About a decade ago, my culinary journey with collard greens began. It was during a family Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering – the exact occasion I can’t remember. What I do remember vividly is how I eventually earned the title of the “Green Guy” at our festive feasts from that point forward.

Living in the heart of the South, knowing how to cook collard greens isn’t just a good thing, it’s mandatory.

They’ve become a staple at our family gatherings and work gatherings, where the charm of “home cooking” reigns supreme. The recipe I’ve perfected over the years is a beautiful blend of mom’s traditional method and my own creative twists.

And whenever someone asks, “Where did you get this recipe from?” I laugh and say, “I just made it up!” I started with the base that my mom gave me and just added a few things from there.

Now, let’s dive into the heartwarming process of cooking collard greens that’ll leave your guests asking for more!

Step 1: Selecting the Perfect Bunch of Greens

The South is abundant with a variety of greens – collard, turnip, and mustard. Yet, my heart (and taste buds) are set on collards.

This would probably work just as well with the other greens too. You might need to adjust the flavors a bit depending on the bitterness of the greens you are cooking.

When choosing your bunch, look for fresh, vibrant greens that seem as if they were plucked from the garden just moments ago. You want them to not be wilted, or yellow, or brown on the edges if at all possible. If they look “meh”, they will probably taste “meh” and who wants that??

Generally, two bunches should suffice to fill a large crockpot, ensuring a hearty serving for everyone at the gathering. I have cooked three though and they cook down A LOT, so the more the better. They can be frozen, so if you have leftovers, put them in the freezer and have them for Christmas or even New Year’s. Maybe I should make a how to freeze collard greens post next?

Make sure that you keep them cool, and try to buy/pick them within 2-3 days of cooking them.  The sooner you cook them after they are picked the better.

Step 2: Kickstart the Flavor with Meat

Before diving into the greens, it’s time to introduce some meaty goodness. Yes, we’re cooking greens, but a Southern dish is incomplete without a hint of meat!

I prefer ham hocks for that rich, smoky essence, but feel free to experiment with neck bones or smoked turkey necks, or pretty much any smokey and/or salty meat.

Toss the meat into a large pot, add water, and let it simmer. This meat-infused broth will later cradle the collard greens, infusing them with a flavor that’s nothing short of divine.

If you don’t have some sort of seasoning to add to the greens while they are cooking, they will taste like cooked weeds from the yard, and trust me, you don’t want that

You are going for the most flavor here….you’ll have to experiment with this one but just about any of them will work.  If you are using hocks as I am, use about 3 for a large pot of greens.

Ham-hocks

So now that you have said meat, place it into a large pot, fill it with enough water to almost cover the meat, and bring it to a boil.  

Cook the meat for about 45 min or so.  (Not being real scientific here.)  We just want to get all of the flavor that we can out of the meat and into the water, since this is what is going to actually cook the greens.

Step 3: How to cut collard greens – Prepping Your Greens

Once your meat is on the boil, shift your focus back to the greens.

Start by snipping off the stalks at the base, then move on to cutting out the thick midrib from each leaf.

If you thought that we were just going to through them into the pot and boil them, then you would be sadly mistaken.  It is much more involved than that.

There are many people who will skip this step completely, and I can tell it when I eat their collard greens.  I won’t say you are wrong if you don’t cut the middle out, but I can tell you that I prefer to do it because it makes things taste much better in the end.  

What I normally do is take all but the very smallest leaves and cut the middle of the stalk out.

The midrib isn’t much to munch on.  This is the thick vein that runs down the middle of each leaf.  If you cook it, it will be tough, and somewhat chewy. Like I said, I do this to all but the smallest of the leaves.  Those are the ones that are about the size of the coffee stirrer or smaller.  They are small and won’t be noticed once they are cooked.

cutting collard greens

Yes, it’s a bit tedious, but this step ensures a tender, delightful texture, making every bite worth the effort.

Step 4: Chop up the collard greens

Now, lay your de-ribbed leaves flat and chop them into broad strips, about 3-4 inches wide. Not really being picky here, just cut them up small enough to get them in the pot.

The smaller leaves that are about the size of your hand, just leave those.  It will look like you are cutting them WAY TOO BIG. You’re not though, they will cook down to almost nothing, don’t worry.

collard greens in a pot

Step 5: The Triple Wash

Collard greens are notorious for holding onto grit, so a thorough wash is crucial. Rinse them well, at least twice, to ensure they’re impeccably clean and grit-free.

I usually fill up both sides of the sink about halfway with cool water.  Wash them on one side, let them sit for a few minutes (while I’m cutting more greens up) and then put them on the other side and wash them again.

If you don’t wash the greens well there will be an inevitable grit taste to them…not something you want infiltrating the Thanksgiving lunch.

If you have a helper, this is much easier!

washing collard greens

Step 6:  Stuff the pot

Go back out to the pot (and I say back out because I recommend cooking them OUTSIDE if at all possible) that has the meat in it. Make sure that it is at least 1/3 -1/2 full of liquid.  At this point, the meat should be smelling like a smokehouse and should be getting “right”.

This is the point where, if you have never cooked greens before,  you are going to question the size of the pot and give me the “yeah right, those ain’t going to fit in there”

Yes they will!  Just take it slow and don’t try to put them all in at one time.

Put as many greens in the pot as you can get without stuffing them in there.  Full, to the top, but we don’t want the lid popping off.. just use your best judgment here.

Put the lid on them and make sure they are on about med-med low.

Step 7: Let the Collard Greens Cook

From here let them cook for about 15 minutes or so, don’t take the lid off and peek at them until it has been at least 15 minutes.  Once 15 minutes have passed you can look at them… just don’t be afraid, none of them jumped out and headed for the hills, they just got a little dehydrated, and that is what you want.  

Now it’s time to add more to the pot.  From here what I usually do is to move all of the partially cooked greens to one side, stuff the other side with uncooked ones, move cooked ones on top, add uncooked ones to that side, and then spread out the cooked ones to cover all of the the pot.  

What we are going for here is to make the uncooked green (or least cooked at this point) to be on the bottom closest to the fire.  This is not absolutely necessary, but I prefer to do it this way so that in the end all of the collard greens are cooked about the same amount.

You will have to repeat the above process about 3 or 4 times depending on the depth of the pot, and the amount of greens you are cooking.  Each time let the greens cook down for about 10-15 min before adding another set.

It is at this point in time that it becomes apparent that a wider and shallower pot is better than a tall skinny one.  If the pot is too tall and skinny, you will spend a lot of time rotating the greens to get the “new” ones to the bottom while you are adding them to the pot.

This is not ideally what you want, so try and get a pot that is as close to as tall as is is wide.

Step 8: Here’s the secret….more seasoning

There a thousand ways to do this part, but this is what I use.  It’s a guestimation, because it’s different for each pot that I cook, but it’s a good starting point.  At this point in the cooking process, I usually add:

  • Salt (2-3 tbs to start)
  • Black pepper (1 tsp)
  • Tobasco and/or Cyanne Pepper (depending on your preference)  I use about 10-20 dashes or 5-10 shakes
  • Maple, Cane, or Regular (Aunt Jemima- RIP) Syrup ( about 1/4 cup to start). This is the important part.  This is what takes off the edge and bitter taste.  If you didn’t season the greens at all, they would be bitter and would be what most people think of when they think about green and they say “oh, I don’t like greens they are bitter”.
  • Tony Cachere’s Seasoning ( I use about 1 tsp to start) – This is sort of optional, but I think it gives it a good flavor.  If you don’t have any/can’t find it in your area, then don’t worry about it.  Just add a little more salt

Once you have all of the greens in the pot, and seasoned, I usually like to let it cook for about 30 min or so more.  This is just a very rough estimate.  Might take 45, might take 20.  Just let them cook until they look like they are well cooked, but not mushy.  Taste them for texture.  You will know if they are what you would like to eat .   At this point, check the flavor and adjust accordingly.

You will notice I say “to start” for the seasoning above.  This will vary with what you like, and how much you like to taste a particular flavor.  I can tell you that if you use cane syrup, it is much more sharp tasting and I would use the lesser amount until I figured out what I liked.  

The Aunt Jemima (RIP) is much weaker in flavor, and you will probably need more to make it the right flavor.  Just experiment, you can’t really mess it up.

And last but not least, the most important step of all….  This will make Mama happy!

Step 9: CLEANUP!

Step 10 : Enjoy