As far as greens go, kale gets a bad rap. It’s hearty and tough, for one, but it also boasts a bittersweet pungency that some find off-putting.
In cooked applications (like our Roasted Kale with Garlic, Red Pepper Flakes, and Lemon) that assertive flavor is no big deal—kale’s flavor mellows significantly with cooking. But what about raw applications like salads? Even if you’re a fan of kale's flavor, salads often require extra dressing to balance out the bitterness.
Luckily, there’s an easy, no-cook way to decrease kale’s pungency: rinsing it before and after cutting it.
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How Rinsing Twice Leads to Tastier Kale
Much like in onions and garlic, kale’s bitterness is only formed when the vegetable is sliced, chopped, massaged, or chewed.
When cells in a leaf of kale are intact, an enzyme called myrosinase and sulfur-containing compound glucosinolate are separated from one another.
When cells are damaged, the myrosinase and glucosinolate interact and create isothiocyanates, the compounds responsible for kale's pungency.
I’m going to guess that when you prep kale, you rinse the leaves to get rid of any dirt and then cut them to the desired size. But you should rinse after prepping too.
All of your prep leads to the creation of pungent isothiocyanates. By rinsing after prepping, you can remove some of the isothiocyanates for milder kale leaves that need less dressing to taste good.
How to Make Kale More Tender
Once you’ve tamed its flavor, there’s just one more step to get your kale salad-ready: tenderizing the hearty leaves. For this, you have three options.
The technique that has gotten the most attention and suffered the most teasing and ridicule is massaging. But the technique is easy and effective: Simply grab handfuls of kale leaves and physically break down the leaf’s structure.
Letting stemmed and cut kale soak in a bath of hot tap water (about 112 degrees) for about 10 minutes helps the leaves wilt slightly, creating a tender yet still crunchy texture.
Think of the hot water as a very mild form of blanching. The elevated temperature speeds up enzymes that break down cell walls. (The enzyme in question, polygalacturonase, also breaks down cell walls in fruits like tomatoes as they ripen.)
Your third option is to let the kale rest.
Dressing kale leaves with salad dressing and refrigerating them for at least 20 minutes (or up to overnight), has a softening effect. The oil in the dressing “wets” the waxy, water-repelling surface of the kale leaves, which causes them to soften.
For even more tender leaves, try combining these techniques.
And to learn more about kale, watch the latest episode of What’s Eating Dan? below.