Nettles Are One of the Best Spring Farmers Market Finds. Here’s How to Cook With Them

Read this before you touch nettles with your bare hands.

A person forages for nettles

Mint Images / Getty Images

Spring greens, onions and other produce are some of the most welcome signs that winter has finally ended. Most people are familiar with ramps, fiddleheads, and spring mushrooms, but savvy foragers and market hounds know to seek out nettles, which are among the first wild greens to emerge in spring. Nettles are weeds are found in forests and along streams. They are delicious when prepared properly and have been a staple on tables in the United Kingdom for centuries. These hardy springtime plants need no cultivation; as is the nature of weeds, they grow rampantly and return year after year. So, if you have a patch near you, you can count on finding more every year. Harvest them when they are young and less than a foot tall. If your nettles are more mature, don’t harvest the whole stem, just stick to the tender tips. If you aren’t up for foraging, hit up spring farmers markets and grocery stores.

As with any foraged food, if you are not sure of your plant, check with someone who is properly trained to avoid accidentally consuming something inedible or toxic. Check your local directories for foraging clubs or specialists. 

But wait before you touch them. Nettles are covered in tiny stinging hairs that are just a millimeter long, but will give you a rash to remember. Be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves to prevent stinging, and use a sharp pair of scissors to cut them. As soon as you get your bounty home, refresh and wash them in a large bowl of cold water, spin them dry in a salad spinner, and store them in the fridge in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel to prevent wilting. Before using nettles, either blanch them in boiling water for 60 seconds or steam them for five to eight minutes to remove the stinging quality before proceeding with your cooking. Once they are cooked, they are safe to handle and eat.  

Why go through the extra work? Nettles boast a peppery flavor that some liken to a combination of mature spinach and watercress (and with some varieties possessing a natural saline quality similar to mild seaweed). They are one of the first signs of spring in many parts of the country, and a favorite ingredient to take cooks through to warmer weather, as with this pizza featuring nettles and spring garlic. Nettles are also often used in soups, stews, or sautéed or braised. They stand up to strong flavors like garlic or ginger, and work well with intense spice or chilis. You can use nettles wherever you would use spinach or other hearty greens like kale. Sub them in for spinach in saag paneer, puree them and fold into frittatas or omelets, use instead of watercress in creamy soups, or braise them like collard greens with a rich pot liquor. 

Spanish cooks will add chopped or pureed nettles to sauces for albondigas, or meatballs. Italians might use nettles instead of spinach in gnocchi or gnudi, or as an addition to pesto. If you are making an Italian escarole soup, swap out half of the escarole with blanched nettles for a more complex flavor. A simple side dish of steamed nettles tossed with garlic butter and some lemon zest works well with any protein, and stir-fried nettles with a sauce of soy, mirin and rice wine vinegar can be amped up with scallions, ginger, and chilis. However you prepare them, give nettles a try. They are a simple way to celebrate the first spring harvests, and all the wonderful green things to come.  

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles