13 Ways To Upgrade Canned Collard Greens

When prepared correctly, collard greens are a delicious, hearty vegetable. However, when mishandled, they easily become bitter. Thankfully, canned collard greens come pre-cooked, so you don't have to worry about how to fix the bitter taste, blanching them first, or any of the other finer details that go into cooking them properly. However, canned collard greens lack flavor, so infusing them with other tasty ingredients is a must, and you still need to heat them up (at the very least).

To create a collection of tasty canned collard greens upgrades, I considered personal experience and scoured the internet for helpful tips from chefs, home cooks, food blogs, and more. I didn't grow up in the South, but I was close enough that many of the classic comfort foods associated with the region were a large part of my food culture, and that includes collard greens. As a result, I've both seen and prepared them in many different ways (sometimes with canned collard greens, sometimes not). In addition, I worked in numerous restaurants that served collard greens, so I was able to pick up insights from chefs. Full disclosure: I'm a vegetarian, so much of my experience came from trying to adapt collard greens recipes to accommodate my diet. As it turns out, most classic recipes contain meat.

Keep reading to discover what a lifetime of enjoying Southern-style collard greens and a bit of research taught me.

Simmer collard greens with ham hock or turkey leg for rich flavor

Braising and simmering collard greens with a ham hock, ham hock broth, or a turkey leg is a classic Southern rendition. When cooked together over low heat for an extended period of time, the collard greens absorb all the rich, salty, meaty flavors and become deliciously smooth. Of course, you'll probably want to add some aromatics and seasonings as well. Still, the presence of a juicy ham hock or turkey leg is the perfect way to reduce bitterness and infuse drool-worthy flavors throughout.

A lengthy braise with ham hock and collard greens can take several hours. My grandmother used to leave this combination cooking on the stove all day. However, that's because it is typically done with fresh collard greens. Fortunately, when you swap out fresh greens for canned, you seriously reduce the time needed to make this classic dish. You still want to allow enough time for the greens to take on the meaty flavors, but they should be miles ahead before they even reach the pan because they are pre-cooked. Instead of taking hours to prepare, canned collard greens reduce the time down to about 15 to 30 minutes. You could do it in less time, but it won't be as flavorful. You could always leave them on longer, too, and layer more flavor as you go.

Cook collard greens in chicken, beef, or vegetable stock

If you don't have a ham hock or turkey leg lying around (I mean, how often does that happen anyway?), you can achieve a similar flavor by cooking your canned collard greens in stock. Beef or chicken stock are probably the most used choices, but vegetable stock works, too. I've seen chefs use both beef and chicken stock to make collard greens. I like to heat my canned collard greens in vegetable stock, though, and I must say, they turn out pretty tasty.

Whichever kind of broth you select, it will enrich the flavor and add depth that can't be achieved with seasoning alone. Obviously, seasoning doesn't hurt, either; it just doesn't measure up to the slow-cooked flavor of broth seeping into the greens. Similar to braising with a ham hock or turkey leg, the longer you leave canned collard greens in broth to slow-cook, the better they'll taste. Still, you don't need all night, thanks to canned collard greens coming pre-cooked.

Once your broth-infused collard greens are prepared, they make a hearty side dish that can be served alongside an array of foods. Or, you can incorporate them into elaborate dishes like Southern-style mac and cheese with collard greens.

Simmer collard greens in beer to add complex flavors

Denver (where I live) is home to what seems like an endless number of microbreweries. As a result, chefs here love to incorporate flavorful, complex beers into their foods, and that includes collard greens. The idea to simmer collard greens in beer came to me by way of a chef I worked with, but since then, I've experimented with it a bit myself. I really love how beer adds rich, earthy flavors to collard greens, and I think you will, too. Depending on what type of beer you use, it has the potential to add a wealth of different flavors, from hops to malt to wheat to citrus or even coffee.

The chef who first showed me this technique liked using IPA because of the potent hoppy, citrus flavors. However, they also used amber beer from time to time. I'm not a big fan of IPAs, so I tried simmering my collard greens in a dark, malty stout, and they turned out delicious. I would probably avoid a stout with overwhelming chocolate or vanilla flavors, but a straightforward stout or one with a subtle coffee taste really enhances canned collard greens. Next on my list of beers to try is a citrus-forward wheat or farmhouse ale. I think the citrus notes will brighten the overall taste, similar to an IPA but without any overbearing hoppiness, and bring an array of flavors to the forefront.

Adding bacon or sausage is a no-brainer

Pork and collard greens are an iconic duo in the South. In addition to braising collard greens with a ham hock, preparing them with bacon, sausage, or chunks of ham is done all the time. Actually, collard greens with ham and bacon is one of the most common recipes I've seen in restaurants, BBQ joints, and home kitchens. Preparing canned collard greens with one of these tasty pork options is as simple as tossing bite-sized pieces into the pan with them, leaving them to simmer and absorb flavor throughout, and serving. The best part about this process is that you don't have to take the pork out at the end as you do with a ham hock. Instead, you get bites of tasty bacon or sausage right along with the greens. If you opt for a smokey or spicy bacon or sausage, you get a chance to further elevate and deepen flavor.

With enough meat stewed in, canned collard greens almost make a meal all by themselves. At the very least, they are a hearty side dish, and they pair wonderfully with other Southern side dishes like cornbread, mac and cheese, corn, and much more. You don't have to stop with the classics, though. For a creative take on a Brazilian classic, turn your bacon-infused greens into feijoada fritters with collard greens. They make a show-stopping appetizer.

Turn up the heat with spicy peppers

I love spicy foods, so adding hot peppers to canned collard greens is one of my favorite upgrades. It's quick, easy, and adds bold flavor. Roasted hatch or pueblo chiles are what I typically use, but jalapeños are delicious, too. I've also experimented with Anaheim and poblano peppers, but they didn't have enough heat for me. Just keep in mind how spicy the peppers you select are, and don't overdo it. Start by adding a small amount. You can always add more if it's not hot enough for your liking, but it's challenging to dampen the heat if you go too far.

If spicy foods aren't really your thing, or maybe you're cooking for kids who are sensitive to heat, bell peppers also make a nice addition to canned collard greens. They add a touch of sweetness and, if they aren't overcooked, a nice crunch as well. If you use orange, red, or yellow bell peppers, you also get a nice color contrast that catches the eye in an appealing way.

Add acid in the form of vinegar, citrus, or tomatoes

Acid is an essential component of cooking. Without enough, many foods fall flat and lack well-developed flavor. Canned collard greens in particular are significantly improved with an acidic element, like tomatoes, vinegar, citrus juice, or citrus zest. Any of these ingredients has the ability to round out and brighten the flavor of canned collard greens considerably by lifting the earthy elements and eliminating bitterness.

Roasted, sautéed, or even canned tomatoes add a zesty taste that complements collard greens to perfection. They also bulk up your dish. Vinegar and citrus juice won't add volume, but even a small amount transforms the flavor in a tangy, delicious way. My favorite acidic addition is lemon juice and maybe a bit of lemon zest at the end. For a single can of collard greens, I start with juice from half of a large lemon. Then, I let them simmer for a couple of minutes and give them a taste. If I don't pick up on the bright citrus flavor, I add more. You don't want the lemon to take over, but you want to get a hint of it in each bite.

Increase salt with mustard, Worcestershire sauce, or anchovies

Salt is another essential flavor in cooking. If you leave it out, food is often bland and, well, boring. So, when it comes to improving the flavor of collard greens, salt is definitely your friend. If you are simmering or braising your canned collard greens in broth, they'll pick up a decent amount of salt from that, but a bit more goes a long way in establishing lasting flavor.

Adding regular salt to collard greens is a great place to start, but I like to add another salty element as well, like mustard. I stick to grainier mustards that aren't sweet, but feel free to play around. While I haven't tried it myself, I've also heard of people adding anchovies or Worcestershire sauce to their collard greens to increase saltiness. As incredibly salty ingredients, I bet they work wonders. In addition to helping collard greens achieve the right flavor profile, I imagine Worcestershire sauce also gives them a nice dark color.

Balance bitterness with carrot, sweet potato, or sugar

The key to making delicious collard greens lies in the balance of flavors. Bitterness and earthiness are inherent in collard greens, but they can easily be rounded out with something sweet. When I want to tone down the potent taste of collard greens, I add a pinch of sugar. This may sound counterintuitive for a savory side dish, but if you've ever been to the South, you know sweet flavors pop up in unexpected places (like biscuits). A touch of sugar doesn't make collard greens sweet per se, but it does add a much-needed layer of flavor to the deep, earthy taste. The result is a perfectly balanced dish, but only if you use it sparingly.

In addition to sugar, I also enjoy adding chunks of carrot or sweet potato to canned collard greens. They function much like sugar, but the sweetness is toned down considerably. As a result, you can add quite a bit without running the risk of turning your collard greens into a sickeningly sweet dish. Plus, sweet potatoes and carrots add texture, color, and volume, leaving you with a heartier plate. If you go this route, I recommend cooking the carrots or sweet potatoes first and then adding the canned collard greens. The only exception to this is if you also plan on simmering them in broth or beer for a while. If so, go ahead and toss everything into a pan at once.

Enhance canned collards with aromatics like garlic, onion, or shallot

Aromatic seasonings, like garlic, onion, and shallot, play two roles in enhancing canned collard greens. First, they add a layer of delicious flavor that won't go unnoticed. Second, they infuse them with appetizing aromas, effectively drawing you in and, in my experience, increasing the interest of anyone else who might get a whiff while passing by. Aromatics have the ability to do this for nearly any food, but canned collard greens simply won't be the same without the addition of at least one.

Garlic is my top pick for canned collard greens. To be fair, I put large quantities of garlic in just about everything I make, but still, it instantly transforms the flavor of canned collard greens. Add some diced onion, too, and you're in for a treat. The combination of flavors and aromas from garlic and onion together is beyond drool-worthy (unless, of course, you are allergic to one of them). If onion and garlic are a bit too pungent for you, shallots make a great substitute. Think of shallots as a more subtle combination of garlic and onion, almost as if they had a baby. They still offer a similar flavor profile, but it's not quite as potent or overwhelming.

Boost umami flavor with miso paste, soy sauce, or mushrooms

There are five basic flavors in cooking: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. When you get a nice balance of all five tastes, dishes overflow with crowd-pleasing flavors. As we know, collard greens already have an inherently bitter element, so that's covered. We've already discussed adding salty and sweet ingredients to canned collard greens as well, so all that is left is umami. Described as deliciously savory, umami adds a deep, rich taste to canned collard greens and as noted, helps perfectly balance out the overall palate-pleasing qualities.

Umami might sound exotic to new home cooks, but infusing it into dishes like canned collard greens is easier than you might think. All you need is a dash of soy sauce, miso paste, or mushrooms. Many people have soy sauce on hand at all times in their kitchen, so it's often the simplest ingredient addition for canned collard greens. You don't need much, either. About 1 tablespoon or less should be plenty for a single can of collard greens. Miso paste is another delicious umami ingredient that can be incorporated just like soy sauce. Mushrooms, on the other hand, provide similar results regarding flavor, but they also add a meaty texture. If you are cooking for someone practicing a plant-based diet, they make a fantastic substitute for classic collard greens ingredients like bacon or ham.

Add Cajun seasoning for an authentic Southern taste

Cajun seasoning tastes phenomenal on all different types of foods, and in the South, it's used in abundance. So, it only makes sense that a classic Southern dish like collard greens would easily take to the blend of flavors. If you've never experienced the wonders of Cajun seasoning before, this is your sign to give it a try. It is bold, peppery, garlicky, salty, and so much more. Really, there's nothing like it and once you have a jar, something tells me you'll find ways to use it all of the time, not just with canned collard greens.

Since Cajun seasoning combines several elements discussed in this article (salt, aromatic garlic, and spice), it is one of the easiest, most flavorful ways to upgrade canned collard greens. It won't add texture, but simply heating a can with a generous sprinkling of Cajun seasoning takes them to new heights. You could stop there — I have many times — but layering in other flavors and ingredients is also an outstanding idea. Canned collard greens simmered in beer with bacon and Cajun seasoning are a winning combination.

Sauté with cream and Parmesan for a creamy finish

Creamy or cheesy collard greens may not be the norm, but that doesn't make them any less delicious. In fact, creamed Parmesan collard greens are one of my all-time favorite renditions of this dish. Soulful takes on this recipe also incorporate bacon and chicken stock, but you can easily make them suitable for plant-based diets by leaving those ingredients out. Plus, if you use canned collard greens instead of fresh leaves, simmering in stock isn't 100% necessary, thanks to the presence of cream or milk and the fact that they are pre-cooked.

When I make creamy canned collard greens, I heat the greens in a pan with about ½ cup of milk or heavy cream and garlic. I prefer heavy cream, but it's more common for me to have milk in the fridge, so I just work with what's on hand. Then, I mix in some flour and leave it to cook on low so the milk reduces a bit. Before serving, I sprinkle a generous amount of Parmesan on top.

Coconut milk also makes a nice substitute for cow's milk, especially if you're cooking for a vegan. Of course, you'll have to leave the cheese off, too, but coconut milk adds a tasty, sweet, and creamy element that anyone can love.

Take collard greens south of the border with Hispanic flavors

I have an affinity for Hispanic flavors and experiment with infusing them in all different types of foods, from pasta to egg rolls to collard greens. I know I'm not alone in this, either, so even if it sounds a bit unusual, I bet you'll love enhancing canned collard greens with them. While Hispanic flavors encompass quite a bit, they are typically bright, earthy, and spicy; three things canned collard greens benefit from greatly.

Some of the most prominent Hispanic seasonings include smoked paprika, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, lime, and cilantro. And guess what? They all taste exceptional on canned collard greens. I like to add a nice blend of them all, plus some jalapeños and garlic, and it's beyond tasty. You don't have to go all in like I do, though. Adding just one or two of the spices mentioned makes a significant difference. Additionally, some people can't stand cilantro, so if you're cooking for guests, you may want to double-check before adding them to your canned collard greens.