What Is Arugula and How Do You Use It?

This peppery green belongs to the same family as mustard greens and broccoli. 

Arugula on white background with water drops on leaves
Photo: Meredith Food Studios

You may know arugula as a salad green, but did you know it's actually a cruciferous vegetable? These little leaves stand out for their spicy, peppery flavor that adds a boost to any dish. Get acquainted with arugula, including its flavor, its health benefits, and how to cook with it.

What Is Arugula?

Despite the fact that it's a popular salad green, arugula isn't actually lettuce at all — it's a member of the brassica family, along with cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and mustard greens. Also known as rocket, roquette, or rucola, arugula is native to the Mediterranean, which explains why it's been a longtime staple of many of the cuisines of the region, including Italian and Greek cuisine.

Though you can find arugula in grocery stores year round, its peak season is early spring and fall.

Arugula Flavor

Unlike its mild salad green counterparts, arugula's flavor is described as peppery, spicy, and a bit nutty, which makes sense considering it's in the same family as mustard greens. For this reason, it's generally mixed with other salad greens like spinach or spring mix — although you can do so much more with it than just salad (see below).

Arugula vs. Spinach

spinach leaf next to arugula leaf on white background
Andy Lyons/Meredith

Though they're often used in conjunction with one another, arugula and spinach are completely different in almost every way. Spinach belongs to the amaranth family, which also includes beets and quinoa. It's generally very mild in flavor with a light sweetness, depending on how it's cooked — a sharp contrast to arugula's fiery bite.

In terms of nutrition, arugula doesn't quite stand up to spinach's stacked nutrient profile, which includes nearly 12 times more vitamin A, six times more vitamin C, and 13 times more vitamin K than arugula, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

What Is Baby Arugula?

Baby arugula is just arugula leaves that are harvested while they're still small and tender. They tend to be more mild in flavor, and don't pack quite the punch of full-sized arugula leaves. If you have a hard time with arugula's bold flavor, you may enjoy baby arugula more.

What Is Arugula Used For?

Arugula and Hummus Mini Pizzas on a wooden board
Kim's Cooking Now

There's no shortage of ways to use arugula, but before you use it for anything, be sure to give the leaves a thorough rinse and dry them using a salad spinner, as they can collect dirt and sand.

Arugula is most commonly served raw in salads alongside other greens, but can also be used in pesto, on top of sandwiches, pizzas, or pastas. It can also be sautéed, which helps to mellow out its strong flavor, and then added to soups, pastas, or simply served on its own. Its peppery flavor makes an excellent pairing for tart citrus (like a citrus vinaigrette) or rich, cheesy dishes. Plus, the chlorophyll in arugula may even help combat bad breath, so go ahead and chew on a few leaves after dinner, too!

Arugula Nutrition

While arugula doesn't pack in quite as many nutrients as say, kale or spinach, it's still a great source of many vitamins and minerals. Here are just some of the benefits of incorporating arugula into your diet:

  • It may help reduce cancer risk: A 2015 study found that sulforaphane, a substance found in large quantities in arugula and other cruciferous vegetables, can inhibit enzymes involved in cancer progression.
  • It can improve bone health: Like other greens, arugula is a great source of calcium and vitamin K, both of which play an important role in improving bone health and preventing osteoporosis.
  • It's a good source of fiber: Arugula is rich in fiber, which helps to regulate glucose levels and may reduce resistance to insulin.
  • It's good for heart health: A 2017 study found that fruit and vegetable intake, including cruciferous vegetables like arugula, is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Arugula Substitutes

Watercress, another leafy vegetable found in the cruciferous family, makes an excellent substitute for arugula as it has a similarly peppery flavor. Dandelion greens, mixed greens, baby spinach, and baby kale can also be used as substitutes, but they won't have quite the same bite to them as arugula.

How to Store Arugula

Arugula leaves will do best stored in a cold and moist environment. For loose arugula leaves, loosely wrap them in paper towels and store in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge for up to two days. Wait to wash them until just before use. For bagged or boxed arugula, simply leave them in the package and refrigerate for up to five days. Once opened, use them within a couple days.

Favorite Arugula Recipes

Here are some of our favorite recipes that make the most of this green:

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