This member of the cabbage family originated in Europe and Asia around 2,000 BCE, making it a staple in the human diet for over 4,000 years. The cabbage family, also called the Brassicaceae family, includes bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and of course kale—all things green and leafy.
Afterall, the root of the word, "Brassica," was the term used in early Rome for leafy green plants.
During the Middle Ages, kale was particularly popular among Italians, Scots, and Russians. The different varieties of kale they grew filled their diets with vitamins and nutrients that helped them survive the harsh winters.
In Scotland, this vegetable became such an important food that in some local Scottish dialects, the term "kail" was used in place of "food," and the phrase "come to kale" served as an invitation to dinner!
Kale was brought to the US by the mid-1600s and since then has become one of the most popular superfoods in the country.
It’s grown primarily in California, Georgia, and New Jersey, but can be found in just about every state in the US. It grows best in cooler weather and is among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, providing a great source of vitamins A, C, and K.
You don’t want to miss out on the amazing health benefits of kale! So let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what makes kale so special.
The Top Health Benefits of Kale
Kale is heart-healthy
Kale contains potassium, a mineral that helps maintain the electrical signals from your brain to your heart. The upkeep of these signals keeps the heart beating at a regular pace—this is incredibly important, as an abnormal heart rhythm can lead to heart attack and cardiac arrest.
Potassium also relaxes arteries, helping to lower blood pressure and maintain a healthy heart.
Besides that, Kale contains substances called bile acid sequestrants that reduce the amount of cholesterol in the body, leading to a reduced risk of heart disease over time. Studies have shown that if kale is juiced or steamed it still has these benefits.
Kale is also a good source of magnesium and eating plenty of magnesium may be protective against heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Kale helps support bone health
Kale is high in minerals that many people are deficient in, including calcium! It is a fantastic source of plant-based calcium which is needed for strong bones and teeth. It also contains oxalate which makes calcium more available for absorption in the body.
Kale is also a great source of vitamin K which works with vitamin D to support healthy bone metabolism. Research indicates that a high intake of vitamin K strengthens the bones and helps reduce the risk of bone fractures.
Kale helps support skin and hair
Vitamin A helps the growth of all body tissues, including skin and hair. Without enough vitamin A, the risk of developing eczema and other skin inflammation problems increases. A healthy vitamin A intake should result in a soft, oily scalp and skin. It may also strengthen hair and prevent premature hair loss.
Luckily, kale is a great source of beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A when needed.
Kale also contains vitamin C which the body uses to build and maintain collagen which is a protein that provides structure to skin, hair, and bones.
Buying Kale: What to Look For
Kale is in season year-round but may change in quality depending on when you buy it. Autumn and winter are great seasons for kale harvesting. Kale that is harvested at a younger stage in early autumn tends to have thinner and lighter leaves. These are great for raw food preparations such as salads and juices.
Kale from the winter harvest has thicker, curlier, and larger leaves which are great for cooking hearty, wintery meals.
Besides the harvesting season of kale, the type of kale also matters when you’re looking for the best produce for your buck. There are four main types of kale to look out for.
Curly kale has bright green leaves that are lighter in color than other kale varieties. It isn’t commonly eaten raw because of its bitterness, but tastes great when sauteed, or served with flavorful sauces.
Dinosaur kale, also called Tuscan kale, has darker, longer, crinkly leaves with a light stem. This variety keeps its firmness even after cooking, making it perfect for soups and stews.
Scottish kale has leaves with a flatter and more tender structure that curl up at the ends. The darker leaves are great for cooking, and the lighter leaves are great for raw food preparations.
Red Russian kale has a dusty purple tinge. The stems are much longer, and the leaves are narrower with crinkles at the edges. This variety is most popular for salads.
Regardless of the kale variety you’re looking for, it should have bright, crisp leaves. Make sure to avoid any yellowing kale. This is an indicator that it’s past its best-by date.
Once you bring the kale back home, it is recommended to keep it in an airtight container or storage bag in the refrigerator. Kale's shelf life is 5 days at most. If kept in the fridge for too long, it’ll start turning soft, yellow, and extra bitter.
Cooking With Kale
Kale has amazing variety when it comes to recipes. Its vibrant, eye-catching color can brighten up any meal, and its distinct yet subtle flavor adds a richness to food that can’t be found in any other ingredient.
Eaten raw, steamed, braised, boiled, or sautéed, kale goes great in everything from salads to casseroles. But, before cooking with kale, it has to be prepared. This only takes a couple of seconds once you get the hang of it.
First, wash the kale by submerging it in a large bowl of water and swishing the leaves around to remove dirt. Then, rinse it under fresh water and dry it on cloth or paper towels. Chop the kale into 1-inch-wide strips, or as described in the recipe, and discard the bottom of the stems without removing the ribs.
Once prepared, the kale is ready to be cooked or used in unique raw food preparation!
If you would like to eat the kale raw, scrunching the leaves briefly in your hands will make them easy to digest. Skipping this step will leave the leaves tough and unsavory.
Once massaged, raw kale can be added to salads, sandwiches, or wraps.
For a simple side dish, you can sauté fresh garlic and onions in olive oil until soft. Then, add kale and continue to sauté until it is perfectly tender. Alternatively, you can steam kale for 5 minutes, then drain and stir in soy sauce and tahini for a flavorful addition to a main course.
Kale chips are also a great treat! To create them, all you have to do is remove the ribs from the kale and toss the leaves in olive oil or lightly spray them with cumin, curry powder, chili powder, roasted red pepper flakes or garlic powder. Bake them at 275°F for 15-30 minutes until you have perfectly crispy kale chips!
Smoothies can also be great kale creations. Just add a handful of kale, plus any of your other favorite fruits and vegetables, into a blender along with ice, juice, milk, and/or yogurt. The kale won’t affect the flavor of the smoothie much but will make it so much more nutritious!