The stinging nettle is a plant used as a cooking green for its nutty, earthy, spinachlike flavor; its bright emerald-green color; and its texture—it is firmer than spinach and doesn’t get as squishy or slimy when cooked. You can make nettles into pesto, sauté them to top crostini, put them on pizza, incorporate them into pasta dough to make it a vibrant green, and do just about anything else with them that you would do with a mild green such as chard or spinach.
But the term stinging nettle is literal. Nettles are covered in tiny, hollow, needlelike hairs filled with a toxicant that irritates people’s skin, producing red, stinging, burning welts that can last for hours. Cooking, drying, or freezing nettles renders them safe to eat though, says Richard R. Halse, a senior instructor in Oregon State University’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology.
While there are 45 species of nettle worldwide, says Halse, the primary nettle for culinary use is Urtica dioica, which is found throughout most of North America and Eurasia. It’s common to see it growing as a weed in cultivated fields of other crops.
Andy Griffin, the owner-operator of Mariquita Farm in Watsonville, California, says, “When we pick them on the farm, everybody wears rubber surgical gloves, to keep from getting stung.” If you are handling nettles raw at home, wearing rubber dish gloves should do the trick, although the plants might be less liable to cause any harm because they’ve already been handled and the needles may have been crushed.
Just remember, says Griffin, “this is not a raw food. Nettles are always to be cooked.” And don’t worry if you see clusters of light green and yellow things on the nettles that look like aphids. Most likely they are not. “I can’t tell you how many times people have screamed, ‘There are bugs in them!’” says Griffin. “If you look close you’d see that they are tiny little flowers.”