Kale is a dark green, leafy vegetable that is part of the cabbage family. Easy to grow and able to withstand cold temperatures, it can be grown in many climates. Its hardy nature, versatility, and health benefits have brought this leafy green tremendous popularity, expanding from the health food store into the mainstream market.
Kale is a common vegetable in the United States as well as Europe and other areas of the world such as Africa, South America, and Asia. It is sometimes grown in other colors besides dark green such as purple, white, and even pink. Kale can be eaten raw in salads, stir-fried, simply sautéed, and added to soups and stews.
What Is Kale?
When it comes to the cabbage family, kale is most similar to wild cabbage as the stalks are made up of loose, elongated leaves instead of tightly packed, rounded heads. The most common varieties of kale found in the grocery store are curly kale and baby kale. Some people may find curly kale to be quite fibrous when raw and prefer to eat this green cooked; baby kale has a more tender leaf and is therefore favored in salads. Kale adds a great deal of nutrition to dishes, as well as a pop of color and texture. It is simple to prepare and inexpensive.
How to Cook With Kale
Whether you are eating kale raw or cooked, the stiff, slightly woody stems should be removed before consuming. This can be done with a paring knife by simply cutting along both sides of the rib. Kale should also be rinsed well before eating or cooking as the curly leaves can trap a lot of sand, dirt, bugs, or other debris.
Raw kale is often chopped and added to salads; using an oil-based dressing will help soften the ridged leaves, but you can also first massage the leaves with a bit of salt and an acid such as lemon or vinegar to make them more tender. Kale can also be steamed, sautéed, boiled, baked, or stir-fried. Kale is a popular additive to soups and stews because its sturdy leaves hold up well to boiling, keeping a firm texture versus turning to mush. For a simple side dish, kale can be quickly sautéed with garlic, salt, and pepper until wilted.
What Does It Taste Like?
Raw kale has a strong, earthy taste with a little spice and slightly bitter flavor, which can be a nice contrast to ingredients that are sweet or nutty like honey or tahini when used in a salad dressing. Baby kale is milder and may be more appealing when eaten raw. When cooked, this leafy green softens a bit in both flavor and texture.
You will find kale in salads, stir-fries, soups, and even as an ingredient in smoothies for its high fiber and nutrient content. In Asia, kale is a common ingredient in vegetable stir-fries as the hearty leaves stand up well to cooking at high temperatures. In the United States, kale is often combined with other greens such as collard or turnip leaves and braised for hours with a ham hock until tender.
Where to Buy Kale
Kale can be found at any grocery store in the produce section near the other leafy greens. It can be purchased in a bunch with the stems intact or chopped and bagged with the stems removed. Either way, the leaves should have a deep, vibrant color and feel crisp and sturdy to the touch. Stay away from limp, dull, or yellow-tinged leaves. Baby kale is most often sold in bags or plastic tubs.
Kale is easy to grow in a home garden and thrives in cooler temperatures; a warm climate will turn the green bitter. It requires full sun to part shade and should be watered regularly as the moist soil keeps the leaves crisp in texture and sweet tasting.
Washing should be done just prior to cooking or consuming, rather than before storage as wet leaves will wilt faster. Because kale is quite sturdy, it can stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to four or five days. Keep the kale loosely wrapped and in the vegetable crisper to allow airflow but prevent excessive drying. You can also freeze kale for longer storage; remove stems and blanch before placing in a zip-top bag.
Nutrition and Benefits
Kale is considered a superfood (meaning it is nutrient-dense while being very low in calories) and packs more nutrition than almost any other whole food. Like other dark green leafy vegetables, kale is high in calcium, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, but surpasses other greens with its skyrocketing levels of vitamins A and K. Cooked kale also offers more iron per ounce than red meat.
Kale is part of the cruciferous group of vegetables (along with cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and others), which have been studied for their cancer-fighting properties. Kale is also a good source of dietary fiber, plus it's high in antioxidants and has been shown to lower cholesterol.
There are many types of kale, but when it comes to what you will find in the supermarket there are just a few varieties to keep in mind. You should also note that each variety is best used in different ways. Curly kale is the most common and is named for its wavy leaf structure. It is great sautéed with garlic or even roasted in the oven where it will take on a light crispy texture. Although a bit fibrous to eat raw, if you gently massage some acid (lemon or vinegar) and salt into the leaves, the kale will become more delicate.
Tuscan kale, also called lacinato or dinosaur, is a bit more versatile with its thinner and more tender leaves. This bluish-colored leafy green is good eaten raw, benefits from slow cooking, and can also be added to soups toward the end of cooking to take advantage of its pleasant chewy bite. Red kale is basically a red version of curly kale making it an attractive addition to salads composed of other greens. Baby kale is, as you might guess, a young version of kale. It is ideal as a salad ingredient and substitute for lettuce in a sandwich and is best if kept raw. It provides all of the nutrients of kale without the fibrous texture and strong flavor.
You may also come across red Russian kale with its tender, reddish-purple stems, or the frilly leaved Redbor kale that tastes a bit like cabbage. Both can be eaten raw or cooked but may lose some of their pretty color when heated. One type that should always be cooked is Siberian kale, a hearty variety with big, green leaves. Chinese kale (also called Chinese broccoli) is often used in stir-fries or as a substitution for broccoli.