Collard Greens 101: Beginner-Friendly
Everything you need to know to prepare a pot of The BEST Southern Collard Greens EVER!
Visual learner? Watch the full How To Make Collard Greens Tutorial Step-by-Step!
Growing up in the Southern mountains meant consuming fresh-grown greens of all kinds like mustard, turnip, collard, kale, spinach, and yep even dandelion and beet greens. Even to this day, my Grandma Barb’s garden flourishes with greens of all kinds, and I just love “shopping” there. It’s impossible to leave her house without hearing “Take something from the garden.”
My favorite greens continue to be collard greens! There is just something about those thick, dark leaves when prepared Southern-style that warms my soul! Since Fall is right around the corner, I’ve decided to plant my own heirloom collard greens. Maybe I’ll do a post on how to plant collard greens if this crop survives. Until then, I’ll keep shopping for greens from the Farmers Market and Grandma’s house!
Collard greens are such an incredible plant full of nutrients, flavor, and a rich history!
Before we get into creating THE BEST collard greens recipe, grab a glass of sweet tea, and let’s learn a little about these powerhouse greens!
What are collard greens?
Collard greens are a member of the cabbage family. This is easy to tell from the similar smell of them cooking. Since they do not form a compact head like cabbage, they are called greens. The same goes for kale, spinach, turnip, and mustard greens. Collard greens have large, sturdy green leaves and hearty, thick stems. They can be eaten raw or cooked.
What do Southern Collard Greens taste like?
When people tell me that they don’t like collard greens, one of my first questions is, “Really? Well how were they made?” I’ve converted my share of collard green haters with this recipe. Ya see they’d only had collard greens raw, sauteed, or simmered in water. Collard greens prepared Southern style is an entirely different animal and so addictive! This collard green recipe is LOADED with flavor! It’s slightly spicy, smoky, salty, vinegary, and so savory! The broth is bold and rich, and the greens are so tender after simmering away in all of those flavors.
Health Benefits of Collard Greens
Are collard greens healthy? You bet they are! Collard greens are loaded with nutrients! Their dark green leaves and stems are full of chlorophyll which contains vitamins and minerals. Collard greens are rich in iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamins A, C, & K. If that wasn’t enough to encourage you to include these nutritious greens in your diet, they also contain fiber to aid digestion and lower cholesterol. Not to mention they are full of antioxidants and are low-glycemic. Collard greens are the new kale, honey! They are increasing in popularity that goes way beyond the South. If you’d like to include collard greens in your everyday menu, see the very bottom of this post for a healthier yet still soulful take on Southern collard greens.
A Brief History of Collard Greens
Collard greens are a staple vegetable here in the south. So much so that South Carolina decided to make collard greens their official state vegetable! It’s no secret that Southerners love their collard greens, but where did collard greens come from? Collard greens date back to prehistoric times and are one of the oldest members of the cabbage family. It’s said that collard greens originated near Greece. They eventually made their way to the American South through the transatlantic slave trade. Although collard greens are prepared in many ways, Southern-style collard greens were created by the enslaved Africans. Collard greens were one of the few vegetables that some enslaved Africans were allowed to grow in their personal gardens for their own families.
The African slaves created savory pots of greens by cooking them down until very tender. They would use the leftover scraps from the plantation kitchen to add to the greens, which usually consisted of meat scarps like pig feet and turnip tops.
The rich broth-like gravy that accumulates after cooking the greens were called pot likkur, and the African slaves would drink this flavorful broth as nourishment. This “gravy” is what makes collard greens such a comforting dish that has cemented itself into Southern cuisine. This “slave dish” made its way into Southern cuisine when slaves begin cooking it for their slave-owner’s families. Read more about the history of Southern foods in my article ” Southern Cooking 101
Liquid Gold AKA Collard Green Pot Likkur
It’s impossible to talk about Southern collard greens without mentioning one of the best features, the pot likkur! As mentioned above, pot likkur is the rich, savory broth-like gravy created when you slow cook a pot of collard greens. The base of the pot likkur is usually water or chicken or vegetable broth. I prefer chicken broth. It creates such a rich and flavor pot likkur! The pot liquor is this collard green recipe so delicious because it’s been slowly simmering with the collards, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, and meat! It’s full of nutrients from the collard greens and seriously delicious enough to drink on its own.
What can I add pot likkur to? If you decide to increase the liquid in the recipe so that you have a lot of savory pot likkur there are many ways that you can use it to enhance other dishes! Use it any way that you would use regular broth. I like to add it to mashed potatoes, brown gravy and also use it for cooking my rice in! It’s a real treasure.
How To Cook Collard Greens: Southern, Soul Food Style
Now that you’ve learned all about this fabulous, nutrient-rich plant! Let’s make a pot of the best collard greens ever. This collard greens recipe is super simple, and they just might become your favorite greens as well!
Meet The Cast: Collard Green Recipe Ingredients:
- Fresh Collard Greens– Purchase from the Farmers Market or Organic if possible. Make sure that the leaves look healthy, green, and full.
- Onion- Yellow onions will add flavor to the greens.
- Garlic– Garlic will compliment the flavor of the onion and greens.
- Red Pepper Flakes– Red Pepper flakes will add some slight heat to the greens.
- Fully-Cooked Smoked Turkey Leg- This is the best alternative for those who prefer not to use pork. The smoked turkey leg will add flavor and smokiness to the greens. If you prefer pork, use ham hocks or thick-cut cooked bacon.
- Chicken Broth- Chicken broth creates a richer, more flavorful broth. Water can be used in place of broth or a mixture of chicken broth & water.
- Seasoning( Black pepper, Smoked Applewood salt, and Distilled white vinegar)– These seasonings will enhance the flavors of the finished greens. Resulting in a bold, flavorful pot of savory collard greens that are smoky, slightly spicy, and a tad salty and vinegary! Perfection!
Step 1: Remove Stems:
How to remove the stems from collard greens
Now that you have a bunch of fresh collard greens, we want to remove the stem. The stems can be pretty bitter, so this is why most people prefer to remove and discard them. However, they are also loaded with nutrients. If you’d like to eat the stems, I suggest cooking them separately since they will take much longer to cook and become tender. Below are two common methods to remove the leaf from the stem.
Method 1. Fold the leaf in half length-wise and cut out the stem with a knife or tear it away from the stem using your hands. *I prefer to tear them off the stem.
Method 2. Hold the stem at the bottom with one hand and slide your other hand firmly up the stem, removing the leaf. (This seems to work best for small tender leaves.)
Step 2: Wash
How to wash collard greens
The very first time I made fresh collard greens, I gave them a quick rinse and threw them right into the pot. BIG. MISTAKE. I was met with a mouth full of grittiness! Yikes! Fresh collard greens are known to be full of dirt, grit, and sometimes bugs. Proper washing is always required. I like to do the soak and scrub method. It ensures that the collard greens are thoroughly clean. While you can clean your greens with plain water, I find that creating a quick and easy cleaning solution makes this process much quicker! Here’s how to properly wash collard greens.
- Fill your sink with water, and then add 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar and 3 tablespoons salt. (this will not affect the flavor of the greens)
- Swish this around, and then submerged your greens in the water. Agitate the greens while scrubbing and swishing them around in the water to loosen up any dirt.
- Let the greens soak for 20-30 minutes, giving them a good scrub midway. The vinegar and salt will help loosen & remove any dirt, grit and bring out any bugs hiding in the greens.
- Drain the water and soak again in plain water (1-2 times) if the water is dirty and gritty. Finally, to be sure your greens are squeaky clean, drain the water and wash and gently scrub each leaf front and back by hand. You’ll thank yourself for making sure the greens were thoroughly cleaned when you taste the results!
Step 3: Cut
How to cut collard greens
Now that we have squeaky clean collard greens, it’s time to cut them up into bite-size pieces. To do this, you can:
A. Stack several leaves on top of each other and roll them up lengthwise. Using a knife, cut the rolls into strips. Or…
B. Simply tear the greens into bite-size pieces with your hands.
I prefer method B! I grab several leaves and just rip them up into small pieces. This way is actually quicker for me, and I like the imperfect pieces that it creates. Besides, anytime I can touch my food while preparing it, it just seems to taste better!
Step 4: Cook
How to Cook THE BEST Collard Greens, Southern -Style
Now comes the fun part! Time to prepare our collard greens! This collard greens recipe creates the BEST pot of Southern Collard greens! The result is tender, savory greens full of soul, and my family just loves them! I hope you and your family will too! Let’s get started!
- In a large pot, heat olive oil. Once hot, add in onions and cook until tender. Next, add in garlic and red pepper flakes. Onions and garlic add so much flavor and savoriness to collard greens, and the red pepper flakes add a wonderfully spicy kick.
- Pour in the chicken broth and add the fully-cooked smoked turkey leg to the pot. Collard greens can be made with water, but chicken broth adds so much richness and flavor along with the smoked turkey. It’s a winning combination that makes the collard green downright addictive!
- Bring to a boil, and then add the greens to the pot. The greens will begin to cook down quickly.
- Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 1 hour or until desired texture is reached. Stirring it several times while cooking. I prefer my collard greens super tender but not mushy. It’s really hard to overcook collard greens, though. Check on them after the 45-minute mark, giving them a taste test to check for firmness. I cook my collard greens with the lid on, which helps them cook a bit quicker.
- Add seasonings. When the greens are done, give the broth and the greens a taste. Add seasonings to enhance the flavor if needed. I always add in a little bit of Applewood smoked salt, cracked black pepper, and distilled white vinegar. Chop up the smoked turkey leg and add it back to the pot if desired.
And that’s it!! You have just created one amazing pot of Southern soul food collard greens!! Don’t forget to make a batch of cornbread on the side!
Southern Collard Greens
Collard Greens Wash Solution
- 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar
- 3 tablespoons salt
Southern Collard Greens
- 2 bunches fresh collard greens (see note)
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup finely diced onions
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 4-5 cups chicken broth (can replace 1 cup with water if desired)
- 1 fully-cooked smoked turkey leg or wing (about 13 oz)
- 1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar
- Applewood smoked salt & black pepper, to season
Prep The Collard Greens
- Prepare the collard greens bath by filling your kitchen sink with cool water and adding vinegar and salt.
- Remove the collard greens from the steams by folding them in half lengthwise and pulling the leaf away from the stem. (discard the stem or see note below on how to cook them)
- Place the collard greens into the prepared water bath and swish them around several times, scrubbing them to help loosen up any dirt.
- Let the collard greens soak for 15-20 minutes, giving them a scrub midway. Drain the water and refill with plain water and allow the greens to soak again if needed. Repeat as many times as needed until the water is free from any dirt or grit. After the final soak, drain the water. Next, rinse and scrub each leaf front and back with cool water to ensure they are squeaky clean.
- Tear the greens into bite-sized pieces and set them aside.
Cook The Greens
- In a large pot, heat olive oil. Add onions and saute until tender.
- Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until garlic is fragrant.
- Pour in the broth and add the turkey leg. Bring to a boil.
- Add collard greens and reduce heat to a simmer.
- Cover and cook collard for 1 hour (or longer depending on your desired tenderness), stirring regularly.
- Once done, stir and then taste the broth and the greens. (add a little water if the broth is too bold for your liking)
- Stir in vinegar and smoked salt, and black pepper if desired.
- Serve collard greens with pieces of the smoked turkey leg and hot sauce if desired.
What to Serve With Collard Greens
This collard greens recipe can be served as a complete meal or as a side dish! You can serve collard greens with hot sauce and additional vinegar. It pairs well with a side of cornbread and a glass of Southern ice tea! Collard greens make the perfect side dish for Soul food dinners or served with whatever you’d normally serve with cabbage. Here are a few dinner menus to use with collard greens:
- Menu Idea #1: Oven-baked beef ribs, potato salad, and collard greens.
- Menu Idea #2: Fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, candied yams, cornbread, and collard greens
- Menu Idea #3:Cheeseburger meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and collard greens
Common Questions About Collard Greens
What takes the bitterness out of collard greens? Collard greens cooked Southern-style aren’t as bitter. The salt reduces this as well as the other ingredients. Adding a pinch of baking soda and sugar can also reduce the bitterness.
How long can you eat leftover collard greens? Cooked collard greens will last 3-4 days in the fridge.
How much is a bunch of collard greens? A bunch is usually about 20 whole large leaves or a little over 1.5- 2 lbs (before stems are removed). If you purchase whole collard greens from the store, they are usually already in a bunch. For this recipe, you’ll need 2 bunches; when the stems are removed, you’ll have roughly over 1.5 pounds. This will be enough to serve about 4-5 people.
Can you eat the stems of collard green? Absolutely! The stems are tough and slightly bitter. Cooking them makes them more palatable. (see below)
Are collard green stems good for you? Yes! The stem contains the same bounty of nutrients as the leaves.
How do you cook collard green stems? Remove the stem from the leaf and chop it into pieces. Simmer the stems in seasoned water or broth until tender. Eat them as is or mix them into other dishes.
A Lighter Alternative
How To Make Completely Healthy Everyday Collard Greens
Southern-Style Collard Greens is a special occasion side dish and not the only way to enjoy delicious collard greens! If you’re looking to add healthier collard greens to your weekly menu, try preparing them this way:
- Heat olive oil in a pot and add diced onions and diced red bell peppers. Cook until tender and add minced garlic and red pepper flakes.
- Season warm spring water with a dash of liquid aminos, nutritional yeast powder, garlic powder, onion powder, poultry seasonings, black pepper, lemon juice, and salt (if desired). Taste and adjust seasonings until it has a nice flavor. Pour liquid into the pot and bring to a boil.
- Add prepared greens (greens should have stems removed, wash and torn into pieces). Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour or until greens are tender.
- Taste and add additional seasonings like vinegar, salt, and pepper if needed.
Vegan Southern Collard Greens
Going vegan does not mean sacrificing Southern-Style Collard Greens! Check out my tutorial below for a vegan collard greens recipe. Vegan collard greens use fresh collard greens, onion, garlic vegetable broth, and smoked salt to replicate the smokiness from meat.