The only good thing to come out of the kale cult madness are these crunchy, salty, deliciously rich crisps (or chips). But should you use curly kale or black? Deep-fried or baked? And which seasoning goes best?
If, 10 years ago, you had asked food writers to predict the hippest ingredients of the decade, I doubt kale, one of our most ancient vegetables, would have featured on many lists. Coarse and chewy, but helpfully hardy, it was a staple of the peasant diet throughout Europe, and as such was hastily abandoned as soon as something better came along. Indeed, so unfashionable was it until recently that the cultivated variety doesn’t even get a mention in Jane Grigson’s excellent Vegetable Book.
Now? Well, now we can’t move for Keep Calm and Eat Kale phone cases and celebrity selfies in kale-branded sweatshirts. How it happened is a mystery – much as I like the stuff, its thick stems and bitter, faintly ammoniac flavour make it an unlikely star. But one good thing has come out of this madness: kale crisps.
At the risk of destroying a few dreams, I have to tell you that these have little in common with their potato-based counterpart. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop tells you they are “as satisfying as potato chips [she means crisps], but much better for you” and “verifiably the best replacement for potato chip”, they’re lying. Well, apart from the bit about them being better for you, that’s undeniable (indeed, Ella Woodward, of Deliciously fame, even claims that “kale has more nutrients per calorie than anything else”.) If you really fancy cheese and onion, kale isn’t going to hit the spot. But if you’re after a crunchy, salty snack with a delicious, rich flavour, well, keep calm and kale on ...
Surprisingly, most recipes don’t specify the sort of kale to be used, though almost all of the photos feature the common curly variety called for by Anna Jones’s A Modern Way to Eat and Jessica Nadel’s Greens 24/7 . Only Jane Baxter and Henry Dimbleby recommend black kale (cavolo nero), which surprises me, because the sturdier leaves seem so much better suited to baking than the frills of the curly variety, which have an unfortunate tendency to frizz up on contact with heat.
You’ll need to get rid of the stems: neglect to do this, as Goop seems to suggest, and you’ll be chewing long after kale has lost its lustre. Moisture is the enemy here, so tearing out these juicy centres, and drying the leaves well, either with a salad spinner or a couple of tea towels, is absolutely vital.
Kale crisps contain fat. (I KNOW! Can you believe it?) But, before you start reaching for a calming mug of bone broth, Angela Liddon of the Oh She Glows blog reckons you can use extra-virgin coconut oil, which is officially a Good Fat, and as such, even hotter than kale right now. Personally, however, I find the tropical flavour a bit weird in conjunction with the homely earthiness of the kale. Goop, Woodward, Jones, Baxter and Dimbleby use olive, and food writer Rosie Birkett suggests rapeseed, both of which work well; indeed, almost any fairly neutral oil will do here.
More important, as Birkett notes, is not overdoing it, and massaging it into “all the nooks and crannies”, as Liddon recommends.
I try a huge variety of flavourings on my kale crisps – it’s almost as if people are trying to hide something. Jones makes a punchy lime juice, miso paste and maple syrup dressing, which is beautifully tangy, while Birkett uses an addictively fiery mixture of garlic granules and chilli flakes. Nicholas Balfe goes for cumin salt and lemon zest, Liddon a mixture of spices, onion and garlic powders and nutritional yeast (which at last gives me an excuse to pop into the Secret Society of Vegans’ shop), and Nadel coats her crisps with a thick render made from soaked cashew nuts, vinegar and fresh herbs. Though tasty, the poor old kale doesn’t stand a chance against its nutty, almost cheesy flavour.
I’d suggest keeping things rather simpler in the form of salt and a sprinkling of smoked paprika, though feel free to substitute spices of your choice, or indeed a little lemon zest, which is always a good match with leafy greens. I’m less keen on Baxter and Dimbleby’s final squeeze of lemon juice though, simply because it undoes all my previous hard work on the crispness front.
Adding the seasonings before baking, rather than afterwards as Balfe does, seems to mean they stick better.
Rarely do I find such wild divergence across recipes as I do here – advice ranges from Woodward’s 10-15 minutes at 210C to Goop’s hour at 95C. After a mere five minutes, the former are charring at the edges, though raw in the middle, and after nine, I have to take the smouldering cinders out and open all the windows – which suggests to me that Liddon is right in her observation that “the batches that worked the best were the ones I baked at a very low temperature of 300F (150C). Sure, it takes a bit longer to bake, but I can assure you it’s worth it because you don’t get any burnt pieces. Remember, the goal is to crisp the kale, not scorch it into smithereens!” In fact, like Goop, Nadel and Jones, I’m going to play it safe by baking them at an even lower temperature, to help dry the leaves out without burning them.
Guy Fieri, the shy and retiring host hero of my guilty telly pleasure, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, deep-fries his kale instead, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen his show. It reminds me faintly of Chinese crispy seaweed, except greasier: a rare case of a dish that isn’t improved by frying.
Baxter and Dimbleby’s advice, that “it’s important to keep checking your kale while it’s in the oven, and moving the leaves around” so you’re not left with “leaves that are soggy in some places and burned in others” is also wise. This is a recipe that demands hawk-like vigilance. Fortunately, kale is excellent for the eyesight.
(Makes 1 medium bowl)
200g black kale cavolo nero
1/4 tsp flaky salt
1/2 tsp smoked paprika (or a spice of your choice)
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Heat the oven to 120C. Strip the kale from its stems in large pieces, and wash well, then dry thoroughly with clean tea towels or a salad spinner.
Grind the salt and paprika together to a powder.
Put the kale in a large bowl and add the oil. Massage it into every dimple in the leaves, then toss with the seasoning. Spread out in a single layer on two large baking trays lined with baking parchment and bake for about 30 minutes, turning the trays round half way through cooking.
Turn the oven off and use a metal spatula to detach the leaves from the trays. Taste for seasoning and add a little more if necessary, then put them back in the oven and leave in there for at least 15 minutes to cool and crisp up further before serving.
Kale crisps: the best thing since sliced sourdough, or a massive hipster swizz? Can anyone explain the secret of kale’s success – and suggest what I should do with all my leftover curly kale?
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