This is an updated version of my original blog post on “Kale 101 – The Basics.” The content has been expanded to be more complete and comprehensive coverage of the subject of kale. If you have any questions about this VERY healthful vegetable, hopefully, you’ll find your answer here.
Kale 101 – The Basics (UPDATE)
Kale is a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables, being a cousin to cabbage, cauliflower, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and others. They all belong to the Brassica genus of plants. There are three main types of kale, with many varieties within each category: flatter, wide leafed kale; darker, Lacinato-type kale; and curly-leafed kale.
The color of kale can vary from light to dark green, and lavender to dark purple. Some green-leafed varieties have purple stems and veins. Kale can broadly be divided into two general categories: culinary kale and ornamental kale. All types are edible, but the ornamental kales may be tougher in texture and stronger in taste. They were developed more for their appearance than flavor or texture.
The kale we’re familiar with today was first cultivated in the Mediterranean area over 2,000 years ago. It was an important food in Europe during the time of the Roman Empire and during the medieval period in Europe from the 5th to 15th centuries. It is believed that European colonists brought kale to North America in the 1600s. Russian traders are believed to have first taken kale to Canada in the 1700s. Today, kale is grown commercially in the United States, mostly in California, Georgia, New Jersey, and Texas.
Nutrition and Health Benefits
Kale is a nutritional powerhouse and is often referred to as one of the healthiest foods to eat. Kale is an excellent source of Vitamin K, Vitamin C, Vitamin A, manganese, and copper. It also supplies a lot of Vitamin B6, fiber, calcium, potassium, Vitamin E, Vitamin B2, iron, magnesium, Vitamin B1, Omega-3 fats, phosphorus, protein, folate, and Vitamin B3. One cup of raw kale has only 33 calories. On top of all that, over 45 different flavonoids have been found in kale, which means this vegetable has outstanding health-promoting properties!
Anti-Cancer Benefits. Like other cruciferous vegetables, the anti-cancer effects of kale have been widely studied. The vast array of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and direct anti-cancer compounds found in kale all work together in their own specific ways to ward off cancer, particularly bladder, breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate cancers. The large number of antioxidant carotenoids and flavonoids found in kale have been shown to have direct anti-cancer effects. Furthermore, these same compounds have been shown to lower our risk of developing cataracts, glaucoma, atherosclerosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Cardiovascular Support. Kale is also a super-food in terms of reducing our risk for heart disease. Kale contains an overabundance of strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents. Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are precursors for developing clogged arteries. Since kale is a concentrated source of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, it is well-known for lowering our risk of arteriosclerosis.
In addition to lowering our risk for clogged arteries, kale also has cholesterol-lowering abilities. The fiber in kale binds with bile in the intestinal tract, removing it in the feces. This forces the body to use its existing cholesterol to create more bile. In turn, this lowers our total blood cholesterol level. Studies have also shown that LDL cholesterol also drops with increasing amounts of kale in the diet, while HDL cholesterol levels increase (which is a good thing). Both raw and steamed kale have been shown to provide these benefits, but interestingly, the benefits seem to be stronger with steamed kale. The same cholesterol-lowering effects have also been demonstrated with drinking 5 ounces of kale juice a day.
Detoxification. The isothiocyanates made from kale’s glucosinolates have also been shown to help regulate both Phase 1 and Phase 2 detoxification processes in our cells. This helps to keep our toxic exposure in check, whether the toxins come from the environment or from food.
Eye Health. Kale is particularly high in lutein and zeaxanthin, two powerful nutrients that protect the eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration. These conditions are common causes of vision loss in older people.
Other Potential Benefits of Kale. Kale is high in nutrients that many people are deficient in, namely calcium, potassium, magnesium, and Vitamin K. These nutrients protect bone health, control blood pressure, regulate the blood clotting function, reduce risk of heart disease, and offer protection against Type 2 diabetes.
The abundant fiber in kale helps to keep our digestive system healthy.
Also, glucosinolates have been found to help protect the stomach lining from bacterial overgrowth of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium responsible for gastric ulcers and stomach cancer. With kale being so rich in glucosinolates, research will likely find that eating kale on a regular basis can be protective from these health concerns.
How to Select Kale
Look for dark, vibrant, unwilted leaves. Those with yellowing or brown leaves are older, so avoid them if you can. Try to avoid limp kale leaves if you can, since they have started to dry out. The smaller leaf plants will be more tender than those with larger leaves.
How to Store Fresh Kale
Kale should be stored UNWASHED in the refrigerator. To help extend the life of fresh kale, remove the twist tie holding the bundle together, then wrap the bundle in a kitchen towel or paper towels, jelly-roll style. Place it in a plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator. It should be used as soon as possible, but may keep for a week when stored this way. If it has gotten a little limp while in the refrigerator, place the kale in a large bowl or pot of cold water for about 10 minutes and it should revive. Then wash and use it as desired.
If your stored kale becomes soft, discolored or mushy, remove and discard those leaves and use the rest immediately.
How to Prepare Fresh Kale
Fresh kale is very easy to prepare. Simply rinse the leaves under cool water. The stems may be left on the leaves or removed, as desired. For uniform cooking time, roll the kale leaves and cut them into about 1/2-inch slices. Cut the stems in 1/4-inch pieces. This way, the stems and leaves will cook in about the same amount of time.
Kale may be eaten raw, or cooked in about any way imaginable. For the most nutrient retention, steam prepared kale for no longer than 5 minutes. Blanching kale (boiling it then immediately chilling it in cold water) for 2 minutes is also another way to cook kale while retaining most of its nutrients.
Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Kale
* One pound of fresh kale = 12 cups chopped, or 3 cups cooked
* When making dishes calling for raw kale, it’s helpful to know that smaller leaves are more tender than larger leaves.
* To tenderize and reduce bitterness in kale, quickly blanch it in boiling, lightly salted water before using it.
* To soften tough kale leaves when you want to use them in a salad, massage them first with a little oil of choice. If you don’t want to use oil, massage the leaves with a cut up fresh avocado. Use the kale immediately if avocado was used.
* Add kale to soups and stews, smoothies and salads.
* When including raw kale in salads, try slicing the leaves into thin ribbons. They should be easier to eat that way.
* Frozen kale should be used within about 6 months.
* Here’s a different way to serve kale. Braise chopped kale with chopped apples. Before serving, drizzle it with a little balsamic vinegar and top with chopped, toasted walnuts.
* Combine lightly steamed chopped kale with pine nuts and feta cheese. Toss it with cooked whole grain pasta and olive oil.
* If your kale has started to go limp, refresh it by soaking it in a bowl or pot of cold water for about 10 minutes.
* For a nutritional boost, add some kale to your favorite pesto.
* If you have some extra kale that you can’t use fast enough, blend it smooth with a little water in a high-speed blender. Pour the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze. Transfer to an airtight container once frozen. When making smoothies, add kale ice cubes in place of plain ice cubes.
* Keep some frozen kale in your freezer. It’ll be there when you run out of fresh kale. Add it to smoothies, stir-fries, soups, pasta dishes, and even salads as a wilted green.
Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Kale
Anise, basil, bay leaf, capers, caraway seeds, cayenne, chili pepper flakes, cilantro, coriander, cumin, curry powder, dill, fennel seeds, marjoram, mint, mustard, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper (black), rosemary, salt, savory, tarragon, thyme
Foods That Go Well with Kale
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, beans (in general), black-eyed peas, cashews, chicken, chickpeas, eggs, green beans, ham, hemp seeds, lentils, nuts (in general), peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, pork, pumpkin seeds, sausage, seafood (in general), sesame seeds, snow peas, sunflower seeds, tahini, tofu, walnuts
Vegetables: Arugula, beets, bell peppers, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, celery root, chard, chiles, chives, dulse, escarole, garlic, ginger, greens (i.e., collard, dandelion, mustard), leeks, mushrooms, nori, onions, (esp. red), potatoes, radicchio, radishes, scallions, sea vegetables, shallots, spinach, squash (summer and winter), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips
Fruits: Apples, avocados, cherries (dried), cranberries (dried), dates, grapefruit, lemons, olives, oranges, papaya, raisins
Grains and Grain Products: Barley, bread crumbs, bulgur, corn, farro, noodles (esp. Asian), pasta, polenta, quinoa, rice (esp. Arborio, brown, wild), spelt
Dairy and Non-Dairy: Browned butter, butter, cheese (in general, esp. cheddar, feta, Parmesan, pecorino), coconut milk, cream, yogurt
Other Foods: Chili paste, maple syrup, miso, mustard (Dijon), oil (in general, esp. flaxseed, olive, sesame), soy sauce, stock, tamari, vinegar (esp. apple cider, balsamic, brown rice, red wine, sherry)
Kale has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Casseroles, chips (dehydrated, not fried), egg dishes (i.e., frittatas, hard-boiled, omelets, poached, quiches), gratins, juices, pasta dishes, pestos, pizza, Portuguese cuisine, purees, slaws, smoothies, soups (i.e., bean, kale, minestrone, potato, vegetable, white bean), stews (i.e., barley, winter), stir-fries, stuffings
Suggested Food and Flavor Combos Using Kale
Add kale to any of the following combinations…
Apples + Vinegar (i.e., balsamic, cider) + Walnuts
Avocado + Dried Apricots + Lemon + Orange + Pistachios + Raisins + Soy Sauce
Avocado + Mushrooms + Red Onions
Balsamic Vinegar + Beets + Feta Cheese + Walnuts
Beets + Walnuts
Brown Rice + Garlic + Ginger + Soy Sauce
Butternut Squash + Tomatoes [in risotto]
Cheese (i.e., cheddar) + Fruit (i.e., apples) + Nuts (i.e., almonds)
Chickpeas + Feta Cheese + Lemon
Chickpeas + Mushrooms
Chiles + Garlic + Ginger
Chili Flakes + Garlic + Olive Oil + Parmesan Cheese + Pine Nuts
Chili Paste + Egg + Garlic + Potatoes
Garlic + Hard-Boiled Egg + Lemon + Parmesan Cheese
Garlic + Lemon
Garlic + Lemon + Olive Oil
Garlic + Lemon + Olive Oil + Pine Nuts
Garlic + Olive Oil + Parmesan Cheese + Red Wine Vinegar
Garlic + Sesame Oil + Sesame Seeds + Soy Sauce + Vinegar
Garlic + Soy Sauce
Ginger + Tahini
Grapefruit + Red Onions
Olive Oil + Olives + Pine Nuts [Over Pasta]
Olive Oil + Onions + Orange + Raisins
Rosemary + White Beans
54 Kale Recipes That Are Healthy, Not Boring https://www.self.com/gallery/50-ways-to-eat-kale
57 Kale Recipes That Go Way Beyond Salad https://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/slideshow/kale-recipes
45 Different Ways to Eat Kale When You Can’t Get Enough Leafy Greens https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/food-recipes/healthy/g1436/easy-kale-recipes/
Super Energy Kale Soup http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=214
Poached Eggs Over Sautéed Greens http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=77
Italian Tofu Frittata http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=38
Minestrone Surprise http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=55
5-Minute Kale http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=281
30 Kale Recipes to Add to Your Rotation https://www.foodandwine.com/vegetables/greens/kale/kale-recipes-and-ideas
15 Best Kale Recipes https://www.acouplecooks.com/12-best-kale-recipes/
20 Kale Recipes That Will Make You Fall Back in Love with the Veggie https://www.brit.co/best-kale-recipes/
15 Delicious Kale Recipes https://cookieandkate.com/15-delicious-kale-recipes/
119 Kale Recipes for When You’re Craving Greens https://www.epicurious.com/ingredients/all-kale-all-the-time-gallery
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.