Culinary Arts

A Guide to Kale Varieties and How to Cook With Them

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 3 min read

Sure, the world may have gone a little kale-crazy over the last few years, but the leafy greens have deserved the hype since their earliest cultivation in 2,000 BCE.

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What is Kale?

Kale (Brassica oleracea) is a relative of cabbage grown for its edible greens, which come in a few variations: curly, bumpy, flat, or feathery.

Health Benefits of Kale:

The health benefits of kale are widely touted. Rich with antioxidants and vitamins A, C, and K, as well as high amounts of protein, fiber, iron, and magnesium, it’s become an easy way to incorporate more leafy greens—say, in a smoothie—into a balanced diet.

8 Different Types of Kale:

CURLY KALE: If you’ve enjoyed your fair share of kale chips, you’ll recognize the crimped frilly light green leaves of curly kale, also occasionally known as Scot’s kale and one of the most common varieties out there.

LACINATO KALE: Also referred to as cavolo nero, Tuscan kale, or dinosaur kale, Italian lacinato kale has the narrow, stubbly dark blue-green leaves you’ll see stacked up at farmers' markets with fantastically grassy, fresh flavor.

ORNAMENTAL KALE: Usually seen in decorative landscaping designs, ornamental kale features white or purple leaves in a rosette pattern. While ornamental kale varieties like peacock kale, coral prince, kamone coral queen, color up kale, and chidori kale are edible, they don’t have as clear a flavor as some of the conventional varieties. Pretty much all kale was decorative until the 1990s, when it went mainstream with the health food set.

RED RUSSIAN KALE: Featuring wide dark green fronds with brilliant magenta veins and deep purple stems, Red Russian kale is one of the few kale varieties with a sweet edible stem and soft leaves. It was first introduced to Canada by Russian traders in the 19th century.

CHINESE KALE: Those plates of gai lan, the bright steamed Chinese broccoli that you get with a side of oyster sauce at dim sum, are also known as Chinese kale, though their thick stems have more in common with conventional broccoli.

SIBERIAN KALE: As its name might suggest, Siberian kale is the most cold-hardy of the varieties of kale out there, and its delicately flavored leaves make it a popular choice for kale salads.

REDBOR KALE: The stunner of the bunch, Redbor kale has dramatic purple tightly frilled leaves and a mild, crisp flavor.

BABY KALE: Harvested while the kale plant is still young, baby kale is delicate enough to be eaten raw. It’s usually found in mixes of salad greens at the grocery store.

How to Cook With Kale:

When cooking with common types of kale, you’ll want to remove the stem, which can be woody and hard to chew. To do this, simply lay the leaf face down and trim down the line of the stem with a knife, or simply hold the stem with one hand and gently strip the leaves off with the other—they should separate easily.

  • Raw: Kale salad is one of the easier ways to enjoy raw kale. Remove the stems (unless using a variety like Red Russian) and slice the leaves crosswise into ribbons or rip them into bite-sized pieces. Using your hands, massage the raw leaves to break down the structure (this makes it less woody and fibrous) until softened and glossy.
  • Sautéed: If you treat it right, kale is incredibly low maintenance: add a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add 2 to 3 garlic cloves, sliced thin, and sauté until soft and aromatic. Add 2 large handfuls of torn kale leaves to the pan, and season with salt and black pepper. Stir to combine, and cook until the kale is slightly wilted. Add 1 tablespoon of water to the pan and continue to sauté until liquid is gone. Alternatively, you can toss a cup or two of torn, de-stemmed kale leaves—preferably something firmer like lacinato—as a final step to soups, stews, or stir-fries, cooking just until soft.
  • Roasted: Roasted kale leaves add a crisp meltaway texture to any salad. Toss de-stemmed leaves with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, then arrange on a baking sheet and bake at 350°F for 5-10 minutes. (Be sure to keep an eye on them so they don’t burn!) Serve with finely grated Pecorino cheese.