Watercress is a leafy green vegetable with a peppery, tangy, slightly bitter flavor, which is used in a number of culinary applications, both raw and cooked, but most commonly as a lettuce green. It's related to cabbage and mustard.
What Is Watercress?
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale), which is sometimes also called yellowcress, or simply cress, is a cruciferous vegetable in the family Brassicaceae, which also includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips and Brussels sprouts, as well as kale, mustard greens and collard greens.
Watercress is an aquatic plant producing small to medium green leaves that are round to slightly oval, and are attached to hollow, crisp stems which are also edible. Because it is an aquatic plant, it is often cultivated hydroponically, which means it is grown without soil, but are instead cultivated in a nutrient-rich liquid solution. Other lettuces are often grown this way, as are strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
Watercress is known for its peppery, slightly bitter flavor, drawing comparisons to greens such as arugula, broccoli rabe, dandelion greens and mustard greens. It is often used in salads, where its refreshing flavor provides a contrast with other, milder-tasting greens. It's also common to cook the greens, and doing so helps to tone down its spicy flavor. That peppery flavor is produced by the same compounds that produce the spicy flavor in mustard and horseradish, which are from the same botanical family as watercress.
Watercress is available year-round, but it's in its peak season from April until September.
How to Use Watercress
Like all lettuce, even bagged lettuce products that say they've been prewashed, it's a good idea to wash your fresh watercress before using it, particularly if you're planning to eat it raw. The best way to do this is to fill a large bowl of water, or even the sink, and swish the leaves around in the water so that any dirt or grit will sink to the bottom. Then transfer the cleaned leaves by straining them, skimming them off of the top of the water, to a salad spinner and spin until dry. The leaves are now ready to use.
Watercress can be served raw in salads, sandwiches and smoothies, as well as lightly wilted or sautéed, similar to the way you might prepare spinach. The leaves can be sprinkled over a pizza before baking, lightly sautéed and mixed in with pasta, layered into casseroles and added to soups. Potage au cresson, a creamy pureed soup made with watercress and potatoes, is a classic of French cuisine. Likewise, watercress sandwiches are a staple of the traditional English high tea.
What Does It Taste Like?
Watercress has a distinctive peppery, spicy flavor, along with a slight tanginess and a mild bitter flavor. The bitter flavor is more pronounced in leaves that are more mature, and cooking tends to diminish the spicy flavor somewhat.
A 100-gram serving of raw watercress is 95 percent water, and provides 11 calories, 2 grams of protein, 1 gram of carbs, less than one gram of fiber and negligible amounts of fat. It is an excellent source of Vitamins A, C, and K, providing 20 percent, 52 percent and 238 percent, respectively, of the daily requirements of those nutrients.
Here are a few recipes that feature watercress.
- Watercress Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches
- Chilled Watercress Yogurt Soup
- Watercress, Bacon and Blue Cheese Salad
- Watercress Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches
Where To Buy Watercress
Watercress is available at supermarkets, in the produce departments, either in bundles or in bags, though the bagged products are more common, and because the bags are packed with air which causes them to slightly inflate, the leaves inside are less likely to be crushed or bruised.
Watercress leaves and stems are extremely perishable, so if you purchase fresh watercress leaves in a bag, expect to store them in the bag in the refrigerator, where they'll stay fresh for up to 3 or 4 days. If you purchase fresh watercress in a bundle, you can remove the band tying the bundle together and store it in the fridge in a jar of water with the stems submerged. Stored in this manner, fresh watercress will last for up to 5 days.
Watercress, raw. FoodData Central, U.S. Department of Agriculture