How to Cook Kale the Best Way from Sautéeing to Steaming & Roasting

Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Kale, According to So Many Tests

January 21, 2021
Photo by Ella Quittner

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and roasted more broccoli than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles kale.


Kale has lived a thousand lives.

It’s spent decades as a frilly, slow-wilting garnish for salad bars and shrimp towers alike. Since the dawn of the 21st century, it’s moonlighted as a status symbol for the tote-touting, farmers-market-evangelizing city dweller. It found an especially bright 15 minutes of fame as the single word emblazoned on a sweatshirt Beyoncé wore in her music video for “7/11.” It was roasted into chips by Gwyneth Paltrow on primetime television. It’s been the hero of 2,000-word profiles and the villain of snappy teardowns. It’s frost-resistant, enjoys a harvest during the time of year when the rest of us hibernate, and one cup of it has 134 percent of your daily recommended vitamin C, for the love of god. So there’s little to say about the leafy green that ceaseless trend pieces haven’t already bellowed.

It has been around for millennia, at least since its proliferation through Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages. Consequently, there are more ways to cook kale than there are ways I can think of to entertain myself during this final stretch of self-quarantine. Convenient. Here, I’ve narrowed the list of kale methods down to seven, and pitted them head-to-head in a competition of texture and flavor. Which bought me about two days. Shall we?


Controls & Fine Print

If you ever want to feel like you’re living in a Juice Generation, consider purchasing 10 bunches of lacinato kale and storing them front and center in your otherwise empty refrigerator. Should you then want to obliterate that fantasy instantaneously, simply toss in about 25 peeled garlic cloves and a bowl of crushed red pepper flakes. Which is a verbose way of revealing that for each test I used:

  • 1 bunch lacinato kale, ribs removed, roughly chopped (about 3 cups tightly packed)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt

Where specified, I employed additional ingredients like chicken broth and crushed tomatoes. Oil was naturally excluded in the Steam Only trial—as were the garlic and red pepper flakes, since I forgot to add both to the steamer and would have thus had to eat both raw. (I have boundaries.)

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I stumbled across on my own method for kale when I was in a hurry. While the kale is still wet from having been just washed, I give it 1 minute in the microwave just before is sauté it. It cooks and flattens it down enough so it fits in the pan easily and can be tossed around in whatever oil/ garlic etc are started. I micro in whatever bowl I’m serving in, which helps with cleanup later. This is probably closest to the steam /sauté version. ”
— Haylee G.
Comment

Ninety-eight words on kale choice: I used lacinato, also known as dinosaur kale, because it’s easiest to de-rib in a hurry (see above re: 10 bunches), and I love the earthy, vegetal flavor. There are many varieties of kale, all of which are worthwhile, and would lend themselves well to these methods. These include curly kale (the dark green stuff with winding tendrils of leaves), Chinese kale (broccoli-like stems you should fully hang on to and cook, with smaller leaves), and red Russian kale (red-stemmed with leaves that need not be cooked quite as long as lacinato to achieve comparable tenderness), among others.


Methods

Sauté Only

Inspired by The Kitchn.

  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a sauté pan over medium heat until shimmering.
  2. Add 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves and 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Stir for 1 minute.
  3. Add 3 tightly packed cups of de-stemmed, roughly chopped lacinato kale. Stir until the kale begins to wilt.
  4. Partially cover and cook, stirring every now and then, for about 5 minutes, until the greens are tender. Finish with 3/4 teaspoon of salt and the juice from 1/2 lemon.

Forget what I said back there about having boundaries—I would like to propose to the Sauté Only kale and spend the rest of my life eating it (not in an Armie Hammer way). It was tender enough—though nothing like the velvety Blanch & Slow Sauté or Braise batches; more on those in a minute—with just an inkling of body and chew. The light scorch of the greens merged perfectly with the tart lemon, smoky-hot pepper, and piercing salt for an intense few bites. Crispy garlic was, as they say, the garlic on top. (Nobody says this.)

Sauté & Steam

Inspired by Food Network.

  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat until shimmering.
  2. Add 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves and 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Stir for 1 minute.
  3. Add 3 tightly packed cups of de-stemmed, roughly chopped lacinato kale. Stir until the kale just begins to wilt.
  4. Add 1/3 cup chicken broth. Cover and cook until the kale is tender, about 5 minutes. Finish with 3/4 teaspoon of salt and the juice from 1/2 lemon.

The Sauté & Steam kale ranked top of the class for efficiency, but bottom for texture and flavor. The kale itself wasn’t as fully seasoned as Sauté Only kale—the broth diluted things somewhat, and I suspect also prevented the greens from taking in as much salt and acid. The kale’s texture was the tiniest bit gummy rather than silky. But it was perfectly edible (a crispy fried egg would’ve done wonders) and a little softer than the Sauté Only kale, so I will still use this method when I’m after gentler textures. But I’ll be sure to layer in more seasoning when I do.

Steam Only

  1. Set up a stockpot with a few inches of water over high heat and fit with a steamer basket. Cover.
  2. When the water reaches a boil, add 3 tightly packed cups of de-stemmed, roughly chopped lacinato kale to the steamer basket. Cover.
  3. Steam for about 10 minutes, until the kale is tender. Remove and finish with 3/4 teaspoon of salt and the juice from 1/2 lemon.

My first impression: The kale appeared fluffier than any other batch, like it had lost less water in the cooking process. (Plus, there was no oil to weigh it down.) Its texture reflected this, with a softness that seemed plusher and lighter than the leaves of other methods. Flavor-wise, this was the grassiest of the bunch, so if you’re in it for the fresh green vibes, Steam Only could be your method. Perhaps because of the lack of garlic and red pepper flakes, the lemon punched through in a big way.

Roast

  1. Heat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Toss 3 tightly packed cups of de-stemmed, roughly chopped lacinato kale with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes, 3/4 teaspoon of salt, and the juice from 1/2 lemon.
  3. Spread out on a sheet pan, avoiding overlapping the leaves as much as possible to encourage crisping.
  4. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until each leaf is stiff and crunchy.

Despite how dire and limp the situation appeared about 15 minutes in, by the 22-minute mark I had crisp, boldly flavored chips that shattered like fiberglass or my self-confidence in almost any workout class. While lacking in structural integrity—the hummus I dipped these in looked like it hosted a shipwreck—the roasted kale chips disappeared quickly, thanks to the little ones. (That’s what I call my alter-egos. I do not have children or pets.)

Braise

Inspired by Food & Wine.

  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves and 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  2. Add 3 tightly packed cups of de-stemmed, roughly chopped lacinato kale, 1 cup of really good canned crushed tomatoes, and 3/4 cup of broth. (I used chicken but follow your heart, I’m not your mom.) Scrape up any garlicky, peppery bits as you stir to wilt the kale. Add 3/4 teaspoon of salt and the juice from 1/2 lemon.
  3. Partially cover and let simmer over medium heat for 8 to 12 minutes, until the greens are tender and the braising liquid is delicious.

Oh, baby! About once a week, I encounter a cooked vegetable situation that makes me want to drop everything and boil a pound of rigatoni so I can mix everything together and cover it in cheese. The kale from the Braise method officially joined the ranks of Most Pastable Vegetables as soon as it was ready. The braising liquid and leaves created something reminiscent of ribollita and Sunday sauce at the same time. Which is to say, I poured it directly into my mouth. Was this fair to include in the trials since it added delicious tomato to the mix? Probably not. To even the playing field, I admit that the cooked kale on its own tasted a little bitter, a flavor not present in any other method. Okay, back to pouring hot kale–tomato juice into my mouth.

Simmer in Broth

Inspired by The Zuni Café Cookbook, via Orangette.

  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat until warm. Add 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes, and 3 tightly packed cups of de-stemmed, roughly chopped lacinato kale. Stir until the kale is wilted.
  2. Add 6 cups of broth, or enough to cover the kale by 1/2 inch. Bring to a simmer. Partially cover and simmer until the kale is tender, about 30 minutes.
  3. Finish with 3/4 teaspoon of salt and the juice from 1/2 lemon.

The texture of the Simmer in Broth kale was so wonderful and unique, it inspired me to draw a series of stars around the phrase “buttery roughage” on my to-do list. The kale was beyond soft, like silk slapped with a meat tenderizer and, despite its faded hue, had a delightfully subtle flavor. Like the Sauté & Steam kale, if I were making this outside the bounds of a restrictive head-to-head test, I would add additional seasoning, as the broth dilutes most of the salt, pepper, and lemon. Regardless, this batch begged to be poured over stale sourdough with a dollop of chile crisp. (Seriously, it wouldn’t stop begging, until one of my “little ones” threatened to pour it in the trash.)

Blanch & Slow Sauté

Inspired by Suzanne Goin’s Slow-Cooked Cavolo Nero.

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 3 tightly packed cups of de-stemmed, roughly chopped lacinato kale and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain. Once cool, squeeze out any excess water.
  2. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven over low heat until warm. Add 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes, 3/4 teaspoon of salt, and the blanched kale.
  3. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, until soft and nearly black. Finish with the juice from 1/2 lemon.

So much to unpack. Obviously, after being slow-sautéed for 30 minutes with lots of garlic, oil, and friends, this kale tasted like something I would pay $14 for at a Tuscan restaurant. Less obviously, whoa, blanching kale! What a trip. The resulting greens lost so much volume that by the time they hit the Dutch oven, I was working with less than a cup of leaves. The blanching stripped away any hint of bitterness, which was cool, and I suspect gave the greens a jump-start in softening.


Conclusions

There are so many delightful ways to cook kale:

  • For a snack, Roast kale at 325°F after you’ve tossed it with oil, salt, and any aromatics or seasonings that appeal. (Nutritional yeast, garlic powder, cheese powder, paprika, za’atar, and gochugaru all come to mind.)
  • If time is not of the essence—but the most supremely buttery, deeply flavored kale is of the essence—turn to the Blanch & Slow Sauté method.
  • For kale that tastes a lot like kale, Steam away.
  • If you’re looking to get yourself halfway to dinner, you’d better Braise.
  • For efficient and excellent kale: Sauté.

What should Ella test next? Let us know in the comments, or send her a message here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • patricia gadsby
    patricia gadsby
  • Haylee Grote
    Haylee Grote
  • Ben Shepherd
    Ben Shepherd
  • judy
    judy
  • LadyR
    LadyR
Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

6 Comments

patricia G. January 31, 2021
One way I cook lacinato kale: not at all. Kale toughens with cooking before it relaxes again, and loses its bright color. So sometimes -- quite often actually-- I just wash it in warm water, scrunch it dry, slice, season it, and plate it under something cooked, like hot pasta or, in my little house-by-the-sea, a little plank of sturdy fish like pan-seared striped bass. The lacinato wilts and warms just enough and keeps its color. Depending on what I serve it with -- or rather under -- I might season just with salt and lemon juice, or salt and olive oil, trickled from the bottle or warmed first with garlic and red pepper flakes.
Otherwise I salute kale putting it into the pan still wet from washing...And I love it creamed into submission with soft onions and nutmeg.
 
Haylee G. January 31, 2021
I stumbled across on my own method for kale when I was in a hurry. While the kale is still wet from having been just washed, I give it 1 minute in the microwave just before is sauté it. It cooks and flattens it down enough so it fits in the pan easily and can be tossed around in whatever oil/ garlic etc are started. I micro in whatever bowl I’m serving in, which helps with cleanup later. This is probably closest to the steam /sauté version.
 
Ben S. January 24, 2021
My favorite variation, is to mound a rather garlicky onion soubise with ample lacinato, and add water to cover and braise gently until tender. The gently cooked onions kinda pull everything together. In a pinch, Calabrian chile, zest+juice of a fresh lemon will bring everything around quite nicely. The best thing about this preparation I find, is that the pot liquor is good enough to drink.
 
judy January 23, 2021
My favorite version of the above methods for cooking kale is to steam and then saute. Boiling or covering with water or broth, and then tossing that water/broth, tosses all th nutrients. Sure one could save the liquid for soup, but I eat kale every day because of the nutrients. So I steam for about 3-5 minutes, depending on how tough the kale is to begin with (different types--I use mostly curly) then ie it a quick cute, with garlic, a little oil and a little brow or citrus juice. Sprinkle with salt when done, and serve. So good. Whole process takes abut 12-15 minutes. I use my dutch oven, as ig holds my steamer, then sauté in it as well--so only the pot and the steamer. Works great1
 
LadyR January 22, 2021

"Delicious Creamy Kale Soup"

Using what you already have on hand, make this delicious creamy kale soup.

When I braise Kale for my Rosti, I always make enough to freeze, as the beer braising takes a couple of hours.

https://www.realestatemagazine.ca/recipes-for-realtors-sweet-potato-rosti-and-beer-braised-kale/

The frozen kale has lots of uses, but in the winter months who loves a large cup of hot cream soup after a dog walk or a spin on the ice rink...

Start by making my regular soup base. Add three medium potatoes and a couple of ordinary onions to a pot of homemade chicken broth from all those chicken bones you froze. Suggest about six cups. Add three or four whole garlic cloves. As usual they will disappear and you won't taste them. The garlic just enhances the other flavours. Add a teaspoon of fresh thyme or use LiteHouse brand fresh freeze-dried and a sprinkle of basil. Fresh pulled if you have it. Add a dash of sweet paprika and the tiniest pinch of ground cloves and just a drizzle of dijon.

Test that the potatoes are fork tender. Add a mason jar of thawed overnight frozen beer-braised kale. Since it is already cooked, you just want to heat the Kale and marry the flavours.

Remove soup pot from the burner and let relax a bit.

Blend and purée the potato kale mix.

Reduce two cups of half and half cream on high heat. Stir in the kale purée. Reheat carefully. Spritz just a few drops of fresh squeezed lemon juice and gently stir.

Do not refreeze after you mix the kale purée with the reduced cream.

When ready to serve adults, add a tablespoon of Asbach Uralt cognac to the hot creamy kale soup pot.

Serve with your favourite crispy croutons; maybe you froze your leftover cubed Christmas cake?

ALTERNATE: You could substitute fresh full leaf spinach wilted and crispy bacon added, for the kale. As with the braised kale, you can make ahead loads of blanched spinach and freeze. You might like to add a small head of very fresh cauliflower to the potato mix.

For an old-fashioned European flavour, cook a (not smoked) pork hock in the chicken broth mix. The meat is beyond delicious and literally falls off the bone. Discard the pork hock bone and sheath and rest the meat on a platter before pureeing the soup.

Compliments of manuscript being published as:
© Soup's On (1976): in Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen ~ original recipes revived and updated
 
Louis B. January 21, 2021
No pressure cooker love? Definitely the most time efficient prep method.