The Two Best Ways to Stem Kale and Other Bitter Greens

Bitter greens are nutritious and they can balance out a meal with their, well, bitter flavor. They’re hearty—almost a little too hearty. If you’ve ever gnawed on a woody kale stem and could suddenly picture yourself grazing in a field, you know what I mean. The tough base of the stem can hit the road, and there are two easy ways to do it without losing your mind. 

Cut the “spike” out

Hand holding collard leaf while knife cuts the stem out

Credit: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann

Whenever you’re faced with a woody stem, like with collard greens, mustards, flat types of kale, and sometimes even mature spinach leaves, you want to remove the tough center rib without taking away much of the tender leaf. 

Do this by laying out the leaf as flat as possible to expose the center stem. As the stem goes up the leaf, it shrinks in size and becomes more tender like the other smaller veins in the leaf. Identify where the center rib becomes small enough to match the size of the various others in the leaf. This is where you’ll start your cut. Put the point of the knife here and cut through, down one side of the rib. Repeat the cut on the other side. Now you’re left with the tender leaf and the spike of a stem, which you can discard or compost. 

The stem removed from a flattened collard leaf.

Credit: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann

To de-stem multiple leaves at once, simply stack three or four leaves on top of one another and then cut out the “spike.” Then you can fold the leaves for a chiffonade cut, a rough chop, or leave them whole as a wrapping for meats or other veg. 

Hand holding a folded collard leaf while a knife chops out the stem

Fold the leaf in half and chop out the stem at a slight angle. Credit: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann

Alternatively, you can cut out the “spike” by folding a leaf in half and chopping at a slight angle to isolate the woody part. I like this move for single leaves, but stacking and doing this technique with more than two leaves causes me to lose a lot more of the dark green leaf than I want to because of how the leaves wrap over each other.

Use the hook loop on kitchen utensils

Metal tool cutting the leaves off of a kale stem

Credit: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann

This trick is ideal for cruciferous vegetables that aren’t easy to flatten, so the center rib is obscured. Curly kale is the best example, here.   

You’ve probably seen kale de-stemming tools online. It’s like a plastic comb with many different sized holes on it. While those are effective, you probably have a similar tool already sitting at the end of all your large metal utensils: the hook loop. Most ladles, mixing spoons, and other kitchen tools have a hole punched out of the handle so you can easily hang them on a kitchen hook. 

If your curly kale stem is the right size, push the utensil loop around the base of the stem. Hold the end of the stem firmly in your non-dominant hand and scrape the utensil loop along the stem. The loop will rip the small curly kale chunks right off. Once the stem becomes tender enough, the kale will naturally rip when the loop reaches that point. 

It’s best to do this over a large bowl or plate as the leaves will pop off haphazardly. Repeat this with as many kale stems as you’d like. If your kale stem is a bit too wide at the base, usually you can chop off an inch or so and since the stem will decrease in circumference you’ll be able to fit it through the utensil loop. Could you create a “loop” with your hand and rip all the leaves off? I guess you could get out some frustration that way, but frankly, those leaves are strong and you can damage your precious mitts. Keep yourself intact and use one of these methods instead.


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