I'm Popeye, the lady who is terrible at cooking
September 20, 2011 6:33 PM   Subscribe

What are your spinach secrets? How can I make cooked spinach at home that is as delicious as what I get at restaurants? Even loaded up with butter and salt, it's still not the same.

I love cooked spinach--at restaurants. At home, no matter how I prepare it, it never seems to taste as good. It's always a little stringy or bitter or otherwise unpleasant. So, how do I make it as delicious as they do?

I've tried butter and every kind of oil I can think of. I've tried flavored salts. I'm a vegetarian, so I'm not going to flavor it with bacon (though I know that's a tried-and-true method), but I've had spinach at vegan restaurants that was better than mine, so I know it can be done. I'm not looking for recipes for creamed spinach or other spinach-heavy dishes. I just want a plate of cooked spinach that is delicious all by itself. I have no dietary restrictions other than the vegetarianism. So, how do I do that?
posted by decathecting to Food & Drink (41 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I frequently add some of the vinegar from pickled peppers.
posted by Runes at 6:36 PM on September 20, 2011

Nutmeg makes it awesome!
posted by goggie at 6:38 PM on September 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

yeah, a little something acidic — vinegar or juice of a citrus fruit — will cut the bitterness of any cooked green.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 6:38 PM on September 20, 2011

You need garlic. That gives it a "salty" kind of flavor that you can't get any other way. And possibly lemon.
posted by limeonaire at 6:39 PM on September 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

Stringy and bitter signals overcooked to me. Could that be right?

Medium High pan, a little fat or a scant amount of vegetable stock (or water?) Tongs to toss the greens once or twice. Turn off the heat. Let sit in the pan 30 seconds while you season with salt... then serve.

You are looking for the residual heat in the pan, and the bottom layer of instantly wilted greens, to do the work.

Spinach cooks in 1 minute, 2 if you do the wilting thing I outlined.

Hope that was the issue!

Also, baby spinach. Otherwise, you must cut out the stems of the mature leaves.
posted by jbenben at 6:40 PM on September 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Sautee onions until just beginning to brown, add spinach. Sautee just until the spinach begins to wilt and remove from heat. Add crumbles of your favorite blue cheese (I prefer roquefort, but gorgonzola is good, too). Salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
posted by briank at 6:42 PM on September 20, 2011

I chop the ends off and steam it in a steamer basket. Then add either sea salt or lemon sea salt. Simple as that, really. Also, use younger spinach - baby or not quite fully mature. It's less stringy and the flavor is milder.
posted by cmgonzalez at 6:49 PM on September 20, 2011

You're overcooking it.

Baby spinach is also sweeter.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:59 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My generally vegetable-hating husband actually <>requests this recipe.

Heat a little olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add a whole bunch of spinach, baby or regular. On top, add some lemon juice, salt, pepper, and garlic. Stir it all together. Allow the spinach to wilt thoroughly. Transfer to a cutting board and cut diagonally several times to break up the stringy bits. Transfer back to the pan and add some crumbled goat cheese. Add more acid, salt, pepper and/or garlic to taste.
posted by charmcityblues at 7:02 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

My method of cooking spinich is to cook chicken breasts in a pan on a very low heat, in a few tablespoons of pesto. When I remove the chicken breasts, I put the spinich into the dirty pan, put the lid back on, and turn the heat off.

I know you will not be pan frying chicken breasts, but you may be utterly suprised how little time and how little heat you need to cook spinich. You are basically just wilting it. Other options: cooked in olive oil and garlic, served with lemon juice and a sprinkle of rock salt.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:06 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might be overcooking it. I usually toss it in a skillet with the wash water still clinging to the leaves, cover with a lid and cook for at most 5 minutes. I cool it, squeeze the water out and chop. Melt a little butter and olive oil (1 tablespoon each), add some garlic cloves and cook until garlic start to turn brow. Add the spinach, toss, salt to taste and serve. (At this point I add parmesan cheese to my spinach, but the rest of the family does not)
posted by francesca too at 7:07 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing the vinegar or lemon juice.

I also like recipies like this, which combines spinach, breadcrumbs, parmesan, onions, and a few other things into these vegetarian meatball sorta things.
posted by XMLicious at 7:13 PM on September 20, 2011

I love mushrooms sauteed before I add my spinach to the pan. They provide/amplify umami, which might be one of the things missing from your home made version.

I'm also a believer that cheese makes many things more delicious. So maybe add some grated parm?
posted by bilabial at 7:25 PM on September 20, 2011

I also suspect overcooking. I sauté it in olive oil for, like seconds, with pepper and kosher salt. Less than a minute, and it so tender and delicious I can't stand it. YOM.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:38 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's been a while, but I think that throwing it into a pot of boiling water and removing it very quickly (blanching), then adding a bit of lemon juice worked wonders.
posted by lab.beetle at 7:42 PM on September 20, 2011

I second blanching. My mom's beet greens were always awesome, but mine were weird and bitter, until she told me that you have to boil them and throw out the water. Beet greens (and spinach too) have oxalic acid, which gives them that bitter taste. Steaming them concentrates that taste, but if you blanch them, the oxalic acid disappears in the water.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 7:46 PM on September 20, 2011

I like it blanched or sauteed lightly with a bit of sesame oil, and agree that yours sounds overcooked. If you are going to cook it with high heat in a pan, make sure it's still got some water on it from rinsing.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:03 PM on September 20, 2011

I love wilted spinach in bacon grease, but that's out for vegetarians, so I'd say wilt it in a nice tangy oil, with some red pepper flakes for pop.
posted by xingcat at 8:09 PM on September 20, 2011

Yeah, I'm of the blanching camp too. It also means that when you do saute the greens (which you've squeezed fairly dry post-blanching), they truly saute and don't stew in their own juices.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:28 PM on September 20, 2011

Or, if you don't saute it, the butter or other oil you put on the simply blanched greens will coat them evenly, and none will run off, diluted, into a puddle of spinach juice.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:30 PM on September 20, 2011

Anchovies, garlic, olive oil, turn the heat off when you add the spinach (don't blanch spinach, especially baby spinach).
posted by TheTingTangTong at 8:36 PM on September 20, 2011

just tonight i cooked up some mushrooms in olive oil, then tore up some baby spinach and threw it in the pan, immediately took it off the heat, covered it, and let it sit there for two minutes while i put together my sandwich. utterly delicious.
posted by nadawi at 8:40 PM on September 20, 2011

Don't use a cast iron pan, it really enhances the bitterness.

(i agree with steaming or blanching, which are both easy. Saute is good, but you need more skill to not overcook it, or accidentally leave it in the skillet (which is still hot).)

Don't even think "cook" when sauteing spinach, just think wilt. Think wilt twice for heavier greens like turnips, mustard, chard, etc.
posted by lothar at 8:44 PM on September 20, 2011

Use a pampered chef steamer, cram as much baby spinach in as will fit, add a little water, and microwave for 3 minutes, pour off the water, sprinkle a little pepper vinegar and salt and pepper.
posted by tamitang at 8:45 PM on September 20, 2011

Response by poster: OK, so can someone explain to me the logistics of blanching? How does one do that? And you have to dry it afterwards? How?

Also, assume that I have about 2 square feet of kitchen space, so I can't buy any new appliances or contraptions. I have basic pots and pans in regular sizes, and I unfortunately don't have room for anything else.
posted by decathecting at 9:04 PM on September 20, 2011

Hillcrest Country Club in LA told my mother in the late 70's/early 80's that their secret was to use a bit of lettuce...but google is failing me with regards to proportions.
posted by brujita at 9:14 PM on September 20, 2011

Blanching is fundamentally dipping it in boiling water just long enough for it to wilt and turn bright green. Transferring to a bowl of ice water afterward is optional.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:01 PM on September 20, 2011

Response by poster: Seriously, I really don't know much about cooking beyond putting ingredients in a pan and heating them until they seem hot. Can you walk me through the blanching process, step by step? I boil the water, and then what? Or do I put the spinach in the water and then boil it? Can I just dump the spinach in the water? Do I need some sort of special strainer? How do I know when it's done? Won't it get all watery? How do I dry it, since someone above said I should? Do I put anything in the water? When do I season it, and with what? I'm kind of an idiot about these things, and Google is giving me lots of contradictory instructions.
posted by decathecting at 10:32 PM on September 20, 2011

And you have to dry it afterwards? How?

Just drain it well. I use an ordinary colander and then press out the excess water with a spatula so I don't have to wait around forever. You want it not to be dripping. You can chop it roughly and give it a little fluff afterwards.
posted by redfoxtail at 10:34 PM on September 20, 2011

This isn't the spinach you're thinking of, but its tasty anyway. Best with "adult" spinach that has lots of stems.

Stir-fried spinach: Heat a wok to the hottest it will allow. Add oil, add chopped garlic, give the garlic 5 seconds to brown, add spinach, add oyster sauce, stir-fry for 15s, serve.

Spinach in stock: Same as above, but don't add oyster sauce, instead add enough hot chicken stock to cover the vegetables. Add soy sauce if your stock isn't salty enough. Simmer for a minute or so. Also consider adding rice wine (e.g. shao xing), small cubes of cooked ham.

Spinach with three-egg stock: Same as above, but also add in a chopped salted egg, a chopped century egg. Towards the end, stir in some (fresh) egg that has been lightly beaten. Be aware that the salted egg and century egg will add considerable saltiness to the dish.

Chinese like spinach.
posted by destrius at 10:36 PM on September 20, 2011

Best answer: Here is what I do:

Fill a largeish pot about 3/4 full of water. (You want it to be fairly large so that it stays hot when you add the cold spinach.)

Add some salt, about as much as you would for pasta (I like it quite salty, a little less salty than ocean water.

Cover and bring to a boil. While it's heating, wash the spinach.

When the water is boiling, take the lid off and add the spinach. Poke it down with the handle of a spoon, or a spatula, or something of that sort. Wait about thirty seconds.

Pour the contents of the pot into a colander/strainer that you have waiting in the sink. Put the pot down somewhere convenient (say, back on the stove).

Press down on the spinach with something like a pancake turner so that more water comes out. This will compress the wad of spinach a bit.

From there you can put it in a bowl with some butter and fluff it all up with a fork while it's still nice and hot. Or you can dump it onto a cutting board and chop it first. Or after you chop it, you could heat up oil and tasty things (onions, garlic) in a pan, then turn off the heat and dump the cooked spinach in, and stir it all around to mix together, then put it on your plate and eat it.

I often do the blanching part on a different day altogether and put the resulting spinach softball in a container in the fridge. Then I chop it and do the hot pan thing on a different occasion, when I'm ready to eat it. That way I don't have to deal with the pot of boiling water or washing up after it at the same time that I'm making dinner. Also the softball takes up a lot less room in the refrigerator than the raw leaves do. (I do all this with sturdier greens like chard, too.)
posted by redfoxtail at 10:46 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

My mom stirfries spinach leaves with garlic (first added to a tablespoon of oil) and a bit of soya sauce. Yum.
posted by infini at 2:02 AM on September 21, 2011

Ah, what destrius does in first suggestion tbh but replacing oyster sauce with soya
posted by infini at 2:03 AM on September 21, 2011

I don't know why it tastes better, but Dorie Greenspan's (you season it first like it's for salad and then steam it; the lemon zest is key) does and it doesn't involve any major magic tricks. I add nutmeg sometimes too.

You might also want to look at Japanese versions of cooked spinach in sesame dressing (horenso no goma-ae) for novelty.
posted by ifjuly at 5:11 AM on September 21, 2011

Here is something that I do, in my totally unscientific and not professional way which, as you said, is putting things in pans and heating them until they're done:

I purchase a bag of garlic cloves from the vegetable stand (like so) and put them in a baking dish, pouring in olive oil until they're covered and then some. I cook this at about 250 degrees until the garlic is brown and there are some little crispy bits of whatever floating in the hot oil. This gives me sweet, delicious soft and not pungent garlic that is wonderful spread on bread or smeared on other foods; and the oil gets drizzled on pizza crusts and potato soups and used for kale chips and stuff. It lives in a jar in the fridge, and lasts for about three weeks (in this household).

To make spinach, or any other greens, I take a few cloves out of the jar and some of the oil and warm them in my cast iron skillet - just enough to coat the bottom - the oil should be hot, but not sizzling and the garlic will get brown and crispier, ever so slightly. I add in a few handfuls of greens (and we prefer baby spinach, because it's just more mouth-sized) and toss it to coat it in the oil, then put a lid on it to cook it down until it's just wilted and still bright green. This takes only a minute or two - it's the last thing I do before I plate everythign. I serve it with shaved parmesan or a harder slightly salty cheese. It doesn't need much else, because of the roasted garlic and olive oil.
posted by peagood at 7:06 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Follow Simply Recipes' recipe for Creamed Spinach. Yum! This site basically never steers you wrong. Omit the bacon and use 2 tbsp of butter instead.
posted by peacheater at 1:46 PM on September 21, 2011

Spinach, especially baby leaf spinach, is a bit fragile for blanching. You'll end up with a dark green mulsh when you come to reheat it.
Wherever I've worked that's had buttered spinach as a side we've wilted the spinach with no butter or salt (salt brings even more water out), tipped it into a colander to drain and then immediately prior to serving- melt a little butter, reheat the wilted spinach through it and season with salt.

With regard to washing- like with herbs a salad spinner is great. Fill the bowl with cold water and dunk whatever you're washing in it, swirl it all around then lift it into the basket so that the grit falls down to the bottom of the water instead of getting poured back on top of your food. Give it a good spin dry and you're done. And it's great for storing delicate leaves in the fridge without them wilting.
posted by fray at 5:19 PM on September 21, 2011

Best answer: I used to think I hated spinach. Now, it's my favorite veggie. For me, the secret was separating the stems from the leaves, and chopping up the stems. I do this for all spinach, no matter how large or small the leaves are. Whether I'm cooking the spinach or using it for a salad. Always separate the stems from the leaves.

I buy it in a bunch in the produce section, not the super-expensive pre-washed, bagged baby stuff.

I undo the bunch and dump it in a sink full of cool water. Swish around until the leaves are clean. With a fresh bunch, there will be some slimy rejects. Discard them. With the thumbnail on my right hand, I snip off each stem at the base of the spinach leaf. No matter how large the spinach leaf is, you don't need to remove the stem vein from the back of the leaf, like you would for kale or collard greens, just the part of the stem that extends past the base of the leaf. Save the stems, cut off and discard the root ends (just the half-inch or so that may still have dirt clinging to it), and chop the rest of the stem into 1/4 to 1/2 inch lengths. You don't have to save, chop and use the stems. You can toss them, but I'm thrifty that way. Drain the leaves in a colander or spin them dry in a salad spinner. Leave a little bit of water on the leaves. This will help steam them in the frying pan.

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan on medium or medium-high heat. You will be adding garlic to the pan, so either slice up or put through a garlic press 2 or 3 cloves. Saute the garlic for a minute or two. Then throw in the drained spinach leaves (and optionally the chopped stems) and toss and stir-fry them just until the leaves are wilted to your liking. Empty contents of frying pan into serving bowl and finish with light dusting of nutmeg. Delish.

You can throw the stems in with the spinach leaves as you're stir frying or if you don't have time to chop them right now, save them, chop them up tomorrow and throw them into tomorrow morning's scrambled eggs or miso soup or ramen soup or veggie spaghetti marinara sauce or in a tuna salad or green salad or fried rice or ... your call.
posted by marsha56 at 9:18 PM on September 21, 2011

The recipe above from charmcityblues is indeed awesome. I have been adding cherry tomatoes and cashews to it for color and calories, respectively, so it can stand alone as a full meal.
posted by whatzit at 6:07 AM on October 8, 2011

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