In Europe, cooking stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) is common right of Spring. There aren’t many American’s that crave them, but that’s slowly changing. They’re a special plant, and the first thing I look for after a long Midwestern winter. Why would you want to eat them? Because they’re delicious, and incredibly healthy.
In the kitchen, they’re versatile, you can treat them like a vegetable, or like wilted greens. The key to getting nettles that are good to eat though is getting them at the right age. In a nutshell I like nettles that are young, and less than a foot high.
Nettles that have begun to make seeds are getting mature, you can still eat them, but I like to use a scissors to clip off only the tender new growth. After a few months of growing the stems get tough and fibrous. Of course you can always pick the leaves off, but the tender stem is half the fun.
Stinging nettles aren’t the only nettles I know of, there’s also wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) that has leaves that are more round than the pointed leaves of stinging nettles, both are good and give great results as long as you harvest them young. One thing to know is that wood nettles will cause more intense dermatitis if they happen to touch you though.
Harvesting and storing
I make sure to keep some gloves with me and a scissors when I’m out hunting in case I run into a good patch. I gently grab the nettles with my gloved hand, then snip small clusters of them using the scissors, and put them in a paper bag. Once I get home I immerse the nettles right away in cold water to refresh them in case they’re been in the car and have wilted.
After they’re washed I shake them dry (still wearing the gloves) then put spin them dry in a salad spinner or wrap them in towels to weep water. Once they’re dry, I put them in a bag that could be plastic or a paper grocery bag, along with a damp cloth or a few paper towels to keep moisture in with them since the refrigerator will dry out greens quickly at home. In a restaurant setting I store greens in large tied bags, or in plastic fish tubs until they’re needed.
Young vs old nettles
Like most plants, the best nettle will be a young, tender one. The entire shoot can be eaten like a vegetable and there is no need to pull off the leaves, just blanch or wilt them, then chop or use whole.
If the nettles are older, you can cook with only the leaves but they can be stringy, especially if they’ve gone to seed. Occasionally I’ll make a puree or a soup out of older nettles if I can’t resist picking or if someone brings them to me and I can buy them on the cheap. Waste not, want not.
Are some of the easiest wild seeds to harvest I know of, along with cow parsnip, wild fennel and angelica. As the plants get older each year, they’ll start to bolt and produce seeds, which makes the plant tough and stringy to eat.
If you’re picking regularly from a patch near you or preferably in your yard, you can mow them to force them to keep making young, tender growth. Eventually they will go to seed though. The seeds can be ground into a primitive flour, but I typically just gently toast and sprinkle them on dishes like granola or yogurt, or add them to baked goods.
Of the two species I’ve had, wood nettles are much more vegetal/green tasting, where common stinging nettles almost have a saline/ocean quality to them, especially if they’re pureed. The difference is real. I’m not a food scientist, but I assume the stronger flavor of stinging nettles stems from the higher amount of chlorophyll they contain-they’re much darker after cooking or pureeing than wood nettle.
Stinging nettles have been dried and used as tea for a long time, and can also be ground to powder in a blender after drying to be used as a coloring/seasoning. Freezing is also an option I use sometimes. To freeze I blanch nettles in salted water, then drain, squeeze out excess water, pack into labeled, dated ziploc bags and store until I need them. After freezing, they won’t have exactly the same texture as fresh, but they work well for soups, pasta fillings and purees.
How to remove the nettle sting
To remove the stingers from nettles, you have a number of different options. The nettle sting can be removed by
- Crushing, as is the case when people slap them in their palm and eat them raw. This is a sort of parlor trick, they taste ok, but you won’t be making a salad out of them.
- Blanching in salted water until wilted, 30-60 seconds is plenty of time
- Steaming, one of the best ways to preserve their true flavor as some water-soluble compounds are lost in blanching
A few ways I enjoy them
- Wilted with butter
- Chopped up in soup
- Made into a smooth puree after blanching by putting in a highspeed blender
- Tossed in with warm grains
- Dried and used to make great healthful tea.
From a restaurant perspective, nettles are expensive. Since not a lot of farmers cultivate them for sale, their price is steep, usually around 10$/lb, take that into account the next time you root them out of your garden.
Here’s a basic walk through of how I like to blanch them before adding to dishes at the restaurant, as well as a method for steaming.
Blanched Stinging Nettles
- 1 lb fresh nettles
- 1 gallon water
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- Cold water
- Working in batches, plunge the nettles into simmering, salted water until just wilted, 30 seconds to one minute, then remove immediately to cold water to halt the cooking and preserve the green color.
- After they are cooled, remove the nettles from the cold water, then squeeze dry.
- I like to form the nettles into a ball with my hand, then I chop with a knife as if making a pound sign #, so that the stems get severed and they're all in similar sized pieces. If your nettles are very young, you don't need to do that.
- From here the nettles can be cooked, refrigerated for up to 5 days, or frozen in an airtight container.
- Serves 4
- 8 oz fresh young nettles
- Highest quality salted butter at room temperature, for serving
- Flaky finishing salt or kosher salt, to taste
- Fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Fresh lemon wedges for serving optional
- Submerge the nettles in a sink of cold water quickly after harvesting to clean them, then allow to drain in a colander.
- Put a steamer basket in a tall pasta pot, and fill with water (roughly 2-3 cups) until it almost touches the bottom of the steamer basket.
- Put the lid on the pot and heat on high until the water is boiling and the pot is ready, then add the nettles, handling them with tongs if you’re scared of their sting*, put the lid on the pot and set a timer for 4minutes.
- After 4 minutes, taste a nettle to make sure you like the texture (older nettles, or those with a higher proportion of stem may take longer, and preferences can vary) I prefer very young nettles cooked only as briefly as is needed to denature the sting, this should take anywhere from 4-5 minutes and does not seem to denature the sting as quickly as blanching.
- When the nettles taste good to you, remove them a serving bowl, bring to the table while still very hot so you don’t rob any dinner guests of the pleasure that is watching soft butter melt into them on a plate.
- Pass the butter, salt, and lemon around the table.