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What is “massaging kale” and when should you do it?

January 27, 2022

It almost sounds comical. 

Massaged kale. 

Does it need a steam too? Cucumber slices over its eyes, and a fruity beverage?

As weird as it is, massaging is a common technique used on kale, especially in salads and other raw dishes.

What does it mean to “massage” kale?

Massaging kale is just as it sounds: you gently roll it around with your fingers, applying pressure and friction to break down its natural toughness.

If you are massaging kale to infuse it with flavor, you will add a few tablespoons of olive oil and citrus juice rather than massaging it dry. You may want to wear gloves if you are preparing food for others and have concerns about hygiene, or if you simply prefer to avoid the mess.

Why massage kale?

Massaging kale has two main purposes: infusing it with flavor and breaking down tough, fibrous leaves. When you massage kale, it helps break down the cell structure, which gives it a more pliable and tender texture. 

Does massaging kale make it less bitter?

Kale naturally has a slightly bitter flavor, and some people think that massaging it can help reduce that bitterness. In fact, the procedures that most people follow increase the bitterness rather than mellowing it out.

When you massage kale, compounds within it (glucosinolates) are hydrolyzed by an enzyme, ‘myrosinase’, which releases isothiocyanates, a bitter compound. This is a process that occurs in any variety of Brassica vegetables (kale, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) when the plant tissue is damaged and developed as a defense mechanism for the plant.

So when you wash kale and then massage it, you may find that it is more bitter than before. However, when you do the process in reverse and massage it prior to washing, you’re left with the same tender texture but without bitterness.

How do you massage kale?

There are two different methods for massaging kale, depending on your goals and preferences. 

Massaging kale to infuse flavor

  1. Clean and pat dry your kale
  2. Remove the leafy greens from the stems, and toss the stems in the compost
  3. Chop your kale and put it in a large mixing bowl
  4. Drizzle it with a bit of olive oil and a spritz of citrus (lemon, lime, orange — or whatever your recipe calls for!)
  5. Gently rub the kale leaves with your fingers 

Massaging your kale to improve texture and reduce bitterness

If your primary goal in massaging your kale is to improve the texture, and you are concerned about the natural bitterness that kale can have, you can do these steps essentially in reverse:

  1. Gently rub the kale leaves with your fingers
  2. Remove the leafy greens from the stems, and toss the stems in the compost
  3. Chop your kale and put it in a large mixing bowl
  4. Clean and pat dry or spin in a salad spinner
  5. Toss it with your favorite homemade dressing 

How long to massage kale

So, does your kale need a full-body 90-minute massage?

Luckily not! 

It typically takes around 3 minutes of massaging your kale to gain the benefits of flavor infusion and tenderizing. If you are processing many cups of kale you may want to extend that time proportionately to ensure that every leaf is massaged properly. 

But don’t massage your kale too long! Doing so may result in too-soft, textureless kale.

When does kale need to be massaged?

There are a few circumstances that might warrant massaging your kale:

  1. Your kale is older and seems tough, or if you have a strong sensory preference for tender greens
  2. You are using curly-leaf kale or red (Red Russian and Tuscan kale tend to be naturally more tender, but can still be massaged)
  3. You want to infuse extra flavor into your salad

Are there other vegetables that should be massaged?

Greens are typically the only types of vegetables that are ever “massaged”. You can massage greens like spinach or chard to infuse them with flavor or tenderize them. 

Typically if you are using young spinach you will not need to massage it, but if you are handling any greens that seem a bit tough, massaging them can help improve the taste and experience.

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