Taking the Sting out of Nettles
For years I passed up stinging nettles when I would be out gathering spring greens. Though they are quite plentiful in my area, I always let them be. Shuddering from memories of my childhood summers, running through the woods and coming home with puffy, red, swollen legs from stings of adult nettle plants, I assumed they were just too much work to harvest and render them edible. Trying not to get stung and probably failing while harvesting, then taking the risk of rendering the stingers innate through cooking which may or may not have worked just seemed so epic. I thought, “why go through this when there are so many other greens available? Very few greens are really that great anyway, why should I armor myself and risk dermatitis for boring leafy greens when there are tons of exciting wild foods around, like garlic mustard, mints, wild carrots and parsnips? Why not just submit to millennia of evolution and let the stinging nettle’s natural defenses do what they’re designed to do and keep it from being eaten? Why challenge evolution!?” Well, because stinging nettles are delicious, that’s why. Once I took the plunge, I was glad I did. Never had I encountered such a rich, hearty vegetable that had no trace of bitterness yet such a bold and robust flavor.
Though there are many plants that arbitrarily resemble stinging nettles, it is easy to positively identify them apart from look-alikes. A most distinguishing feature of true nettles are the square stalks that have a deep groove that runs the length of it on each corner. I know of no other plant with such distinct stalks. True stinging nettles have leaves with severely toothed margins and, of course… there are the stingers.
When gathering nettles I have just resigned myself to getting stung. I have just come to embrace this and have moved past it. The prime stage to gather nettles is in the early spring when the plants are quite young and, subsequently so are their stingers. So, any stings I do get are generally pretty mild and don’t last more than a few seconds. I usually wear gardening gloves and have found I still get stung, even through the material. Still, I get stung much less wearing gloves, so I prefer to take them along when seeking nettles. Still, if I run across a patch of them and don’t have a pair of gloves with me, I am by no means passing up the harvest. The stings from young plants are just not very serious and can be mostly avoided with careful handling. Just cut the stalk with a medium blade as low as you can and handle the plant by the tops of the leaves when possible. Since the stingers are on the underside, you won’t get stung from contact with the tops of the leaves. In this young stage you can even eat the leaves raw if you roll the leaf up where the underside is inward. Between the pressure from the leaf itself and from your teeth, the stingers are crushed and rendered innate. Cooking and dehydration also kills the stingers, so whether you saute them, cook em up like turnip greens, make soup or tea, you don’t have to worry about getting stung while eating them. They’ll be as benign as spinach, but much tastier.
The stinging nettle is a nutritional powerhouse, which is most notably demonstrated by its rich flavor and satisfying heartiness. They are very high in iron, calcium and vitamin D, and contain respectable amounts of vitamins A, C and B-complex. With wild plants it is really hard to say specifically how much of each nutrient would be found in a specific specimen. This could vary significantly due to the specific environmental factors where they are found, such as the soil type, amount of sunlight, nearby flora and fauna, etc.
My favorite way to eat nettles is to simply saute the greens in a little sunflower oil and butter, then lightly salt and pepper them. If the wild garlic mustard has lost its bitterness by the time I gather my nettles, then it makes a great addition to the pan. If not, a little minced garlic will do the trick. I plan to post a nettle soup recipe to the recipe page here soon. Stay tuned for that and please feel free to share your own experience too! I’d love to hear your stinging nettle stories, thoughts, recipes, memories or anything that comes to mind.
All the best,