Why Do You Have to Massage Kale? Plus Hacks for Making It Easier

Help this cruciferous vegetable taste better in your next recipe with a helping hand to tenderize the leaves.

A massaged kale salad in a bowl with quinoa
Photo: Patty Wells McPhee

Kale can sometimes get a bad rap. People say they don't like the taste of the leafy greens or that it is tough in texture as an ingredient in a salad.

As for taste, your genes are in control when it comes to how sensitive you are to bitter flavors. If you find that kale has a harsh flavor according to your palate, it is most likely the result of glucosinolates. Kale happens to have a pungent combination of glucose, amino acids, and sulfur compounds. These are beneficial for health issues but may contribute to a taste that is unpleasant for some people.

The leafy green cruciferous vegetable can be tough in texture. One of the health benefits behind kale is that it is high in fiber, but that fiber is also the reason that the leaves can seem dense and unpleasant to chew. Cooked kale does not present the same problem. Nor does baby kale which is already tender and delicate on its own.

What about raw kale leaves in a salad? How can you make them more palatable? The answer is literally in your hands.

Massage Your Kale Leaves

Give those leaves a massage with your hands. Kale will benefit from some gentle kneading to soften its texture. A bit of oil can help to break down the fibrous membranes as well.

Here's how: Wash the kale and remove the leaves from the stems. Tear the leaves into smaller pieces and rub them in your hands with olive oil and salt. Continue to massage the kale to distribute the oil evenly over the surface of the greens. Work the pieces until they just begin to wilt — but don't overwork them so you end up with a pile of mush.

The reason this method works well for kale is simple. Kale is fibrous and can be difficult to munch compared to other greens like romaine lettuce or spinach. The rubbing, kneading motion helps to tenderize the veg and make it easier to chew and digest. Try this for raw kale you are going to be serving or eating right away.

Or Give Your Kale a Warm Bath

Soaking kale in warm water can also work to tenderize it. The dip into the water will also serve to clean it in preparation for a favorite kale recipe. This technique will help to improve the flavor after you have chopped it on your board with a sharp kitchen knife. Giving the kale leaves a post-chop soak will rinse them of some of the bitter-tasting compounds found in cruciferous vegetables after they're cut up. The result is a milder and more pleasant kale taste.

Use Your Food Processor

Another way to soften the fibrous nature of kale leaves is to break them down into smaller pieces with the help of sharp blades. Tear leaves into small pieces and place a bunch of the kale in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse in spurts until the kale is just chopped. Don't take it too far or you'll end up with a more fine texture like chopped parsley. (If this does happen, you can always turn it into delicious kale pesto of course.) You want the leaves to retain some sturdy structure. Repeat with another batch of kale leaves and prepare with a dressing and fresh lemon juice. The acid in the citrus will act to further break down the toughness of the kale leaves. This works well for kale salads.

Note: If you are going to let your dressing sit on the leaves for a while before serving, the acid from citrus or vinegar will work in place of a massage to tenderize.

Even the Stand Mixer Can Help

How about that stand mixer in the corner of the kitchen? Will that work in the preparation of raw kale as an ingredient? Not all salad leaves can stand up to the power of a mixer, but your kale leaves can. Remove the ribs and add the leaves to your bowl and work with quick pulses. The blades will do the work for you in no time.

Some of these methods sound more like a spa day than kitchen prep but if you are looking for ways to get more kale into your dishes, try them out and see what works for you.

Updated by Andrea Lobas
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