I grew up with a healthy affection for sautéed greens: Bright, vibrant, spiked with garlic and red pepper and maybe a little citrus at the end.
This was how greens were supposed to be served—alive, vigorous and most of all, emerald green. So you can imagine my shock when I first encountered Southern-style collard greens.
My First Time Eating Collard Greens
It was more than 20 years ago. I was one of the only white employees of a black-owned weekly newspaper in Madison, WI. At some point in springtime we all gathered for a company picnic, and these greens were part of the spread.
Army green, stewing in an olive drab pot broth, with chunks of smoked pork floating around. I asked my boss, Ms. Franklin, what this was. She almost fell over laughing. "Those are collards, son! You've never seen collards before?"
I hadn't, being white, from New Jersey and from a largely Italian-Jewish-WASP town to boot. Ms. Franklin explained that collards are so tough they need long cooking, and aren't really very good without some sort of smoked pork; a ham hock was best.
Potlikker: The Best Part of Collard Greens
And then she told me the secret to collards: It's the potlikker, the richly flavored, smoky soup at the bottom of the collard pot. She said that's where all the vitamins went after you stewed the heck out of the greens.
Some people reuse the potlikker for their next batch of collards, and some add more ingredients (beans, more pork, etc.) and make it a soup. Whatever you do, don't throw it away.
Southern collard greens, you should know, are one of those recipes that has unlimited variations. Each region, even each cook, has his or her own twist. This is how we had them at our company picnics, so long ago. Or at least it's how I remember them. Ms. Franklin's gone now, bless her soul. This one's for you, Betty!
How to Buy and Store Collard Greens
When choosing collard greens, look for deep green leaves that are blemish-free, not wilted, and not too tough.
Collards should stay fresh refrigerated in a resealable plastic bag for up to 5 days. Remember not to clean them until you're ready to use them!
How to Trim and Clean Collards
It's important to clean collard greens thoroughly, as they tend to hold onto dirt within the ribs of the leaves.
Here's the best way to clean collards:
- Give each leaf a good rinse.
- Soak the leaves in cold water, either in a clean sink or a large bowl.
- Swish the leaves around in the water to encourage any dirt to fall to the bottom of the sink or bowl.
- Lift out each leaf (if you're using a bowl, don't drain the leaves into a colander or you'll wind up pouring all the dirt back over them).
Once the leaves are cleaned, you'll want to remove the tough stems: fold each leaf in half and tear the stem away from the leaf, or cut out the stems with a paring knife kitchen scissors. Stack several leaves on top of each other, roll them together, and slice them into ribbons.
How Long Does it Take to Cook Collard Greens?
Start to finish, it takes around 2 hours to cook these collard greens. A little more than half of that time is devoted to preparing the ham hock broth, and the rest of the time is spent simmering the greens, transforming them from tough to tender.
How to Store and Reheat Collard Greens
Leftover collard greens should stay fresh, refrigerated in an airtight container with the potlikker, for 3 to 5 days. You can also freeze them for 10 to 12 months.
The best way to reheat collards is in a pot on the stovetop over medium-low heat until they're heated through.
Southern Recipes to Try with Collard Greens
- How To Make Shrimp and Grits
- Chicken Fried Steak
- Southern Cornbread
- Fried Green Tomatoes
- Hoppin' John
Southern Style Collard Greens
While you can make this recipe with chard, kale, turnip, or mustard greens, they cook much more quickly than collards, so cut the cooking time to 30 minutes.
- 2 tablespoons bacon fat, lard, or vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, sliced from root to tip
- 1 ham hock
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 1 to 2 cups water
- 8 to 10 cups (about 2 pounds) stemmed, cleaned, and chopped collard greens
- Salt to taste
- Vinegar and hot sauce to taste
Cook the onions in bacon fat:
Heat the bacon fat in a large pot set over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion in the bacon fat, stirring often, until the edges begin to brown, about 5 minutes.
Add the ham hock, garlic, chicken stock and water:
Add the ham hock, smashed garlic, chicken stock, and water and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for 1 hour.
Add the collard greens:
Add the collard greens and cook, partially covered, until they are tender, another 45 minutes to an hour.
Chop the meat, add to the greens:
To serve, remove the ham hock, pull the meat off the bones, and chop. Mix the meat back with the greens.
Season the collards, then serve:
Taste and season with salt, if needed. Serve with vinegar and hot sauce at the table.