What Is Kale?
Kale can be polarizing—either you love or can’t stand the leafy crucifer that’s been getting so much buzz for its health benefits and nutrition. We’ve broken it all down for you: types of kale, how to eat it, how to cook it, and how to reap the most from its nutritional benefits. Whether you add it in soups, sauté, steam, or eat it raw in fresh salads, here’s the lowdown on how and why kale should be a regular-rotation leafy green in your diet. From tangy kale salad to crispy kale chips, you’re sure to find the perfect easy kale recipe that will please even the pickiest of palates.
Types of Kale
As kale gets its moment in the spotlight, you’ve probably been seeing more variety of the leaves at your supermarket—it’s no longer just the tough, woody stuff. From baby kale to lacinato kale, there are many unique varieties. Each one packs its own distinct texture and taste, and shines through different methods of cooking and serving.
Baby kale is smaller, softer, and less tough than other varieties, and doesn’t require the tedious process of de-stemming and trimming to become edible. This mild-flavored type of kale works well raw and is ideal for salads.
Curly kale is what you’re used to seeing at your grocery store. Because this type of kale tends to be more bitter and woody, the leaves should be stripped from their stems before cooking and eating it. This variety takes well to sautéing, steaming, or any cooking method that softens the leaves. Before eating raw curly kale in a salad, you’ll need to tenderize it by letting the leaves sit in acid such as a citrus or vinegar-based dressing.
Lacinato kale (also known as Tuscan kale) is arguably the most versatile: It can be enjoyed raw, or cooked due to its milder flavor, meaning you can use them in place of almost any green in your recipes. Also a bonus—you don’t need to worry about removing woody stems.
Purple Flowering Kale
Purple Flowering kale has a sweeter, less bitter taste than other types of kale and a beautiful purple color makes it stand out in salads. It's delicious eaten raw, but make sure to remove the stems as they tend to be the most bitter part of the plant.
Red kale, with a distinctly nutty flavor and tough leaves, works best in recipes once it’s been cooked down a little. You can soften the leaves and stems by sautéing them or adding them to soups. The softened purple-red stems look beautiful when tossed with other greens.
White Flowering Kale
White Flowering kale tastes the closest to its cruciferous cabbage cousin. This peppery type of kale is perfect for cooking methods that soften its tough leaves such as braising or simmering in soups.
Health Benefits and Nutrition of Kale
Kale is incredibly nutrient dense, making it completely worth the nutrition hype. Full of fiber, essential vitamins, and minerals, packing more kale into your diet is the perfect way to boost your intake of healthy leafy greens. Kale is also rich in phytonutrients, or plant-based compounds that are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help prevent chronic disease such as heart disease.
Kale Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 1 cup of raw kale
Along with cruciferous vegetables such as collard greens, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, a serving of kale is a good source of dietary fiber. This complex carbohydrate, which is only found in plant-based foods, is essential for gut health and also helps you feel full and satiated after a meal. In other words, you won’t be reaching for snacks afterwards.
While kale isn’t a complete source of protein, you can pair it with your favorite meat or plant-based protein to make recipes feel complete and filling. Beans, eggs, and chicken are easy and quick salad toppers, while tossing kale into soups with pork or beef make for hearty and satisfying meals.
Kale is absolutely packed with vitamin K, which is essential for blood clotting, and studies show that it may help maintain strong bones, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Another bonus—kale is also a great source of vision-protecting antioxidants beta-carotene, which is related to vitamin A, and powerful lutein and zeaxanthin, which may help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.
How to Cook Kale
Kale is an incredibly versatile green and can be adapted to any cuisine. When buying kale, it all starts at the grocery store: Make sure to pick out a great bunch of kale. Keep an eye out for wilted, yellow, or just sad looking leaves—chances are it’s past its prime. Seek out tender leaves and a healthy, green, vibrant color to ensure you’re getting a fresh bunch. Once you bring them home, store them unwashed in your fridge—if you wash them, trapped water means they’ll spoil faster. Depending on the variety of kale, you’ll want to remove the stems and tough ribs of the leaves. Not only are they bitter, they’re difficult to chew, especially if you’re planning on eating the leaves raw, such as in a salad. Whether your kale is sautéed, steamed, or pan seared, here’s how to ensure peak flavor and texture—no more chewing endlessly on tough leaves.
Sautéeing kale is a fast and easy way to prepare your favorite variety of this green for an easy side. The secret: working in batches. Kale is a bulky green, so instead of overcrowding the pan (which will result in leaves that are more steamed than sautéed), heat up oil and divvy up the leaves. Once they’re all wilted down to your liking, make sure to leave the pan uncovered for a few minutes over heat so that some of the moisture has a chance to evaporate.
When it comes to steaming kale, timing is key. Undercooked kale will be tough and difficult to chew, while overcooked kale will be soggy, wilted, and suffer from the most nutrient loss. Toss them in a steamer or in a colander that can fit completely inside of a pot to make sure that they’re not completely submerged in water.
Pan Seared Kale
Pan-seared kale is a great way to make sure that kale stays crisp, crunchy, and fresh, but loses some of the raw bitterness. Heat up some oil and add your favorite aromatics like garlic and crushed pepper, and quickly toss kale in the oil with tongs, making sure to not let one batch overcook or wilt more than the others.
Easy Kale Recipes
Ready to give kale a try? We’ve chosen our favorite, most flavorful, and easiest kale recipes that use a variety of cooking methods, perfect if you’re looking to give kale a try (or second chance).
Beautifully dressed and incredibly filling, this kale salad is perfect for packed work or school lunches—it won’t get sad and soggy in your lunch box. Savory feta cheese and a tangy vinegar-based dressing pairs perfectly with the mild bitterness of lacinato kale.
This dish is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and comes together in a flash: only half an hour from start to finish. A quick 6-minute steam of kale and tomatoes right in the pan makes sure the leaves are beautifully wilted and not tough to chew.
This salad makes great use of baby kale, meaning less bitterness and less time spent de-stemming and preparing the leaves. A creamy, tangy buttermilk dressing ties together all of the flavors in what’s sure to become a staple side salad at your dinner table.
Our morning smoothie packs a powerful nutrient punch thanks to lacinato kale and an abundance of other blended fruit and veggies. Frozen banana and avocado give it both sweetness and creaminess, and this beautifully verdant smoothie can be quickly assembled in 5 minutes.
Kale wilts down in this hearty soup while ham, thyme, and garlic pack flavor punches that make this cold-weather meal so satisfying. Our technique: quickly sautéing the kale before adding it to the soup at the very end of cooking—this way it doesn't lose its vibrant color.
Kale crisps up nicely for this easy, healthy and breezy snack that satisfies that salt craving without the greasy feeling afterwards. Chipotle chile powder packs warm and addictive spice that makes these just as crave-worthy as a bag of potato chips.
These fast finger foods are all of the satisfaction of mini pizzas—but with the nutritional boost of baby kale. Mini pita bread acts as the perfect crisp, toasted vessel for all of this easy snack’s saucy, cheesy goodness.