When I first started writing about food, it was always my intention to highlight ingredients, how to shop, compare prices, choose them, store them as well as use them. And I did make a stab at that, years ago, under “Ingredients” in my menu. But more recently, I’ve been slowly adding and upgrading as I go. Lately, now that it’s in season, I’ve been thinking about and using kale a lot, so here is What to Know About Kale.
Over the years, I began giving hints on every post about the ingredients. This year, I’ve decided to move forward with my original vision, and cover an ingredient from some of my posts with a goal of eventually having my site be a better resource for you. Today, obs, I am choosing kale, inspired by my recent posting of Oven-Dried Kale.
What to Know About Kale:
What most of us in the United States, available usually at the grocery or farmer’s markets, know is curly leaf kale. That’s the same kale usually seen bagged up for salads and such at the grocery or buyer’s clubs. At its peak, the leaves are shiny, green and curly.
Kale does not stop with that one variety, though. There are several, and according to Wikipedia are grouped by type of leaf, and can range in color from light to dark green and include varieties that are lavender tinged or dark lavender brown. Wikipedia lists several types but the ones most commonly found at the grocery store or farmers market other than curly leafed kale is the Lacinato kale which includes Tuscan and Dinosaur Kale:
- Curly-leaf (Scots kale, blue curled kale)
- Bumpy-leaf (black cabbage, better known by its Italian translation ‘cavolo nero’, and also known as Tuscan Cabbage, Tuscan Kale, and dinosaur kale)
- Plain-leaf (flat-leaf types like red Russian and white Russian kale)
- Leaf and spear, or feathery-type leaf (a cross between curly- and plain-leaf)
- Ornamental (less palatable and tougher leaves)
Kale belongs to the cabbage family, Brassica oleracea and is grown for its edible leaves, which unlike cabbage do not form a head. According to Wikipedia, it’s actually closer to wild lettuce than some of our commonly cultivated brassicas.
What to Know About Kale, Shopping:
Fresh kale is usually available throughout the year, thanks to its current status as a “superfood” and increase in popularity, but the season is from late spring to early summer and early fall through the warmer winter months, depending on where you live. Since kale is a cool-weather vegetable, it can be planted before the danger of the first frost is over and harvested late. It will grow until the temperature is 20 degrees F and survive in temperatures as low as 5 degrees F. Kale harvested after a frost will have an improved taste; the cold converts some of the starches to sugar.
Think outside the box when buying kale. Your farmer’s market is probably a great place, but that can vary by season and location. The Buyer’s Clubs pricing is decent, but keep in mind where you might find fantastic prices on organic kale is from a farmer or small-time grower, especially one who isn’t “certified” organic. It’s a huge process to go through to get the certification and not all farmers are able to pull it off. Just be open-minded. and keep your eyes open, especially if you’re in the habit of already purchasing items from small farmers.
Kale can be bought two ways at the store, in bunches or by the bag. If your kale is in bunches, look for bright green color and resilient leaves and fresh stems; once the kale ages it dulls a bit turning silvery or greyish in color and begins shriveling. While still edible, it will have a more bitter taste than when fresh. In season, it’s likely the bunches will be larger and fresher and very possibly less expensive. Out of season, generally, the bunches are going to be smaller and more expensive. Bagged kale will usually not have any large stems, but when you buy fresh, you are paying for those stems, so find a use for them. A quick no brainer idea is to toss them into your green smoothies but in many applications they can be finely diced and used along with the leaves. (See my Big, Fat Green Smoothies on a Budget.)
By the bag, the amount of kale “looks” much more attractive because the bags are huge! That’s because they are filled with loose leaves and they are bulky. Those bags are usually 14 to 16 ounces and like many bagged vegetables, it’s difficult to compare fresh loose-leaf bunches priced by the pound to bagged, priced by the ounce, at least for most people and especially in your head. Generally speaking, almost all prepared bagged vegetables run 4 to 10 times the cost of buying the vegetable by the pound, but with kale, it can vary widely.
How to Compare Pricing by the Bag or by the Pound:
If the sizes are roughly similar, it’s pretty easy to compare. The other day I weighed a bunch of kale at the store, priced $1.99 and it was one pound, one ounce, or 17 ounces. A bag of kale just around the corner was $2.49 for 14 ounces. Obviously the bunch was the way to go even though the bag looked like a lot more kale. But let’s run through the math.
First of all, to compare, you have to compare apples to apples. The per-pound pricing has to be converted to ounces or the per ounce pricing has to be converted to pounds. It doesn’t matter, either is going to give you a good comparison. I like to find the per pound price; it makes more sense to me.
- For the bunch: $1.99 divided by 17 ounces means the bunch of kale was 12 cents per ounce. That converts to .12 (price per ounce) x 16 (number of ounces in a pound) to $1.87 per pound.
- For the bag: $2.49 divided by 14 ounces means the bag of kale was .18 per ounce. But since there were only 14 ounces in that bag, multiply by 16 to get the per-pound price and you will find the bag is $2.85 per pound.
So while the huge bag initially might seem like a lot more for just a few more pennies, math is never wrong. While nearly a dollar per pound more might not seem like much, when you apply math like this across everything you buy it can add up during the course of the year. If you use a bag of kale per week, that’s nearly 52 dollars a year, but that’s just at my random pricing from a single check. That can vary a lot depending on where you live, the season, and the sales.
What to Know About Kale, Storing:
For the longest-lasting kale, first of all remove any rubber bands or ties immediately. Do not wash kale before storing it. Fresh kale will last several days to a week in the fridge depending on how fresh it is when you bring it home. Place the bag in the vegetable bin, then once cool, after about an hour, take the kale out, turn the bag inside out, place the kale back in and close tightly. That should get rid of the worst of the condensation. Do not blow air into the bag with a straw as you’ll essentially be dispersing germs with each breath.
If you wish to prep your kale ahead, wash it first (more on that, below) spin it dry and roll loosely in paper or a very clean towel inside a plastic bag. It should last for about 3 days or possibly longer.
You can expect your bagged kale to last a little longer than fresh; it’s usually treated or irradiated. Simply place the bag somewhere it won’t be squashed. Once open, place a paper towel or napkin at the bottom of the bag to absorb any liquid that has been accumulating and tightly close.
Other methods of storage:
- Drying: See my post on Oven-Dried Kale. It may be flavored for kale chips.
- Freezing: Kale may be frozen very short term for ruse in things like smoothies where texture doesn’t matter without blanching. It stops enzyme actions which can cause loss of flavor, color, and texture. To freeze longer term so it will stay fresh and beautiful for 10 to 12 months see my post on Freezing Kale The Right Way.
- Pickling: Kale can be pickled, although I have yet to try it.
- Canning: Kale may be canned but only with a pressure canner. See National Center for Home Preservation.
What to Know About Kale, Using:
Kale has to be washed well, whether it’s bought by the bunch or by the bag, and it may be even more critical to do so when working with the bagged product. Leafy greens of all sorts packaged to buy have been a source of foodborne illness. Do not fill your sink with water and add greens; sinks are full of all kinds of nasties, even if you think they are perfectly clean and according to the CDC, potential contaminants need to be washed off in running water.
I find it’s easier to prep the greens first by cutting into pieces before they are washed. I add some of the kale to my largest strainer and place a big stock pot in the sink will catch any stray kale. Then I wash thoroughly, using clean hands to agitate the kale as I run water over it. A salad spinner does a great job of drying kale. I usually give it a couple of spins, empty any water and spin again.
As far as using kale, know that both the stems and the leaves are edible. In some preparations, you may not wish to use the heavy stems and they do cook at different rates than the leaves do. In many instances, they can be removed and finely sliced and added to the recipe. If you don’t use the stems, think about making your Green Smoothies with them for less waste.:
- Kale can be used raw in salads and smoothies. It’s recommended to condition kale by adding a small amount of olive oil, dressing or lemon juice and massaging it in to make it more palatable in salads.
- Kale may be sauteed and used as a side or as a part of other dishes.
- Kale may be cooked just as any other green, steamed, simmered or pressure cooked with or without aromatics and with or without any smoked product added for flavor.
- Kale is a wonderful addition to hearty soups.
- Kale may be dried as discussed above, to use in recipes or to make kale chips.
This is just scratching the surface; to see recipes on my site using kale, scroll to the bottom of that page where you’ll see the tag “Kale” or use the search bar for my site on the upper left.
What To Know About Kale, Nutrition And Health Benefits:
Pages can be written and have been about the nutritional benefits of kale. The World’s Healthiest Foods has a very complete write-up. As a quick takeaway, they advise eating as a minimum 3/4 cup of kale daily and up to 1 1/2 cups. They also recommend eating kale with lentils as they found “this food combination to be especially complementary in providing us with nutrient-richness.”
Of interest, The World’s Healthiest Foods indicated that letting the kale sit for five minutes after cutting may increase benefits, although there are mixed results in studies. See their article on “Can Preparation Methods Impact the Benefits of Cruciferous Vegetables.”
The CDC has recently come out with a ranking system rating vegetables by their nutritional benefits, The top 15 are green and include kale. As you can see, the basic nutritional facts, below, do little to extol the virtues of kale’s many properties.
Some of the highlights are Kake may help prevent glaucoma, will support cardiovascular health, improve blood cholesterol, especially when steamed, Kale has anti-cancer nutrients, anti-inflammatory nutrients, and is very high in anti-oxidant nutrients.
What To Know About Kale, The Downside:
There has been a recent buzz about kale implicating it in issues with the thyroid. Although I’m not a nutritionist, it seems that most of the articles I’ve found are not much more than attention-grabbing headlines and most instances of issues were from people that overdid their consumption of raw kale, consuming much larger amounts than recommended over long periods of time.
This article from Cooking Light gives a little insight into the issue and the history behind the study. Their conclusion? The study, conducted by a Doctor from his home was not an accredited, peer-reviewed scientific analysis. Nutrient toxicity is a real thing but extremely rare. And they went on to give some common sense advice, “If you lean heavily on kale or any other single vegetable or fruit for the majority of your nutrients, you might want to rethink your food plan. You may be getting a lot of the same nutrients over and over again every day. You need a balance so your chances of building up toxic levels of micronutrients and chemicals remain low.”
Another, probably more common issue is that kale (and many dark greens as well as other foods) contain oxalic acid. Oxalic acid can bind with calcium, iron and other minerals before being excreted from the body, lessening our ability to use those minerals. Steaming or boiling kale for 6 to 8 minutes and then gently squeezing removes about 1/3 of the total oxalic acid but most of the soluble oxalic acid, neutralizing the majority of it. Consuming dairy and certain probiotics will help as well.
When oxalic acid combines with calcium to form crystals it can contribute to issues for those who have gout, vulvodynia, and rheumatoid arthritis. As a precaution doctors may advise anyone with those conditions as well as pregnant women to limit their intake of oxalic acids. Oxalic acid can also bind with calcium in the urinary tract. For those who have or have had kidney stones, often a doctor will recommend a diet low in oxalic acid.
Learning to Like Kale:
There’s another downside to Kale for many, and that’s the taste. I got a kick out of this spoof, a fake news article, “CDC warns that Kale is still disgusting.” There is no doubt that kale has a certain bitterness and in addition, the leaves are tough. It’s a hard sell.
If you’re a parent, you might be used to introducing new foods to babies. You put a new food in their mouth, they spit it out, You scoop it off their chin & try again. You give it another go the next meal and the next. And maybe you mix the offensive food in with something they already like, increasing the amount of the offensive food gradually. There’s a lesson to be learned here, even for adults. I’ve heard it takes an average of eight times to adjust to and enjoy new tastes. (That’s an average – ice cream obs, only takes 1x, lol)
If you are determined to like kale, use the freshest available (it becomes more bitter after several days) and be patient with yourself. Give yourself multiple chances and opportunities to get to know and like the taste (or at least not hate it) a little bit at a time.
Start off Small:
A little kale in something or mixed up with something you might already like will get you used to the taste of kale bit by bit. Use your imagination, but here are a few examples.
- Chopped up kale mixed with other greens and veggies (maybe with a sweet dressing) might be better than a full kale salad.
- Dropping a little kale in your morning smoothie, and then increasing it over time might be better than a full-on green kale smoothie.
- Chop kale up small and sneak into vegetable sautes (like your onions, carrots, bell peppers and/or celery) for something you’re making. A little kale in the vegetables for things like spaghetti sauce, meatloaf or meatballs or chili will act almost like an herb; kale is really no more bitter than say, parsley.
- Use kale in soups; it stays fresher than spinach and small bits pick up flavor beautifully, A smaller amount of kale in a bowl of soup doesn’t seem overwhelming with all the other ingredients already un there. It’s great in Italian soups.
Counteract the Bitterness:
There are two ways to counteract bitterness, the first is to add something sweet, the second to add something more bitter!
- If you’re making salad, a sweeter dressing might help; ease down the sweetness as you get used to the kale. Another option is to use a really robust dressing; it kind of drowns out the taste of the kale.
- When cooking as greens, add in a little date or honey as natural sweeteners or a little brown sugar. Serve with a little apple cider vinegar in the greens or to sprinkle on at the table.
Condition Kale for Salads:
- For salads, sprinkle on olive oil or lemon juice on the kale and massage it in. Let it sit for an hour. The leaves will get a little softer and slightly wilted, but in a good way.
- If you’re using a strong dressing, add it, toss and let the salad sit for an hour or so; the dressing will slightly wilt the kale. While that’s not a good thing in a lettuce salad, it helps the kale. Add the rest of the salad ingredients before serving.
Favorite Kale Recipes:
Here are a few of my favorite kale recipes on my site. Be sure to use the search bar (upper left) or click on the tag “kale” at the bottom of the post for others. As you can see, you don’t have to be full-on “crunchy” to use kale. Sneak it into all kinds of soups (maybe Minestrone) and sandwiches and wraps. Toss it into long-simmered braises and soups. I hope you’ll love some of these recipes or that I’ve inspired you to use a little kale in some of your favorites!
I hope you’ve enjoyed “What To Know About Kale.” I know I’ve only scratched the surface, but additional resources are listed below! If What To Know About Kale has you hungry for more, click on the tag, “kale” at the bottom of the page to see all recipes that reference this wonderful veggie.
- Kale, General Information: Wikipedia, Kale
- Cultivation: Penn State Extension
- Seasonality: The Old Farmers Almanac
- Canning: National Center for Home Preservation
- Nutrition: The World’s Healthiest Foods
- Oxalic Acid: Eat that Weed
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