What Are Collard Greens?

Plate of collard greens with smoked turkey wings and corn bread
Plate of collard greens with smoked turkey wings and corn bread. Andre Baranowski / Getty Images

Collard greens are a type of leafy green vegetable that is common in southern U.S. cooking.

Collards feature dark green leaves with tough stems.

They're a member of the same group of plants that also includes kale, turnips and mustard.

Indeed, collard greens share many characteristics with kale, turnip greens and mustard greens, and they're all typically prepared in the same way (at least in the southern U.S., which is where they're most popular).

In addition to being tough, collards can also be bitter. Both of these qualities can be remedied by long, slow cooking using moist heat.

The fact is, for all the culinary innovation happening in the latter half of the 2010s, it's difficult to imagine a better way of preparing collard greens than the tried-and-true method of braising them with a smoked or cured meat like a ham hock or turkey wing.

Nor is it clear that there is any need to improve on it. Sometimes a dish is fully realized, and apart from a minor tweak (like whether to include things like vinegar, garlic, hot sauce), the classic southern collard greens recipe is canonical.

It simply is what it is. Just like the best way to prepare skirt steak is by cooking it very quickly on the hottest surface available. You can season it different ways, but there's only one way to cook it.

The same goes for collard greens. You could choose to steam them for five minutes, or sauté them, but why?

These alternate cooking techniques aren't refinements, they're novelties, like pumpkin spice martinis.

Preparing Collard Greens

Collard greens need to be washed thoroughly before cooking them, as they can carry a lot of grit in them. But there's no point washing the parts you're not going to cook. So the first step is to remove the stems.

You can just fold the leaves in half lengthwise and trim the stems off with a knife. Or you can tear the leaves away from the stems.

Then fill up the sink with cold water and add the leaves. Swish them around a bit to loosen the grit, which will settle on the bottom of the sink.

Drain the sink, refill and repeat as necessary until no more grit settles on the bottom. Then chop the leaves up into 1-inch pieces and simmer them in enough water to cover them along with a smoked ham hock or pork cheek, smoked turkey wing, or turkey neck.

Note that simmering refers to a temperature range of 180° to 205°F, so the water should not be at a full rolling boil.

Separately you can sauté some onion and garlic, and maybe a sliced serrano pepper, and add them to the pot. When the greens are done (in anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes), remove the ham hock (or whatever you used), pull off the meat, chop it up and return it to the pot.

The flavorful cooking liquid, known as "pot liquor," is highly prized, and is especially wonderful sopped up with homemade cornbread.