Do You Need to Massage Kale?

~ Are you wondering, “Come on … so do I actually need to massage kale?” You’re not alone! Kale is a popular, nutritional superhero these days, so lots of people are wondering about how to massage kale, how to tenderize kale for salad … and if it’s all really even necessary. Here’s our take on the massaging kale conundrum … ~

Are you wondering whether you ACTUALLY have to waste time massaging kale in order to soften the kale for a salad or raw recipe? Well, not always. We’ve found a couple of strategies that work really well … no vegetable masseuse needed!

We first got some questions on this red-hot topic back when we posted our very first kale salad, but it seems that even now – nearly four years later – people are still wondering, “Seriously … do I have to massage kale?”

Hold up there. Massage kale? Maybe you’re wondering if you heard me right.

Yep … you did!

Massage. Kale.

Not kidding. It’s totally a thing.

But is it a thing you actually have to do???

I don’t know about you, but if I ever find myself with enough extra time in my day to be doling out massages, my kale sure isn’t gonna grab the first spot in line!

This gorgeous kale salad recipe requires no massaging at all! It’s the perfect example of how to soften kale leaves without giving your kale that 2-5 minute rubdown!

So the answer is no … and also yes. Basically: it depends.

You’ve got options.

But let’s back up a sec …

What Does “Massage Kale” Mean???

It means pretty much exactly what it sounds like it means: you grab up your would-be salad greens and give them a good rubdown, usually with some combination of olive oil, salt, and/or a bit of acid like lemon juice or vinegar.

You might have heard that you can massage kale with lemon or salt. Totally true! But you don’t have to actually do the work yourself … if the ingredients you’d normally use for a rubdown are in your salad dressing, they can do the work for you!

The exact ingredients involved in the massage vary from one recipe to the next.

But Why Do People Massage Kale?

It actually makes sense, even though it seems ludicrous. All on its own, kale (especially the curly green variety you most commonly find in grocery stores) can be pretty wily – a bit too course, bitter and poky-chewy to be really enjoyable right off the bat.

It’s easy to see why so many people think that kale, especially green kale, is too tough to be eaten raw!

Massaging the kale helps to break down the tough cell structure and gives the kale a softer texture and (some people feel) a gentler flavor, that’s more appealing in a lot of raw preparations like salads, and is supposedly easier to digest, too.

When You Don’t Have to Massage Kale

Remember I told you that you’ve got options? If you’ve got better things to do with your time than hand out rubdowns to veggies, read on …

There are a couple of reasons that I generally don’t bother with those massages.

First of all, there are other ways to achieve basically the same outcome, of making your kale more tender and softening it for a salad or some other raw recipe.

I think that, when kale first became a superfood craze, a lot of books and websites recommended massaging as the most obvious way to deal with raw kale. But, over time, I’ve certainly found (and I think a lot of other people have found this, too) that massages aren’t the only way to turn tough kale into a true delight.

This gorgeous chopped kale salad is full of fruits and whole grains … and confetti pieces of kale that have just enough spunk to stand up to the other hearty ingredients we use!

One other little problem I have with the idea of massaging kale is that I don’t want to have to figure out how much oil or vinegar or salt to leave out of a full, finished salad recipe, to account for the little bit I’ve already used in the process of giving my kale its rubdown. Each recipe would be a bit different, and I just can’t be bothered to sort that out every time – nor do I want the “massage oil” I concoct to throw off the balance of flavors in my finished recipe.

So Here’s What I Prefer:

1) My favorite method for perfectly softening kale is simply to chop my kale a bit finer. Smaller, confetti bits of kale are a terrific size for lots of chopped salads, perfectly textured (but not too wilted) … with no massage needed!

If you want bigger kale leaves in your salad, you may want to consider massaging them first. But the smaller confetti bits on the right are perfect for a kale chopped salad!
The bigger kale leaves on the left above might need a bit of a massage in order to soften up enough to make a nice salad. Or, you might want to pre-dress them (as we suggest below) and allow them to mellow out and soften in the fridge for a little while, as the acids, oil and salt in your dressing work their magic. The confetti bits of kale on the right, however, are definitely my go-to choice for kale salads – no massaging required!

2) In addition, kale leaves’ tough cellular structure will automatically tend to soften upon standing, once you’ve dressed your salad (like with an oil-and-salt-and-vinegar dressing combo similar to what you’d have used if you’d done the whole massage thing).

So, if you want bigger pieces of kale in your salad but can’t be bothered to schedule a vegetable masseuse, you can simply try making your salad a little ahead of time, and let your dressing do all the work for you!

Another way to get a “massaged kale salad” without an actual massage is simply by dressing the salad ahead of time and allowing it to sit in the fridge for a little while before serving, so the dressing can soften the kale leaves a bit.

Between those two methods, I find that even coarser, curly kale turns out to be exactly the right texture for raw salads. It’s still got a bit of “chew” and life to it, but it’s not too tough or bitter … a terrific backdrop for the other flavors in my kale recipes!

Three NOT-Massaged Kale Salads That Use These Methods

All three of our kale salads rely on a combination of the two methods described above to turn tough green kale into the perfect partner for other hearty, wholesome ingredients:

We don’t like our kale to be so limp that it can’t hold its own in these recipes! But, remember that if you personally like your kale more wilty, you can just chop the leaves more finely or let it sit a little longer after you’ve dressed the salad!

Other Times When You Can Skip the Kale Massage

  • If you’re cooking kale, you shouldn’t need to massage it first, as it’ll break down and soften during the cooking process.
  • Also, many people consider lacinato kale (also called dinosaur kale or Tuscan kale) to be a bit more tender and less bitter, so if you’re using that variety in a raw recipe, you may find you have less need for massaging (or even for finely chopping and pre-dressing as I suggest above).
  • And, if you’re using a very tender kale leaf, like baby kale, you probably don’t need to worry about massages at all, either. (I found a couple of great reads for you, if you want to learn more about different types of kale, or grab some more ideas about how to use different varieties of kale in recipes.)

Bottom Line: Do you have to massage kale? No.

But … you probably do have to do something in order to soften it a bit before eating. That something just doesn’t necessarily have to be a massage.

With so many great flavors and textures in every bite, you want your kale leaves to still have some life left in them – you don’t want the TOO wilty. That’s why confetti bits are perfect in this kale chopped salad recipe!

Because I’m pretty sure I should be getting a massage before my kale does … and I just bet you feel the same way! 😉

Helpful Resources

    • Although I own a lot of knives (and frequently have to whittle down my collection), my hands-down favorites are my Victorinox chef’s knives. Unbeatable prices and top Cook’s Illustrated ratings convinced me to give them a try, and I’ve never looked back. I own both the 8-inch and the 10-inch, but the 8-inch is my go-to. It’ll turn a pile of wily kale into beautiful confetti bits in no time!
  • Now that kale’s such a superfood darling, there are loads of books about how to cook kale. These are the two I currently have on my own shelf:


Let Them Eat Kale! by Julia Mueller

The Book of Kale by Sharon Hanna

  • I get loads of compliments on my inlaid-wood cutting board. I’ve had it for four or five years now, and it still looks gorgeous – I adore it! It was made by a local (to me) Ohio artisan named Stu at The Custom Cutting Block.
Whether or not you have to spend time as a kale masseuse may simply depend on how finely you chop your kale leaves before adding them to your salad!

10 thoughts on “Do You Need to Massage Kale?”

  1. I like these recommendations because I simply cannot be bothered to massage kale. The simple but super-useful blog has earned a follow?

    Reply
    • Oh, you’re so very welcome, Donna! I’m really glad it helped you out, and that you found it enjoyable to read. I try so hard to keep my articles light and fun, but sometimes it’s hard when I’m really trying to explain or teach a cooking technique or a specific step of a recipe. It means a lot that you found this both enjoyable AND informative – thanks a million for taking the time to let me know! 😀

      Reply
  2. What about kale chips, especially in an air fryer? Yes, they are cooked, but most of the recipes I see on line advocate for massaging.

    Reply
    • Hi Robyn! I think I’ve made kale chips maybe once in my life, years ago. So, I can’t say for sure if they turn out better massaged, or NOT massaged. I’d recommend following the recipe’s suggestions, at least the first time you make a recipe … then, you could always switch it up the next time. Or, you could try leaving just a little of the kale UN-massaged when you try a recipe (and remember where in the oven/air fryer you placed those chips) and then compare to see which version you prefer. Good luck! And if you give it a try, I’d love to know which method you think works best for kale chips! ~Shelley

      Reply

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Published on
Updated on August 20, 2021