Mustard greens are a versatile, quick-cooking leafy vegetable that’s often overlooked, especially in Western cuisines. This guide to mustard greens, with tips on buying, prepping, plus links to naturally plant-based recipes, demystifies this under-appreciated vegetable.
Bold and pungent, the frilly leaves of mustard greens have a flavor that can range from subtly peppery to downright sharp, like horseradish. If you’ve overlooked these verdant bouquets in the grocery store, you’re missing out on a vital ingredient in many cultures.
While the vegetable renaissance that brought kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and collards back into the spotlight hasn’t yet turned mustard greens into a viral hit, this superfood is worthy of the same treatment.
What Are Mustard Greens and Where Did They Come From?
More than a spicy brown or yellow spread known for brightening burgers and hotdogs, mustard is an incredibly complex and versatile plant.
The condiment we know and love as mustard is made from the seeds, but if those seeds were planted, we’d have mustard greens to enjoy, too.
Mustard originated in both central Asia and Europe, with different species emerging in the respective regions centuries ago. As a result, mustard greens can be found in an array of shapes and sizes.
The ruffled-edged, bright green, large leaves are most common in the U.S. and used in traditional southern soul food, but there’s a veritable rainbow found farther afield. You can find yellow, purple, and many shades in between, some tiny and delicate, while others are robust and very hearty.
References to mustard greens can be found in ancient Indian texts, including the Ayurvedic scriptures dating back over 2,000 years. They were highly regarded for their medicinal properties and were considered a staple in Indian cuisine.
China holds significant importance as a secondary source of genetic variation for mustard plants, according to botanists. The Sichuan region has especially been a focal point of mustard cultivation, often pairing the spicy leaves with even spicier chiles.
The domestic variety of mustard greens at market
How to Buy and Store Mustard Greens
Mustard greens thrive in cooler climates, reaching their peak during late spring or early summer. Hot weather triggers a process called bolting in the plants, when they prematurely produce seeds, resulting in the greens becoming unpleasantly bitter.
For that same reason, mustard greens are a great fall crop as well. These resilient plants are frost-resistant, making them well-suited to overwintering in temperate areas.
When shopping either at the farmers market or grocery store, look for vibrant greens with no wilting nor yellowing or black spots. They’re sold in large bundles that are often a great bargain for what you get, with even greater deals to be found for Chinese mustard greens in Asian markets.
Wrap fresh greens in a very lightly moistened towel and keep them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, where they’ll last for 4 to 5 days. Like all greens, however, the sooner you use them, the better. You can also wash and dry the leaves before chopping them and storing them in an airtight plastic bag.
Freezing: Wilted down cleaned, chopped mustard greens in a pan with a little water. Squeeze out the water in a colander and pack into an airtight container. Freeze for up to 6 months. After thawing, mustard greens won’t be at their best, but will do nicely in soups and stews.
Chinese mustard greens. Photo: Shutterstock
Chinese mustard greens have a little more stem and less elaborately ruffled leaves. This variety and the domestic variety can used interchangeably. In additional general uses, Chinese mustard greens are often preserved in some way, especially used for pickling.
Mustard Greens Nutrition Notes
Mustard greens have been celebrated for their medicinal properties and nutritional benefits long before they became a culinary staple. One cup of raw mustard greens has over 100% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin K.
They’re also a great source of vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, calcium, and manganese. Like other dark leafy vegetables, mustard greens are high in fiber and low in calories. Here’s a complete look at the nutritional profile of mustard greens.
Domestic and Chinese mustard greens can be used interchangeably in recipes
Cooking Mustard Greens
Anything kale can do, mustard greens can do, too! Mustard greens can be steamed, added to soups, sautéed, stir-fried, braised, or even eaten raw.
Most people prefer them cooked, especially when working with larger, tougher varieties, as their inherent bitterness becomes less harsh after applying heat. The longer they cook, the darker and more tender they’ll become.
If eaten raw, mustard greens are better when finely shredded and dispersed with other milder greens, like butter lettuce or spinach.
To better balance the potential pungency of mustard greens, it’s helpful to add good fats like olive oil or avocado oil, salt, and a touch of acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice.
Serving Suggestions and Recipes
Don’t be daunted if you’ve never cooked with mustard greens before! While some may find the flavor intense, it’s a matter of trying different approaches and seasonings to transform this humble green into something undeniably delicious.
Stir-fries: In a matter of minutes, you can get Stir-Fried Chinese Mustard Greens on the table thanks to high-heat cooking in a spacious wok or stir-fry pan. Serve alongside crispy tofu and cooked rice, or toss with noodles to make an appealing meal in a bowl.
Indian-inspired greens: Mustard greens are particularly beloved in Indian cuisine, where they’re often cooked into saag. Saag can be made with any combination of leafy greens and spices, served pureed or coarsely chopped. Try our Indian-Inspired Mustard Greens with Spinach.
Curries: Coconut milk and/or paneer (which can be made from tofu for a plant-based version) are popular inclusions for a richer Indian-inspired dishes. It can also make an appearance in other curries, such as the Baingan Bharata-inspired dish shown above featuring roasted eggplant.
Steamed: For a tender-crisp texture with less bitterness than raw, try steaming your mustard greens. This could be a simple side dish simply seasoned with salt and pepper, or a compelling argument for eating your greens when infused with fragrant Balinese Sambal.
Braised: Cooking mustard greens in a small amount of liquid is an easy way to make them tender and tasty, very quickly — as demonstrated by Citrus-Braised Mustard Greens with Apples and Nuts and OMG delicious Braised Mustard Greens with Mushrooms.
Southern-style: Southern-style mustard greens are often stewed for hours and aren’t vegan, to put it mildly. It’s easy to make a vegan version of Southern mustard greens by removing the meat and adding smoked paprika for a similar depth and smoky flavor.
Salads: Light, crisp, and invigorating a mustard green salad can easily brighten up the table. Sweet chopped apples and a rich dressing help take the sharp bite out of the raw leaves while creating textural contrast that’s irresistible. Start with Mustard Greens Salad with Apples and Pecans (or Walnuts).
Photo: Nourished Kitchen
Pesto: Have you got more mustard greens than you can use? Try this offbeat Mustard Green Pesto from Nourished Kitchen. “Mustard greens take the place of basil in this recipe, giving the pesto a potent peppery flavor. A mix of pecans, pumpkin seeds, and olive oil lend a creamy quality while a squeeze of fresh lemon brings a note of brightness.”
Vegetable pairings: Prepare mustard greens with one or two other vegetables in a skillet or stir-fry pan. They go well with squashes, carrots, sweet potatoes, green beans, cauliflower, or broccoli. And, might we suggest that they go particularly well with golden potatoes? See Garlicky Potatoes with Mustard Greens and Olives.
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Contributed by Hannah Kaminsky: Hannah has developed an international following for her delicious recipes and mouthwatering food photography at the award-winning blog BitterSweet. Passionate about big flavors and simple techniques, she’s the author of Vegan Desserts, Vegan à la Mode, Easy as Vegan Pie, Real Food, Really Fast, Sweet Vegan Treats, The Student Vegan Cookbook, Super Vegan Scoops, and The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet Pan. Visit Hannah at BittersweetBlog.com.