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How to Cook with Stinging Nettles

Sharon Palmer

If you grew up in the countryside, you might have first encountered the stinging nettle on a hike; the mere act of brushing up against this leafy green weed producing a startling burst of pain against your bare ankle. And more recently, you might have encountered it on the menu of a restaurant known for its true farm-to-table cuisine, as an example of its commitment to local, seasonal, foraged foods. But what are these stinging weeds and are they truly edible and healthful?

A friend collecting wild nettles in South Tyrol, Italy

Growing Stinging Nettles

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a flowering plant found in many areas around the world, including Northern Europe, Asia, Canada, and the U.S. Apart from Hawaii, it is found in every state here in the U.S. This herbaceous, perennial plant grows from sea level to subalpine elevations and is very persistent in northern climates, spreading as a weedy, invasive species. The stinging mechanism that many members of the Urticaceae family possess, comes from hollow stinging hairs called trichomes. Basically, a sharp point that injects a combination of chemicals beneath the skin to produce the stinging sensation. Amusingly enough, the juice of the plant’s own leaves soothes its sting.

If you want to grow your own nettles, choose a spot in your yard or garden with moist, rich soil and make sure to plant the nettles at a good distance from other plants. Plant the nettle seeds in rows and lightly cover with soil. Keep the soil moist and the seeds will germinate in about two weeks. The leaves will be ready to harvest after about 80 or 90 days. For the best flavor and nutrition, harvest the top 4-5 inches of the plant. Just don’t forget to wear gloves!

Nettles and Health

Nettles has been used throughout the world to help treat a wide range of afflictions. The high iron content (3.2 mg per 200 grams of raw nettles) may help prevent anemia. Nettles have been used throughout history in traditional medicine to treat conditions like arthritis, kidney stones, diarrhea, sprains, high blood pressure, fever, and ulcers. While there is not enough research on these specific health benefits, studies do show that nettles have biological activities, including anti-hypertension, liver and kidney protection, diuretic, anti-diabetic, antiviral, and immune boosting.

Nettles Nutrition

Like numerous other dark leafy greens, the stinging nettle contains relatively high levels of protein and fiber, for a low calorie level. It also has one of the highest contents of chlorophyll of any plant, and also supplies vitamins K, C, A, calcium, and iron, as well as healthful fatty acids. Scientific reports on the phytochemical analysis of nettles have revealed more than 123 compounds, including terpenoids, flavonoids, lignans, sterols, and polyphenols.

Cooking with Nettles

Nettles have been a part of many different cultural diets over thousands of years, from ancient the diets in ancient Rome to the eating style of tribes in the Himalayas and North America. Young nettle leaves appear in many recipes, such as salads, soups, cordials, and teas. Some indigenous populations enjoy fresh nettle leaves or a nettle tonic in the spring.

Although nettles are hard to handle, a slight exposure to heat tames these sting-filled vines into super delicious greens. With a deep, earthy flavor reminiscent of seedlings bursting out from the winter soil, nettles show us that spring is here. Nettles can be served completely on their own, used in a soufflé, or atop pastas or pizza for a dash of bright green.

The first step in cooking is to clean the nettles. As you will see below in my recipe, one way to handle nettles is to place them in a colander, and while water is running, beat the nettles with a knife for a few minutes until they are slightly macerated. Next drain off the water, chop the leaves, and remove the large stems. See the step by step guide below.

Macerate the nettles with a knife while rinsing with water.
Chop nettle leaves with knife—by now they don’t sting!

Another way to clean the nettles is the blanching method. Place the nettles into a pot of boiling water for a few seconds. This not only cleans the nettles but takes out the sting.

Top 5 Ways to Use Stinging Nettles

Check out these easy ways to use nettles to offer great taste and nutrition to your meals.

1. Top Your Pizza. Nettles are a great substitute for spinach or arugula for a pizza topping. Try this recipe for Arugula Pizza, but swap out the arugula for nettles.

2. Nettle Pesto. Swap basil for nettles in your favorite pesto recipe for a delicious and nutrient packed dish. Then toss it into your next bowl of pasta, smear it over a grilled sandwich, or use it as a condiment with roasted vegetables.

3. Saute’ with Garlic. Nettles sautéed in olive oil with fresh garlic make an amazing side dish all on it’s own!

4. Add to Soup. Use a hearty bunch of nettles to give any soup a flavorful and nutritious boost, such as a vegetable soup like this. Just throw in a handful of chopped nettles, and enjoy.

5. Nettle Infusion. Place ¼ cup of dried nettles in a 32-ounce mason jar and top with boiling water. Let it sit for at least 4 hours and you will be left with an earthy tea filled with vitamins and minerals.

Savory Nettle Bread Pudding

I created an amazing recipe for Savory Nettle Bread Pudding based on the traditions of South Tyrol, Italy. Nettles are an integral part of the traditional diet in this culture. In fact, this stinging weed is used in the diet like we use spinach.

For other How-To Cooking Blogs, check out the following:

How to Build a Green Smoothie
How to Grill Vegetables in a Grill Basket
How to Cook with Fresh Cranberries

Written on May 7, 2109 by Julie Suttle, Dietetic Intern, with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

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