Don't be intimidated by the name, stinging nettle in your food won't hurt you a bit. For centuries, this herb has been used in traditional medicine as well as in culinary applications, in place of other greens in a side dish and as a flavorful pesto on pasta.
What Is Stinging Nettle?
Stinging nettle is an herb native to Europe, North Africa and throughout areas of Asia. Because of its numerous health benefits and versatility, the plant traveled with explorers and now grows all over the world, from North America to New Zealand. As the name suggests, this plant's leaves do sport stingers: tiny trichomes, or hollow hairs.
While coming into contact with this plant in its raw form does hurt, the effect will wear off and its trichomes can easily be removed for safe ingestion. Cooks throughout history have done just that: making tea, blending into pesto and sauces, and serving them as a leafy green vegetable.
How To Cook Stinging Nettle
Before you cook with this plant, make sure it's very clean—you don't want to ingest the stinging hairs. Wash it well while wearing gloves to break up the needles or cook it down so they melt away.
Anything you can do with spinach you can basically do with stinging nettle, and more. Cook it down like a leafy green and add to soup and creamy risotto, layer it into lasagna, and bake into egg casseroles. Blend it with yogurt, fruit, and honey like you would kale or spinach for an extra-nutritious smoothie. If you use it raw, first crush the hollow "needles" flat using the blunt end of a knife or pressing down with a drinking glass. This can be done wearing gloves to ensure you don't get stung. Blanching the leaves briefly in boiling water will also remove the stingers.
To make tea, steep cleaned nettle leaves in boiling water for at least five minutes and then strain and sweeten as desired.
What Does Stinging Nettle Taste Like?
Stinging nettle tastes like mild spinach without the strong iron flavor. It's green and grassy-tasting, not unlike other dark leafy plants, with a bit of a peppery bite, like arugula.
Stinging Nettle Recipes
Try stinging nettles in any of these vibrant, seasonal green recipes:
Where to Buy Stinging Nettle
You'll only find stinging nettle sold in tea form, and is fairly common in health food stores. To try the plant in its fresh leaf form, you'll either need to comb a foraging stand at the farmers' market, or pick it yourself. Finding the plant in the wild isn't too hard, and the jagged-leafed stalk grows like a weed wherever it takes root. You can also plant stinging nettle in your own garden, though we recommend giving it a patch away from other vegetables so it doesn't take over.
Pick stinging nettle fresh and use it right away. Or place the cut plants in a jar of water like you would cut flowers to prolong its life to about five days in the refrigerator. If you plan on preparing and cleaning the leaves before storage, you can place the damp plant between paper towels and store in a plastic bag or container for up to three days.
Stinging nettle comes under the simple name "nettle" on most teas and commercial packaging. There are about 18 varieties in the genus Urtica, including wood nettle, horsenettle, spurge nettle, and more. All look similar, can be eaten, are highly nutritious and have the same troublesome hairs.