Yes, You Can Cook With Nettles (Plus Recipes)
What Are Nettles?
Nettles are an enigma; on one hand (pun intended) they are relentless weeds that can deliver a nasty, painful sting. But they're also regarded as a useful and healthful herb—providing seeds for birds, nesting habitat for butterflies, and nutritious greens for you and me.
Originally native to Europe, Asia, and western North Africa, nettles are now found worldwide. There are six subspecies, and all but one of them deliver a potent sting from the hypodermic-needle-like hairs that cover the leaves and stems.
For centuries they've been used in teas and tonics and processed to make fiber for fabrics. I prefer to gather and use them for cooking.
Can You Grow Them in Your Garden?
In my corner of the world, I've no choice. Nettles "grow like weeds" and have settled in quite nicely along the nature trail on my property. This prolific plant is not fussy. It flourishes in anything from bright sun to full shade and in all USDA climate zones.
If you don't have nettles growing in your garden, you can buy seeds online. Here's a summary of the type of growing conditions they need to perform at their best:
Stinging Nettle (Urtica Dioica)
- USDA Zones: 3-10
- Height: 24-36 inches
- Bloom season: Late spring to late summer
- Environment: Full sun to partial shade
- Soil type: Nitrogen-rich, moist well-draining soil
- Temperature for germination: 65°F
- Average germination time: 10-14 days
- Depth: Surface sow (do not bury)
- Moisture: Keep seeds moist until germination
How to (Safely) Collect Them
Leather or suede gloves and long sleeves are an absolute must. Don't rely on simple cloth garden gloves; those little hypodermic-needle hairs will find their way to your skin. Most people feel the pain for a few minutes and up to an hour. But some (like yours truly) are extremely sensitive, breaking out in welts and burning pain that lasts for 48 hours.
If you plan to gather more than a few nettles (I gleaned several pounds), use a clean bucket and carry a pair of garden snips with you. Take only the top 3-4 inches (the first two sets of leaves). This is the tender new growth. Don't be tempted to take more; the lower leaves and stems are quite fibrous and tough.
How to Clean and Process
Bring a large pot of water to boil; it's the boiling water that removes the sting. Don't remove your gloves just yet. You need to drop those nettle clippings into the boiling pot. Once they are submerged, cover the pot, turn off the heat, and set your timer for 2 minutes.
That's it. Your nettles are now tamed. Drain and rinse with cold water so that they will be cool enough to handle.
Look at that intense green color!
At this point, I like to separate the leaves from the stems (refer to the third picture above). You may skip this step if you wish. You now have tamed nettles that you can use just as you would frozen spinach. By the way, you can use those stems if you whirl them in a food processor and stir into soup or salad dressing (those are just two ideas).
Compare Nutritional Value of Nettles to Other Greens
You might be wondering how stinging nettles compare to other steamed greens. This is how 100 grams (about 2/3 cup) of steamed nettles compare to the same amount of spinach or kale.
Yes, spinach ranks #1 for potassium, Vitamin-A, Vitamin B-6, and zinc. But nettles are a super source of dietary fiber and calcium.
And, they're free!
- 3 cups cooked nettles (3 cups after cooking, rinsing and squeezing dry)
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons walnuts
- 1 teaspoon table salt
Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until all ingredients are pureed. This creates a very dense pesto. If you want a looser, more liquid pesto add more olive oil or a bit of water or broth.
Pasta With Beans and Greens
This recipe from Serious Eats is a classic Italian peasant dish—slow-simmered beans are cooked to creamy perfection and create the silky sauce that coats tubes of pasta and fresh greens. Serious Eats uses Tuscan kale; I think this dish of pasta with beans and greens would be a perfect way to use the fresh nettles you have steamed. It's a filling, hearty meal and a perfect reward for your efforts.
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 3 medium carrots, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
- 1 large red tomato, diced
- 2 (14-ounce) cans cannellini beans (do not drain)
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 cup prepared (steamed, drained and squeezed dry) nettles, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 8 slices artisanal French of Italian bread, diced* (see note below)
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Sauté the onion, celery, and carrots in 1/3 cup olive oil in a stockpot or large cooking pot until softened—about 5 minutes. Add the chopped tomato and sauté a few minutes more.
- Add one can of the beans and 1 cup of the vegetable broth. Puree the other can of beans plus remaining 1 cup of vegetable broth in blender or food processor. Pour pureed beans into the stockpot.
- Add the garlic, thyme, and remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil to the stockpot; simmer a few minutes.
- Stir in the nettles, blended beans, and broth. Bring all to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 30 minutes.
- Stir the bread into the soup. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes, mixing occasionally. This is a good time to check the salt and pepper too.
- Add the rest of the beans and broth and a pinch of red hot pepper. Mix in well.
- Serve warm with a bit of olive oil.
*Note: If your bread is not dry, you can slice it and bake it in the oven at low heat to dry it quickly.
Creamy Vegan Nettles Soup
It would be easy to fill this recipe review for nettle soup with superlatives—it's gluten and dairy-free, vegan, low-card (cauliflower stands in for the typical potato), packed with minerals and nutrients, and filled with flavor from umami-rich mushrooms and red chili pepper flakes. (And did I mention the beautiful green color?)
Many nettle soup recipes rely on dairy and potatoes; Renee replaces starchy potatoes with low-carb cauliflower and the typical dash of cream steps aside for coconut milk. Kale and nettles add iron, Vitamins A and C.
Will You Add Nettles to Your Diet?
Have I convinced you that stinging nettles might be a worthy addition to your diet?
Questions & Answers
© 2020 Linda Lum