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Five Ways to Cook Greens

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2011

Here we outline our preferred methods for cooking various types of greens.

QUICK-BRAISE

Best For: Green, Red, and Savoy Cabbage

Why Use It: Cooking cabbage in a small amount of flavorful liquid preserves its bite. This method also creates a flavor exchange with the cooking liquid and builds complexity. Adding butter to the liquid deepens cabbage flavor and improves texture.

Basic Method: Melt 2 tablespoons butter in Dutch oven; add 1 pound thinly sliced cabbage and 1/2 cup braising liquid. Simmer, covered, until cabbage is wilted, about 9 minutes.

NINE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER: Cabbage notoriously gives off an unpleasant odor when it cooks due to the breakdown of the leaves’ cell walls, which releases sulfur-bearing flavor compounds. The key to minimizing that smell is all in the timing: We’ve found that about nine minutes of braising is just long enough to tenderize the sturdy leaves but brief enough to avoid producing an overabundance of sulfurous odor.

STIR-FRY

Best For: Bok Choy and Napa and Savoy Cabbage

Why Use It: Stir-frying over high heat lightly browns the greens, enhancing flavor while preserving some crunch.

Basic Method: Heat oil in nonstick skillet (preferred to wok when cooking on flat-top burner) over high heat. If using bok choy or napa cabbage, add sliced stalks and cook briefly. Add aromatics and cook briefly, then add 1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced leaves and cook until tender, about 1 minute.

GIVE STALKS A HEAD START: Unlike many other greens, bok choy and napa cabbage contain both edible stalks and edible leaves. We add the stiffer stalks to the pan first, cooking them until crisp-tender and just starting to brown before adding the more delicate leaves.

PAN-STEAM

Best For: Kale, Collards, and Mustard and Turnip Greens  

Why Use It: Pan-steaming quickly wilts assertive greens while preserving some of their pungent flavor and hearty texture.  

Basic Method: Heat garlic in olive oil in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add 2 pounds damp chopped greens (lots of water should still cling to leaves), cover pan, and cook until wilted, about 7 to 9 minutes for kale and turnip and mustard greens and 9 to 12 minutes for collards.

SLOW-BRAISE

Best For: Kale, Collards, and Mustard and Turnip Greens

Why Use It: This one-pot method slow-cooks assertive greens in a small amount of liquid. The long cooking mellows the bitterness of the greens more than pan-steaming and yields a more tender texture. To ensure that the greens don’t taste watery, we increase the heat at the end of cooking to evaporate excess liquid.

Basic Method: Cook onions in oil in Dutch oven until softened. Add 2 pounds damp chopped greens and cook until beginning to wilt. Add 2 cups braising liquid, cover, and cook over medium-low heat until tender, 25 to 35 minutes for kale and turnip and mustard greens and 35 to 45 minutes for collards. Uncover, increase heat to medium-high, and cook until pot is almost dry.

SAUTÉ

Best For: Mature Spinach, Swiss Chard, and Beet Greens

Why Use It: The relatively high heat cooks down medium-tender, high-moisture greens before they have a chance to get soggy.

Basic Method: Heat garlic in oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 2 pounds damp greens and cook, tossing with tongs, until wilted, about 2 minutes for spinach and 5 minutes for Swiss chard and beet greens.

QUICK SQUEEZE: While sautéing evaporates most of the greens’ moisture, we like to transfer hot greens to a colander in the sink and gently press them against the side to remove any excess water before serving.

PARCOOK BABY SPINACH, Then Sauté: Sautéing baby spinach usually results in a watery mess. Our solution: Wilt this very delicate green in the microwave on high power for three to four minutes with 1 tablespoon of water per 6-ounce bag. Parcooking softens the leaves so moisture can be removed. Press the wilted leaves against the sides of a colander to squeeze out moisture; chop and press again. Then proceed with sautéing.