Boost The Flavor Of Your Collard Greens With An Easy Water Swap

Collard greens are an often overlooked leafy green — despite being every bit as versatile, nutrient-dense, and all-around delicious as the other contenders in this category. A cruciferous vegetable related to kale and broccoli, they are most commonly used in East African, European, as well as Southern and Soul food traditions in America. 

While collard greens are simple enough to clean, they do require a bit of dedicated attention before you start cooking. You really can't just rinse and serve them, unfortunately. Once their tough stems are removed, you'll want to give every leaf a good scrub and thoroughly rinse each under the tap to ensure any sand, dirt, or insects they carried home have been removed. 

The next challenge is to flavor them well, which can be especially confounding if fixing their bitter taste is an unprecedented culinary challenge. One easy way to bring a great depth of flavor to collard greens is to swap boiling water with your stock of choice or even beer. After a bit of cooking, they'll be tender and have a delicious foundational flavor you can elevate with any seasonings or additions you choose to incorporate. With a bit of practice, you'll find many ways to add these gorgeous greens to your weekly meal rotation.

Establishing flavor for your collard greens

Often compared to kale, the inherently more fibrous texture and bitter taste of collard greens can be a challenge if you don't prepare them properly. But after they're blanched (preferably in something that adds extra flavor), they soften up and release some of their inherent bitterness. The compounds that make collard greens so bitter (glucosinolates, if you're curious) dissolve in water. This makes them easier to incorporate into a variety of different meals.

While water is typically used in the initial cooking step, you can enhance the base flavor of your greens by swapping that for a more flavorful braising liquid. Vegetable, chicken, or beef broth, a homemade ham hock broth, or even beer can give you all the same benefits of boiling in water while also infusing the greens with extra deliciousness. Choose a smoked stout to bring another level of savory succulence to the mix, or opt for an amber ale or IPA to keep things light, bright, and more open to accompanying a rage of flavors on your dinner plate.

Other ways to ramp up these greens

Aside from swapping water for something more flavorful, there are many other ways to increase their punch. In Southern cuisine, it's common to include a ham hock or smoked turkey leg, bell or jalapeno pepper, vinegar, crushed red pepper, herbs, garlic, or even cajun seasoning blends to enhance your collard greens. Ideally, these flavors will simmer for two to three hours, and establishing a robust blend of flavors at the outset will give you the most delicious outcome.

But other cultures take different routes you may want to pull inspiration from. In Liberian cuisine, collards are braised in a chicken broth flavored with bacon, cayenne pepper, and peanut butter for a finished product that is sweet, spicy, creamy, and smoky all at once. Ethiopian cuisine, on the other hand, often flavors collards with ingredients like toasted nigella and cumin, garlic, ginger, leeks, honey, habanero pepper, and white wine vinegar for a complexly savory side dish that also packs a kick of heat and a subtle zing.

The world is truly your oyster — don't be afraid to pull inspiration from multiple cuisines or recipes when building your braising liquid. And remember that collards become more tender and flavorful as you cook them. While some like to cook for many hours, others prefer shortening the cooking time to preserve more texture and chew in the dish. Experiment with different preparations to determine how you prefer your collard greens!