Kale and spinach are both incredibly healthy greens that we reach for when we want a boost of fiber, vitamins, and anti-inflammatory nutrients. But what happens when you’re cooking and realize you’ve only got kale, not spinach? Can you use kale instead of spinach in all recipes?
You can’t always substitute kale for spinach in recipes seamlessly. Kale and spinach are both green, leafy vegetables, however, kale belongs to the brassica family, has a tougher texture and a slightly bitter taste. Spinach belongs to the flowering goosefoot family and is softer with a delicate flavor.
Recipe substitutions that work are in casseroles, curries, salads, and smoothies but will be slightly more bitter and with more texture. Recipes relying on spinach’s soft texture should be avoided.
Because of their green, leafy appearance and high nutritional value, kale and spinach would seem to be logical substitutes for one another. Let’s look at the preparation and cooking differences in this article.
Spinach Vs Kale: Differences In Taste And Texture
Kale and spinach taste different and have different textures because they belong to two separate plant families. Kale is part of the brassica or cabbage family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, collards, and brussels sprouts, all known to be rich in Vitamins C and K. Spinach is part of the goosefoot family, known to be rich in iron.
Differences in taste between kale and spinach
In terms of taste, kale has a slightly bitter flavor that stands out in a dish, making it a good pairing for bland foods, like potatoes. Kale can also stand up to other intense flavors, like bacon. It’s not a great idea to substitute kale for spinach in a delicately flavored quiche as it will dominate the taste profile. However, if kale is cooked for a long time, such as in a soup, it can take on the dish’s flavor more so than spinach does.
Raw spinach, although milder, is also a little bitter. However, cooked spinach has a mild flavor, with baby spinach tending to the sweet, and can easily be combined with other foods as a “hidden” green.
Differences in texture between kale and spinach
The texture of the two greens is also very different. Whether the dark green/black or purple variety, kale has much curlier, tougher leaves and requires more preparation and cooking. It is essential to destem the kale, while some cooks like to massage the kale leaves to make them more tender, especially when used in a salad. Even once cooked, kale retains a leafy texture.
Spinach has tender leaves and wilts very quickly, so it is easier to cook with. Because of this, spinach also loses its volume when cooked, whereas it will take a lot longer before kale does this.
How To Substitute Kale For Spinach
Because of their different taste and texture profiles, you can’t use kale and spinach interchangeably without differences in the dish. There are a couple of significant differences in terms of preparation and cooking time.
How much kale do I use?
Use the same amount of kale as you would use spinach in a recipe. When cooked for a while, kale also loses its volume, just as spinach does, although it retains its texture.
How do I prepare kale vs. spinach?
Because spinach has a softer texture, it requires less preparation.
- Wash both vegetables thoroughly and dry them in a salad spinner or a kitchen towel.
- Unless you’re using baby spinach, destem the spinach. Kale always requires destemming.
- Gently massage the kale leaves to soften them if you are making a salad. Sprinkle them with coarse salt and a little olive oil before gently rubbing them between your fingers.
- Chop the kale more finely than you would spinach so that it cooks consistently.
How do I cook kale vs. spinach?
The differences in texture between kale and spinach mean that they need to be cooked differently.
- Because of kale’s coarser texture, the vegetable requires more cooking than spinach does, so it will need to be added to a dish earlier than you would add spinach.
- Kale will take longer to wilt like spinach, so, if you are making a quick stirfry or pasta dish, rather stick with spinach.
- If you want to add kale to a dish later, first wilt it in a pan to avoid toughness.
- Kale also loses volume after a while, just like spinach, but it will take longer.
- An advantage of cooked kale is that it takes on the flavor of the cooking liquid (like broth). Kale is, therefore, a good choice for soups and curries.
Ideas For Substituting Kale For Spinach
If you want to introduce more kale into your diet or experiment with substituting kale for spinach, there are many ways to do this. There are even cases where you can substitute kale for spinach, and it improves the dish.
How to substitute kale for spinach in salads
If you’re making a leafy salad and need a hearty green, use kale instead of spinach. Remember that the leaves will be slightly more bitter – think arugula – and have a bit more bite, so destem the kale and then chop the kale more finely than you would spinach.
Also, consider letting the kale marinade a little in the salad dressing to absorb more flavor and soften.
If you find the flavor of kale a little overpowering on its own in a salad, combine it with some milder salad leaves when you first substitute it.
However, kale can’t substitute for baby spinach in a salad as the taste and texture are completely different.
How to substitute kale for spinach in soups
Kale works well as a spinach substitute in soup, and you can substitute the same amount of kale as you would use spinach. However, because kale needs to cook for longer than spinach does, you’ll have to add it at the beginning of the cooking period rather than at the end, as you would for spinach.
Destem the kale and chop it finely for texture in your soup. Cooked in a soup, kale takes on the broth’s flavor and won’t influence the soup’s taste.
How to substitute kale for spinach in casseroles or curries
A casserole’s long baking time is perfect for cooking kale, so you can comfortably replace your spinach with kale, especially if you are making a strongly flavored dish. You could also use kale instead of spinach in baked pasta dishes, like lasagna. Destem the kale and chop it into narrow strips so that it cooks evenly.
Does Kale Wilt Like Cooked Spinach?
Kale does not wilt as quickly as spinach does due to its tougher, leafier texture. It does not lose structure like spinach leaves do and will remain a similar size and shape unless cooked for a longer time.
This is one of the major differences when cooking kale and spinach – kale does not wilt quickly. For instance, you can’t throw a handful of kale into a dish at the last moment for a pop of tender green, as you can with baby spinach.
However, because kale doesn’t wilt, it means you can make other healthy treats – think of kale chips.
Can I Use Kale Instead Of Spinach In A Smoothie?
You can use kale instead of spinach in a smoothie – green kale smoothies are a healthy beverage. However, you need to prepare the kale more carefully than you would spinach as it is firmer and expect a stronger tasting drink.
Because kale has a coarser texture than spinach, you always need to destem it and cut out the tough whiter bits, even if you use it for a smoothie. Kale’s texture also means it doesn’t always blend as smoothly as spinach does and may leave small green bits in your smoothie.
Flavorwise, because kale is slightly bitter, it lends itself to smoothies with a citrus tang, say with lime, lemon, or orange, or an acid tang, like pineapple. Remember that you will tend to taste the kale in a smoothie, whereas other ingredients can disguise the flavor of spinach.
Both kale and spinach pack a nutrient power punch and are great to include in a healthy diet. Because of its tougher texture and stronger flavor profile, kale is not always a substitute for spinach. However, in salads, casseroles, and smoothies, feel free to experiment with kale instead of spinach. If you want to substitute other greens check out my post on how to substitute cabbage for lettuce.