You Think You Know the Best Way to Cook Collard Greens? Think Again.
Greens are hitting farmers markets all over the country, and for those who appreciate the glory that is the collard, we are all-in on peak greens season. For most, the only way to cook these hearty, meaty leaves, is to braise them low and slow, preferably with a smoky salty meat product, until they slump into submission, losing their bitter bite and becoming tender and supple. Greens cooked this way are a two-part delight: the vegetable themselves are a perfect pairing for anything off the grill or smoker. And the magical elixir known as pot liquor (or likker) is a fortifying broth of intense flavor that can be sipped on its own, used as an anointment or sop for everything from cornbread to soft rolls, and spooned deliciously over mashed potatoes and grits.
But those who did not grow up in this tradition might find collards too wet or floppy to embrace. If you're among this tribe and think you just do not like collard greens, full stop, then let me say that it is time to flip the script.
A whole new way to think about (and cook) collard greens
Collard greens fall into a category of food that either needs to be cooked long and gentle or hot and fast in order to fully shine. So, if you have not really been able to embrace the classic braised style, let me introduce you to the cooking method I use most often: a hot and fast sauté. This style of greens has roots in all sorts of cooking traditions, from Kenyan sukuma wiki, to a classic accompaniment for Brazilian feijoada, to the greens in your favorite Thai pad see ew.
Similar to a stir-fry style of cooking (and can totally be done in a wok if you like to use one), the two keys to making sauteed collards are how you prep them, and how fast you cook them. Unlike stewed greens, which are usually left in larger torn or chopped leaves, when you sauté you want to use more of a shred style, since those thinner pieces will cook faster. Then you want to cook in a super-hot pan with a high smoke point fat, and maybe some aromatics to boost flavor.
Why to cook sauteed collard greens
Cooking greens in this way retains more of the satisfying chew of the leaves, with little pops of crunch where the stem cross-sections are, and will give you little bits of crispy here and there, like the edges of a great roasted brussels sprout. The bitterness is somewhat mellowed by cooking, but not gone entirely, making them a wonderful balance for rich foods or sweet meats. Even better? You can prep the greens ahead up to three days, and then cook off fast when you need them.
How to cook sauteed collard greens
To prep for sauteed collard greens, clean the leaves well, then lay on top of each other and roll up into a long cigar shape with the stems poking out the bottom. Slice across the roll into strips about half an inch wide until you get to the bottom of the leaves, then discard the remaining stems if they seem woody, or chop them thinly if they seem tender enough to cook. Store in the fridge in an airtight container or zip top bag, rolled in a dampened paper towel or lint-free clean tea towel.
To cook, you will want either neutral flavored high-heat fat like grapeseed, canola, or avocado oil, or something that enhances flavor like bacon fat, ghee, or coconut oil. Use one tablespoon or so per 4 cups of shredded greens. Here's how to do it:
1. Heat the fat over high heat in a large pan or wok until it shimmers, then add any aromatics you like. (I often use just sliced scallions, but any onion works great, and both ginger and garlic can amp up the flavor.)
2. Sauté the aromatics just for a few seconds to start to release their aroma, then add the greens and toss quickly to coat in the flavored oil. Sauté, tossing the greens or stirring vigorously every 10 to 15 seconds, until the greens change color and become darker and slightly translucent.
3. As soon as you see this change, season well with salt and pepper, plus a pinch of red pepper flakes if you want some heat. Taste for doneness—the leaves should be softened but still have bite, and the stem cross-sections should be a bit crunchy but not raw-tasting.
Serve hot or at room temperature.