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How To Cook Collard Greens (101)

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This is the one-stop post to get  4-1-1 hun on all things collard greens. If you were ever interested in learning how to cook collard greens, you’re in the right place.

I grew up in a house where we ate collard greens at least once a week. So in my mind, everyone else did also. However, I’ve learned over time that there are many who either haven’t had the exposure to them or are intimidated by the cooking process and prep. 

So as a Collard Greens 101 this post will demystify, celebrate, and educate on this delicious and nutritious soul food staple. 

As far as healthy greens go, collards are one of the healthiest vegetables out there. Unfortunately soul food negative stereotypes have contributed greatly to this notion that collards have a lower health quotient relative to other vegetables. For example, kale and spinach get all kind of love, but collards get no mention. 

The reality is something altogether different. Collards are naturally possessed with all kinds of goodness. They provide nutritional benefits such as vitamins A, C, and K, magnesium, iron, and calcium. For a more detailed breakdown see this article on the health benefits of collard greens

How to select collard greens

raw collard greens with black background

To cook good greens you gotta know how to pick ‘em. I don’t mean actually pick them from your garden (if you grow them even better), but when shopping at the grocery store or farmer’s market there are certain important traits for selecting the freshest and best tasting. 

The darker the leaves the better so look for collards with dark green leaves specifically. Avoid leaves that are yellowing and/or have other blemishes. Discoloration means you got a bunch that’s past due. If it’s only a leaf here and there, you may be okay. Just discard those particular leaves.

Floppy, flimsy leaves are a no no. There should be a certain level of firmness to the leaves and stems. Firmness = freshness. If you’re not sure, just pick the bunch up and test. If they are wilted or bend a lot, put them back and move on. 

Big holes in the leaves are also something you want to avoid. A few small holes aren’t a major issue, but bigger ones reflect insects feasting on them.

How to store collards

Assuming you’ve done a good job of selecting good bunches, the next step is properly storage unless you’re going for immediate consumption. Make sure the greens are stored in plastic and refrigerated. The bags will protect the greens from any dehydration and the refrigeration obviously preserves freshness keeping the collards firm.

How long can you keep the greens in the refrigerator

Refrigerated greens wrapped in plastic will generally keep 4-5 days. I prefer to cook/eat them sooner 1-2 days after storage. When you are ready to cook the greens, you'll need to cut and wash them.

How to cut collards

Greens tend to be on the tougher side and are geld together by thick, hard stems. For larger more mature leaves you can pull the leaves away from the stems using you hands or you can use a sharp knife to cut the stem away by tracing the blade on each side of the stem.

Once you’re de-stemmed all the leaves, stack several then roll them up like a cigar then sliced them into desired thickness. Note 1 inch pieces is typical, but you can adjust based on cook times. Smaller sizes = faster cook times.

chopped greens in pot

How to clean collard greens

It’s much easier to cut dry greens than wet ones, so I prefer to wash after cutting. Collards are leafy with large surface area, which means there is more opportunity for gritty, dirt to post up on different parts of the leaves. You’ll want to be thorough; wash, drain, wash, drain, then wash again. There is nothing worse than chewing declines greens seasoned with dirt remains.

My approach is to soak them in a sink full of water to loosen up some of the particles. Then I rub the submerged leaves between my fingers and hands with serious intentions to remove any debris/dirt. I then wash them again for good measure.

A few things to note:

  • Replace the water each time you wash the greens. Whether using a sink or large bowl, wash away the left behind dirt each time and then add fresh, clean water. This is important, as clean, clear water absent of any dirt will be your signal that your greens are cleaned thoroughly and ready for cooking.
  • Washing does not mean bleach, dish washing liquid, or detergent of any kind. I add about a ½ cup of vinegar to my initial water soak. It has similar properties of vegetable cleaners without impacting the taste. 
  • Whether we’re talking collard greens or other greens like kale, mustards, turnips, spinach, etc. the same cleaning approach is required.

How to Cook Collard Greens

Traditional Southern Collards

Now that your collards are cut and cleaned, you’re ready to go. But you have many different options for cooking approach. If you can master Southern collard greens, you can pretty much handle any approach so let’s start there. The Southern way calls on long, slow stewing of the greens in water/broth seasoned with smoked meat like pork ham hocks, pork fatback, bacon, etc. 

Substituting smoked turkey vs. pork has become pretty popular over time, as trends have been to focus on more healthier ingredients to replicate that meaty smokiness.

Make the broth

Outside of the prep (washing and cutting) 95% of the work in cooking collards is the broth. It is absolutely what separates the adults from the kids in making good greens. I like to create my own homemade broth vs store-bought but that’s the advanced course. For beginners I recommend just doctoring up store bought low-sodium chicken stock. By doctoring up I mean stock with smoked meat, spices (paprika, pepper, salt, bay leaf), and sautéed onions and garlic.

For additional flavor I like to add pinches of red pepper flakes, cider vinegar, and molasses or maple syrup. These ingredients are about both elevating and balancing the flavors. The vinegar is needed acidity to break through the fatty smoked meat. Maple or molasses add mild sweetness to counter the savory and heat from the red pepper flakes.

stock ingredients in pot of water
Use a pasta insert for convenience cooking, removing, and disposing of the ingredients

Saute Vegetables

onions sauteing in pot
As you saute the onions and garlic season with salt, pepper, paprika, and red pepper flakes. The heat intensifies the flavors of the different spices

Add Broth

onions and stock in pot

Add the greens

I don’t add greens to the pot until I’m satisfied with the broth. Once my broth quality control test is complete, I add the raw, cleaned, and cut greens then stew for about two hours. If your broth is well seasoned, there is little left for you to do. You can certainly add seasoning (black pepper, paprika, and salt) as you go. 

The greens are ready when they are tender and even a darker shade of green. Taste for seasoning before serving. Adjust as needed.

Southern Collard Greens with Smoked Turkey - detailed recipe here

collard greens with smoked turkey in a bowl

Cooking greens in instant pot

Most of my weeknight collards are cooked right in the instant pot or pressure cooker. If you don’t have an instant pot I highly recommend investing in one, as it allows you to convert longer, traditional Sunday dinner recipes into shorter weeknight versions. 

The key with instant pot is using the “saute” feature to brown your vegetables (onions and garlic)  first. I also do the same with my smoked protein of choice to release some of the flavor. Then you just add the greens, mix well, and then cook. 

Instant Pot Collard Greens w/ Smoked Brisket - detailed recipe

collard greens with brisket in bowl

Cooking greens in crockpot

I personally don’t use a crockpot for cooking. I use it as more of a keeping things warm vessel. If you plan on cooking collards in a crockpot, my one expert tip will be to sauté your vegetable and smoked meat in a separate skillet first. Crockpots don’t get hot enough for sautéing and this is such an important step for maximizing flavor.

Braising Collard Greens

Braising collard greens is one of my favorite ways to enjoy collards. It’s a faster cook, so requires some finesse to optimize flavor, but worth it to have in your arsenal. You’ll want to cut the greens into smaller pieces given the shorter cooking time. The other benefit to braising is you can utilize more sophisticated ingredients like shallots, wine, or a aged balsamic vinegar.

Wine Braised Collard Greens

wine braised collard greens on a plate

Sauteing Collard Greens

When I’m really short on time a quick saute is my preferred way to get in tasty collard greens. The key is cutting the leaves into thin strips a la “Chiffonade” style. Next step is to create an infused “sauce” for sautéing the greens in. Using onions, garlic, and spices to infuse the oil along with balsamic vinegar that has been reduced to concentrate its flavor. 

All that is left for you to do is mix in the greens well enough to ensure all the strips of collards are coated in the sauce. It is a quick cook, but still deeply flavored.

Quick Sauted Collard Greens 

Brazilian Collard Greens “couve mineira”

couve or brazilian collard greens on a white plate

Raw Collard Green Recipes

Collard greens are nutritious and robust in flavor in their natural raw state so you can definitely enjoy them raw in salads. Per my earlier mention you’ll just want to cut them into thinner strips/pieces. Collard greens are bitter type greens hence the longer cook times are intense sautéing used. 

However, acidic ingredients like citrus and vinegars can help break down the greens without cooking. In this way the raw leaves are more like a ceviche in terms of cooking approach as they are marinated or “cooked” using the acidity. These makes them great for slaws or salad.

Collard Greens Slaw - detailed recipe

collard greens slaw in a bowl

Collard Greens and Okra Salad

collard greens recipe with okra, cucumbers, and lima beans

Pear and Fennel Salad 

fennel salad with ripe pears and collard greens

Vegan Collard Greens

The beauty of having a repertoire of cooking methods, is you can enjoy collards in many different ways including vegan dishes. The earlier braising and sautéing examples were all vegan based recipes. Curries are my favorite ways to enjoy vegan collard greens recipes. 

Caribbean Curried Collard Greens

coconut curry braised collard greens in a white bowl topped with red chilis

Curried Black-eyed Peas and Collards

black-eyed peas and collard greens curry with grains

Collard Green As An Ingredient

Collards work great as an ingredient in condiments whether we’re talking dips, sauces, or salsas. That fresh green flavor adds a unique flavor.

Southern Chow Chow Relish

chow chow recipe in a mason jar

Salsa Verde

Green Goddess Dressing

Soups and Stews

Cabbage Pozole Stew w/ Collards

Soba Noodles with Collards

Gumbo Z’herbes

cooked gumbo z'herbes in a white bowl with spoon.

Other Collard Greens Recipes

Warm Collards Salad w/ Bacon Vinaigrette

collard greens salad on a white plate

Poke Bowl with Collards Seaweed

Pressure Cooker Collard Greens

collard greens and turkey in white bowl

Collard Green Alternatives

Braised Mustard Greens

mustard greens with onions and turkey in a white bowl

Southern Turnip Greens

turnip greens with salt bacon and turnip roots in white pot

Frequently Asked Questions

How to season collard greens without meat?

You certainly can enjoy collard greens vegan or vegetarian, but you will have to do a few things to replicate the smokiness. I prefer to substitute dried smoked chilis in place of the smoked meat, as well as increase the amount of smoked paprika.

The key to well seasoned meatless greens is your stock. I recommend making this homemade stock minus the chicken parts.

Soy sauce is another great add for flavor. It's got a bit of umami presence that will add a bit of depth to the greens.

As far as spices go, I tend to add curry, all spice, and lots of garlic when I'm making meatless collard greens.

I will occasionally sauté thick pieces of portobellos to mimic the meatiness of smoked pork or turkey.

How long should collard greens cook?

It depends on how you are cooking them. Traditional Southern style is a long slow simmer roughly 1 ½ - 2 hours. But if you're making a quick braise you'll only need about 15-20 minutes.

What to do with the stems?

The stems make for great pickling. So if you a great pickling recipe definitely take advantage. I will occasionally substitute collard stems in a pickled okra recipe. You can also use them to flavor stock, or simply just add them to your compost bin.

Making Collard Greens

If you have any other tips for how to cook collard greens please come back and leave me a comment below with your thoughts.

You can also keep up with my food exploits as well as original recipes! You can find me on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and Pinterest. If you like any of the music you find on the site, visit me at Spotify to find curated monthly playlists.

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Monday 7th of November 2022

Before I put my veggies of any kind in a plastic bag, I put them in a linen bag. This wicks the excess water away from the leaves, but retains high humidity. All my veggies, but especially greens, that are notorious for turning to mush, stay nice and fresh for two to three times longer than just plain plastic. Just wash them between uses. They don’t get mold, etc., like cotton does and mine have lasted more than ten years. I made mine from linen I found on sale at the end of the summer season.

Marwin Brown

Monday 7th of November 2022

great tips!