Wondering how to cook with stinging nettle? Stinging nettle is not only edible, this wild leafy green is heathy, delicious and part of traditional diets for eons. Learn how to use stinging nettle in the kitchen with this easy guide.
If you grew up in the countryside, you might have first encountered stinging nettle in your backyard or stroll in the forest; the mere act of brushing up against this leafy green weed producing a startling burst of pain against your bare ankle. But more recently, you might have encountered nettle on the menu of a restaurant known for its farm-to-table cuisine, as an example of its commitment to local, seasonal, foraged foods. You might have even spied stinging nettle in your local farmers market. But what is stinging nettle, and is it truly edible and healthful?
What is Stinging Nettle?
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a flowering plant found in many areas around the world, including Northern Europe, Asia, Canada, and the U.S. Apart from Hawaii, it is found in every state here in the U.S. This herbaceous, perennial plant grows from sea level to subalpine elevations and is very persistent in northern climates, spreading as a weedy, invasive species. The stinging mechanism that many members of the Urticaceae family possess, comes from hollow stinging hairs called trichomes. Basically, a sharp point that injects a combination of chemicals beneath the skin to produce the stinging sensation. Amusingly enough, the juice of the plant’s own leaves soothes its sting.
If you want to grow your own nettles, choose a spot in your yard or garden with moist, rich soil and make sure to plant the nettles at a good distance from other plants. Plant the nettle seeds in rows and lightly cover with soil. Keep the soil moist and the seeds will germinate in about two weeks. The leaves will be ready to harvest after about 80 or 90 days. For the best flavor and nutrition, harvest the top 4-5 inches of the plant. Just don’t forget to wear gloves!
How to Grow Stinging Nettle
You can easily forage stinging nettle in nearby forests—depending on your bioregion—in the spring and early summer. If you want to grow your own nettle, choose a spot in your yard or garden with moist, rich soil and make sure to plant the nettle at a good distance from other plants. Plant the nettle seeds (which you can find in many garden stores) in rows and lightly cover with soil. You can also harvest nettle seeds from mature nettle plants that have flowered and gone to seed (the seeds are also edible!). Keep the soil moist and the seeds will germinate in about two weeks. The leaves will be ready to harvest after about 80 or 90 days. For the best flavor and nutrition, harvest the top 4-5 inches of the plant. Just don’t forget to wear gloves to harvest them.
Health Benefits of Stinging Nettle
Nettle has been used throughout the world to help treat a wide range of afflictions. The high iron content (3.2 mg per 200 grams of raw nettle) may help prevent anemia. Nettle has been used throughout history in traditional medicine to treat conditions like arthritis, kidney stones, diarrhea, sprains, high blood pressure, fever, and ulcers. While there is not enough research on these specific health benefits, studies do show that nettle has biological activities, including anti-hypertension, liver and kidney protection, diuretic, anti-diabetic, antiviral, and immune boosting.
Stinging Nettle Nutrition
Like numerous other dark leafy greens, the stinging nettle contains relatively high levels of protein and fiber, for a low calorie level. It also has one of the highest contents of chlorophyll of any plant, and supplies vitamins K, C, A, calcium, and iron, as well as healthful fatty acids. Scientific reports on the phytochemical analysis of nettle have revealed more than 123 bioactive compounds, including terpenoids, flavonoids, lignans, sterols, and polyphenols.
Cooking with Stinging Nettle
Nettle has been a part of many different cultural diets over thousands of years, from diets in ancient Rome to the eating style of tribes in the Himalayas and North America. Young nettle leaves appear in many traditional recipes, such as salads, soups, cordials, and teas. Some indigenous populations enjoy fresh nettle leaves or a nettle tonic in the spring.
Although nettle is hard to handle, a slight exposure to heat tames these sting-filled vines into super delicious greens. With a deep, earthy flavor reminiscent of seedlings bursting out from the winter soil, nettle shows us that spring is here. Nettle can be served completely on its own as a green, used in a soufflé, or atop pastas or pizza for a dash of bright green.
Guide for Cooking Stinging Nettle
The first step in cooking is to clean the nettle. One way to handle nettle is to place them in a colander, and while water is running, beat the nettles with a knife or spoon for a few minutes until they are slightly macerated. Next drain off the water, chop the leaves, and remove the large stems. See the step-by-step photo guide below.
Another way to prepare nettle is the blanching method. Place the nettle into a pot of boiling water for a few seconds. This not only cleans the nettle, but deactivates the sting.
Top 5 Ways to Use Stinging Nettle
Check out these easy ways to use stinging nettle to offer great taste and nutrition to your meals.
1. Top Your Pizza
Nettle is a great substitute for spinach or arugula as a pizza topping. Try this recipe for Arugula Pizza, but swap out the arugula for nettle.
2. Nettle Pesto
Swap arugula or half of the basil for nettle in your favorite pesto recipe for a delicious and nutrient packed sauce. Then toss it into your next bowl of pasta, smear it over a grilled sandwich, or use it as a condiment with roasted vegetables.
3. Sauté with Garlic
Try sautéing nettle in olive oil with fresh garlic—just like you would spinach or mustard greens—as an amazing side dish all on it’s own!
4. Add to Soup
Use a hearty bunch of nettle to give any soup a flavorful and nutritious boost, such as this vegetable soup. Just throw in a handful of chopped nettle, and enjoy. You can also replace the leafy greens in soups and stews with nettle.
5. Nettle Infusion
Place ¼ cup of dried or fresh nettle in a 32-ounce mason jar and top with boiling water. Let it sit for at least 4 hours and you will be left with an earthy tea filled with vitamins and minerals.
If you’re looking for a recipe starring stinging nettle, check out this easy, healthy recipe for Savory Nettle Bread Pudding based on the traditions of South Tyrol, Italy. Nettle is an integral part of the traditional diet in this culture. In fact, this stinging weed is used in the diet like we use spinach.
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