Longtime health food staple kale became a trend at some point (thanks, Brooklyn), but it’s stayed so popular that now it’s just a fact of life. No longer destined just for juicers, it still gets the royal treatment on menus and even at home—including massages. Oh yeah. Those of us unafraid to get intimate with our food give the dark, bitter green a vigorous rubdown before chopping it up for a raw salad. This extensive guide returns the favor for your extra efforts, revealing the details of seven different types of kale and what to do with them, so you never get bored. And you always leave the table satisfied.
An ancient member of the Brassica family, kale is the sometimes spicy, other times a bit sweet, usually slightly bitter ancestor of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi. “Kale has roots deep in the horticultural soul,” says Suzanne DeJohn in her report for the Gardening Association of America.
The most common variety is deep green, but other kales are yellow-green, white, red, or purple, with either flat or ruffled leaves, according to Berkeley Wellness at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. The colored varieties — sometimes called salad Savoy — are most often grown for ornamental purposes, but they’re edible.
You’ve probably heard (for some, ad nauseam) that kale is a superfood. Yes, this green is packed with protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, fiber, and anti-cancer properties. And it has more vitamin C than any other leafy green. But “besides its good looks, flavor, and benefits to garden ecology, kale is good food,” DeJohn says.
Kale is one of the few leafy greens that doesn’t shrink much when you cook it, and it’s great sautéed, baked, roasted, and stewed. Just don’t over-cook it, because it can get more bitter than it was when raw.
Even better than a dry massage, us Kale University grads like to drizzle olive oil, salt, and lemon juice while rubbing the leaves together in our hands to quicken the massage’s process of breaking up the cellulose structure. That way, you’ll get a slightly sweeter, much silkier kale. Also, you can just cut it in thin, confetti-like ribbons. But always, always remove the ribs, whether you go raw or turn up the heat. You can trash those ribs or chop them up and throw them into a soup or broth later.
Check out these seven kale varieties and how to eat them:
Common Curly Kale
This is the type of kale you usually see in the grocery store. It’s a pale to deep green with large, frilly-edged leaves and long stems. It’s often sold as loose leaves bound together, even though it grows as a loose head. Put it in salad (using our softening tips), sauté, toss it in a hearty bean soup, or blend it in a fruit smoothie. Try common kale in our Kale and Potato Mash with Romesco Sauce recipe. You’ll also need to make our Romesco Sauce recipe beforehand, which you could use for another meal too.
Lacinato Kale (Dinosaur Kale, Tuscan Kale, Cavolo Nero)
This Italian variety of kale was grown by Thomas Jefferson in his garden at Monticello, according to Berkley Wellness. The dark blue-green, slender, long leaves have none of the curls and frills common in kales. Rather, the leaves are rumpled and puckered like savoy cabbage and curled under along the entire margin, DeJohn says. The leaf texture also looks a bit reptilian, so the coolest nickname for this kind of kale goes to the dinosaur. Lacinato is used for Tuscan soups and stews, but you could use it in salad too. Try Lacinato in our Kale and Cannellini Bean Soup recipe.
Ornamental (Salad Savoy)
Frilly and fluffy, ranging in color from white to pink and to purple to magenta, this colorful variety is used on buffet tables for displays. It forms a rosette, which looks like an opened-up flower. While its leaves are somewhat coarse, it is edible. Try it as a way to add color and texture to your plate. Or a garnish, if you’re entertaining. Try Salad Savoy in our Quinoa with Kale and Pecans recipe.
Red Russian (Ragged Jack)
This kale heirloom looks like overgrown oak leaves in colors ranging from blue-green to purple-red. It’s essentially a rutabaga developed for its top growth rather than its root, DeJohn says. Among its major advantages, it tastes good (semi-sweet) raw in salads, and looks pretty too. Cold weather intensifies its color. It’s sweeter and more tender than common kale. Try Red Russian in our Kale with Goat Cheese and Bread Crumbs recipe.
Chinese Kale (Chinese Broccoli, Kailaan, or Gai Lan)
Chinese kale can be substituted for regular broccoli in many recipes. High in calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, it’s very popular for stir-fry dishes; you can also steam or boil it. Try Chinese kale in our Basic Skillet Kale recipe.
One of the most cold-hardy varieties available (go figure), Siberian kale has enormous leaves and can take quite a beating from cold or pests, according to One Green Planet. It has gray-green ruffled leaves and is grown as a winter crop in the southern United States. This kale is better when cooked. Sauté it with some onions or shallots and bacon, then steam it with a bit of cider vinegar. Or try Siberian kale in our Kale and Roasted Red Pepper Frittata recipe.
The stunning 3-foot-tall hybrid can be both ornamental and edible. Its mass of well-curled reddish leaves with deep purple veins turns a solid, deep violet in cool weather, DeJohn says. Redbor is a great plant for an ornamental garden, where you occasionally pluck off few leaves to use as edible plate decor. Try Redbor in our I Am Giving Marinated Kale Salad recipe.