Collard greens are a bitter leafy green, and they can remain bitter depending on how they’re prepared. Thankfully, bitterness is never a problem in a classic southern collard greens recipe.
There’s a secret ingredient in southern collards: time. Collards become silky and tender as they simmer, while ingredients like white wine, crushed red pepper flakes and sugar help balance out the bitter, earthy flavors. But the real magic in this collard greens recipe comes from smoked ham hock. It infuses the greens with a smoky, savory quality, and the bones release collagen into the broth, adding to its silky-smooth texture.
Speaking of broth, a bowl of collards isn’t just about the greens themselves. The pot liquor (aka “pot likker” or “potlikker”) is cooking liquid that leafy greens or beans braise in. The liquid becomes rich and flavorful as the mixture cooks. You can serve your cooked collards with a slotted spoon so the pot liquor doesn’t spill all over your plate, or you can spoon it all into a bowl and sop up those juices with cornbread or biscuits. Either way, you should definitely save any leftover pot liquor. Use it any way you’d use regular broth. It’s especially great to use in this mashed potato hack.
What are collard greens?
Collard greens are a brassica vegetable, meaning, they’re in the cabbage family, along with other recognizable veggies like kale, broccoli and cauliflower. Collards are a staple in southern cuisine. In fact, they’re South Carolina’s official state vegetable. Collard greens have thick stems and broad, flat leaves. They can be dense and bitter when consumed raw. Once cooked, they become tender and mellow, resembling a delightful cross between kale and cabbage. They’re typically used in braised dishes, but they can also be used as a cabbage substitute in wrapped dishes like cabbage rolls.
How to Clean Collard Greens
Before we get started, let’s review how to cut and wash collard greens. Collard greens can be dirty, and organic vegetables from the farmers market may still contain insects. First, strip the leaves off the stems. The stems are tough and bitter, so we typically discard them.
Next, swish the leaves in a bowl of cold water. Drain them, then rinse them a second time in a bowl of fresh water to remove any stubborn bits. (Bagged collard greens from the store are typically pre-rinsed, so they usually only need the first rinse.) Finally, drain the collards, and shake off any excess water. To get them very dry, arrange them in a single layer on a clean large kitchen towel, and gently roll up. Pile the dried greens onto a cutting board, and coarsely chop them.
How to Cook Collard Greens
In this southern collard greens recipe, we cook them like Grandma did: low and slow. From start to finish, it takes about two hours to cook this dish. The result is a silken broth with collards so tender they basically melt in your mouth. It’s so worth it!
We start by simmering smoked ham hocks in water with onions and garlic. The hock adds a luscious texture and smoky flavor to the broth. Next, we add fresh collard greens to the mixture. These cook gently in the ham broth with white wine and flavorful lard. The ham meat is then chopped and returned to the collards mixture in the pot.
Collard Greens Ingredients
- Collard greens: Purchase collard greens with dark green leaves and no sign of wilting. Some stores carry prepared collard greens that are stemmed and chopped. You’ll need roughly 1-3/4 pounds of prepared collards to equal the 2-pound bunch you’d prepare by hand.
- Smoked ham hocks: Ham hocks (also called pork knuckles) are rich in connective tissue. As they cook, they release collagen which thickens the braising liquid. Look for the smoked variety (as opposed to fresh ham hocks) for a rich smoked flavor.
- Lard: You can use shortening if you’re uncomfortable cooking with lard, but there’s no reason to fear this flavorful cooking fat. It’s made from rendered pork fat, and it’s great for braising, frying, roasting and making incredible pie crust.
- White wine and sugar: This recipe calls upon two ingredients to reduce the bitterness in the collards. The first is sugar, and we add a small pinch to the stockpot when cooking the ham hocks. The other is acid. White wine brings an incredible flavor to the collards, and its acidic nature keeps bitterness at bay.
- Onion and garlic: These two ingredients build flavor and aroma in the collard greens. As the collards braise, the onions develop a translucence, giving the finished dish visual interest.
- Crushed red pepper flakes: Crushed red pepper flakes add a gentle heat that balances the collard greens’ earthiness. Tailor the amount to your heat tolerance.
- Water: Some southern collard greens recipes use broth. We find it unnecessary, as the combination of water, wine and smoked ham hocks creates a flavorful pot liquor. Feel free to substitute chicken or vegetable broth if desired.
Step 1: Cook the ham hocks
In a 6-quart stockpot, heat 1 tablespoon lard over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook and stir until tender.
Add the ham hocks, water, seasoned salt, pepper flakes and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat. Simmer, uncovered, until the meat is tender, 55 to 60 minutes.
Step 2: Cook the collard greens
Add the collard greens, wine, and remaining lard. Return the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat. Simmer, uncovered, until the greens are very tender, 55 to 60 minutes.
Step 3: Remove the ham hocks
Remove the ham hocks from the stockpot.
Step 4: Chop the meat
Remove the meat from the bones. Finely chop the meat, and discard the bones.
Editor’s Tip: The ham hocks will be extremely hot when you remove them from the pot! If you have time, wait to remove the meat until it’s cool enough to handle. Otherwise, hold the ham hock with a pair of tongs, and carefully cut the meat off the bone with a sharp knife.
Step 5: Return the meat to the pot
Return the meat to the pot. Serve the collard greens with a slotted spoon.
Editor’s Tip: Now is a good time to adjust the seasoning. If the collard greens taste bitter, add a splash of lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or a vinegary hot sauce (like Louisiana hot sauce). Adding a pinch of salt or sugar can help, too.
- Use other pork products: You can use smoked pork neck bones, pork shanks or ham bones instead of ham hocks. Other smoked pork products, such as bacon or smoked sausage, would also work, and bacon collard greens cook in about half the time as this recipe.
- Make it pork-free: Use smoked turkey necks for a pork-free collard greens recipe.
- Make vegan southern collard greens: Skip the lard, and use cooking oil instead. Instead of ham hocks, season the greens with smoked paprika or hickory salt to impart a smoky flavor. Add mushrooms, such as thinly sliced shiitakes, to give the collards a rich, meaty texture.
- Try a different green: Try this recipe with other leafy greens like mustard greens, turnip greens, kale or Swiss chard. Adjust the cook time as needed for the greens you’re experimenting with.
How to Store Collard Greens
Store cooled collard greens in an airtight container in the fridge for three to four days. Reheat the collards in a pot over medium heat (or in a microwave-safe dish in the microwave) until heated through to 165°F.
Can you freeze collard greens?
Leftover cooked collard greens can be frozen in an airtight container or a freezer-safe resealable plastic bag. For best quality, use frozen collard greens within four months. Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight before reheating.
Collard Greens Tips
What can you serve with southern collard greens?
We often serve southern collard greens with a side of buttery cornbread to soak up the flavorful cooking juices. You can also serve them as a side dish with other soul food recipes, such as black-eyed peas, chicken Creole and southern fried okra.
How long do you cook collard greens?
We cook these collard greens for 55 to 60 minutes, until they are very tender and no longer bitter.
Why add apple cider vinegar to collard greens?
Many southern-style collard greens recipes include apple cider vinegar to brighten the flavors. Acidic ingredients like vinegar can also make collard greens taste less bitter. Our recipe uses white wine as the acidic element. It contains the right amount of acidity and makes the broth taste fantastic.