffed shells or as a layer in lasagna. Just remember to massage or blanch the kale first so it’s nice and tender. You can also blitz kale with basil, garlic, nuts and oil to make an earthy pesto.
Put some love into prepping and cooking kale and it will love you back. The extra care might just turn any kale haters you’re cooking for into fans of kale — even if they’ll never admit it.