Stinging nettles (yes, the same stinging, itchy weed that's likely in your backyard) are one of the first wild edibles you should learn. They're a delicious, nutritious food worth more than most greens from your supermarket, and they make up a large part of the wild greens I eat every year. Here I'll tell you everything you need to know about harvesting and cooking them.
The best part though, is that they're free. There's lots of different types around the world, but here I'm only going to mostly cover common nettles (Urtica gracilis, dioica, urens, and others), as they're the most common species most people will have available near them.
There's a lot of different varieties around the world, and to my knowledge, all of them are used as food. Incredible plant that they are, nettles can also be used to make wonderful fiber, culinary/cosmetic oil, and even a sort of homemade hair treatment. Believe it.
North America vs European
As I understand it, for a long time Urtica dioica was the name used to describe all of the common nettles in North America, and some older guidebooks probably still list it as such.
Just like with wild mushrooms, genetic sequencing and taxonomy seems to be constantly changing, and it now seems that Urtica dioica is strictly a European species, although I've been told it grows in some places in North America.
This means that common nettles that were once seen and referred to as a non-native, invasive plant in North America, are probably native. For eating purposes, this doesn't matter, as all common nettles make for good eating.
Common stinging nettles aren't the only nettles out there to eat. Depending on where you live, there's also wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) whose leaves are more round than the pointed leaves of the common version. Both are great plants for the table, and some foragers even prefer wood nettles.
One good thing to know about Laportea canadensis is that their stingers are generally much more intense, and will likely sting you even when very young, unlike the more common variety which some people (myself included) harvest without gloves when very young.
Use around the world
Along with watercress and mallows, stinging nettles have a long history of use, and humans have been eating them for thousands of years. You might be thinking "ok, sure, but if they're as popular as you say, why aren't there any farms that grow them?".
Nettles have never really been cultivated because, unlike, say, garden plants, they didn't need tending. These are sturdy, hardy plants, and they grow so well around the world that cultivating them was never necessary. No matter what happens, sans some act of god, year after year, they'll come back.
All across Europe, cooking stinging nettles is common right of Spring. When I cooked for the Swedish ambassador years ago during the spring, he requested they be on the menu, which should tell you something.
There aren't many American's that crave them, but that's slowly changing, and now nettles are probably one of the most commonly eaten wild plants in North America among foragers.
Here's a few examples of places around the world where nettles are enjoyed, along with their respective names. Notice how many of the regional names are similar-a nod to the Latin root word Urtica. If you have any more traditional names and locations to add to the list here, please leave a comment-I love adding to the list!
- Spain: Ortigas. Used in soup.
- Mexico: Ortigas. Used in soup.
- Scandinavia: Nassel / Norwegian (and others). Used in soup called Nasselsoppa.
- France: Ortie. Used in soup and as a cooked green.
- Turkey: Isirgan, steamed or cooked in soup.
- Nepal: Asso (and others). Used to make fiber or cooked as a green.
- India: Kuppi. Used as a cooked green and in dishes like Saag, etc.
- Italy: Ortiche. Used in soup or as a cooked green.
A free luxury ingredient
Nettles are loved by chefs, and, believe it or not, the greens will sell anywhere from $10-15 per pound wholesale-more than any type of heirloom green I ever purchased for my restaurants.
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.
Harvesting and storing
The best plants for eating will be young: I like them about 3-4 inches long. As the plants get older, the young tender tops can still be harvested, but avoid any that have started to develop seeds as they'll be tougher.
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 plants 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. If the nettles are very young, I may not even use gloves. With wood nettles, I always use gloves.
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.
Why are my greens purple?
When very young, the plants may look purple as you can see in the image below. This is a natural phenomenon that happens when it's still cold outside, and is common with some plants that grow during the very early spring. Wild mints I harvest will be often be purple in early spring too.
Young vs old plants
As I mentioned, 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, steam or wilt them, then chop, or use whole as you would another leafy green.
If your 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.
Nettle seeds 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. While they don't taste like much, they can make a fun sprinkle.
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, though, the plants will go to seed, just at a shorter height.
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. Just like their cousin hemp, nettle seeds are also pressed commercially for their oil that can be used for medicinal or culinary purposes, and has a mild, pleasant flavor.
In the kitchen you can treat nettles like any other leafy green. The key to getting nettles that are the best for eating is getting them at the right age.
I like plants that are young and less than a foot high, but you can also harvest the tender tops throughout the year until the plants go to seed, and I've seen traditional summer recipes from Scotland that specifically call for the young tops of the plant.
Of the two species I've had, wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) are much more vegetal/green tasting with a floral aroma that reminds me of apple blossoms (steam them for the strongest flavor). Common stinging nettles have a sort of saline/ocean quality to them, especially if they're pureed. The difference is real, and fascinating. Blanching either plants will yield a more mild taste, steaming them will give you more of their true flavor (as well as extra nutritious solutes).
How to remove the sting
Contrary to what most will think, the "stingers" on the plant aren't thorns, they're actually something called a trichome, and it's more similar to a brittle, crystalline structure, which makes it easy to work around. To remove the sting from nettles, you have a number of different options, four to be exact. The sting/burn can be removed by:
- Crushing, as is the case when people slap them in their palm and eat them raw. In some countries (Turkey) nettles are crushed with a rolling pin and used to make a raw salad called Isirgan Salatasi, believe it or not!
- 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.
- Dehydrating, typically after drying nettles are used for tea.
Stinging nettle has been dried and used as tea for a long time, and can also be ground to powder in a spice grinder after drying to be used as a coloring/seasoning, although I prefer blanched or steamed, pureed nettles for coloring things like pasta. Dried crumbled leaves can make a nice addition to soups.
To dry the plants, I tie up the stems and hang them in a sunny place, or just lay them on trays with a gentle fan blowing on them. Once the leaves are crisp and bone dry, I crumble them and store in a jar. You don't need to blanch the greens before dehydrating.
Blanching and freezing
Freezing is also an option I use often. To freeze I blanch nettles in boiling, salted water, then drain, without soaking in ice water, 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. You can also steam nettles before freezing to retain more of their flavor.
The most well-known dish made from the plants is soup. I like mine pureed, with some extra greens finely chopped and added for texture.
As I mentioned, steaming will retain more of the natural flavor of the greens. If you've always blanched yours, you need to try it.
Rustic pasta dumplings made with breadcrumbs and cheese.
You can puree the greens and use them to color different things. Crepes stuffed with a little goat cheese and served with extra greens is one of my favorites.
The deepest green frittata I've ever eaten. It's packed with as many nettles as possible. A great breakfast or brunch dish inspired by the great Richard Olney.
Pesto is a great thing to make with wild greens. Here I accent the deep green color of the plants with pumpkinseed oil and pumpkin seeds. You can use the pesto to toss with pasta, but it's mild enough to enjoy as a dip, too.
A thick stew of lamb and many vegetables, this is a very old Scottish recipe calling for the young nettle tops harvested in the late spring or summer.