Creative Ideas for Elevating Canned Collard Greens

If you’re a fan of collard greens, you know that they’re at their best when they’ve simmered for a good long while, seasoned to savory perfection. They’re an essential component to a big Southern meal, along with big hunks of hot, buttered cornbread. The absence of a pot of collard greens would be cause for a calamity in some families — so what can you do when there are no fresh greens on hand? Well, you reach for the can opener.

Canned collard greens are not quite the same as their slow-simmered counterparts, but sometimes you have to choose what’s most convenient. With just a little know-how, you can doctor up a can of collard greens so they can share the table with pride. Even just one or two ingredient additions can make a huge difference. You just may find yourself opting for the convenience of the can a little more often. 

1. Drain and rinse them well

skillet of collard greens

The first step for cooking canned collard greens might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning, because it’s a crucial part of improving the flavor. Once you’ve opened the can, you’ll need to drain out all the liquid. Don’t settle for merely holding on to the lid while you pour the liquid into the sink. You’ll want to break out the colander to make sure you’ve removed all the watery contents. Don’t worry — this liquid is not the same as the brothy potlikker from simmered greens. (That’s something you’d never want to discard!)

After draining, give the collard greens a good rinse under running water, and drain them again. Rinsing the collards ensures that you’ve removed the saltiness from them, which means you’ve removed a good part of what makes them taste canned. It’s definitely worth the little bit of time it takes, as the rinsed and well-drained collard greens are now prepared to better absorb some much-needed flavor. 

2. Saute canned collard greens in bacon grease

bacon cooking in fat

Bacon grease is often used for flavor in Southern cooking. There’s a good reason our mothers and grandmothers kept a big jar of drippings by the stove, as it was used to add flavor to everything from green beans to gravy. Bacon grease is a particularly good match for greens, bringing its savory saltiness to mellow out the flavor of bitter greens like collards. (Many fans of Appalachian cuisine even pour hot grease over fresh lettuce leaves to enjoy as a summer salad.)

Even the most seasoned Southern cooks don’t often think about using bacon grease when it comes to canned goods, but it’s a step that belongs in every repertoire. To impart some true Southern flavor to a drained can of collard greens, simply heat up some bacon grease in a skillet, add the greens, and give them a quick stir until heated. Not a fan of bacon grease? Saute your collards in butter, coconut oil, or sesame oil. Each brings its own unique flavor profile.

3. Enhance with onions and garlic

greens with onions and garlic

Onions and garlic are common additions to pot-simmered greens, but they’re usually not included in the canned variety. (Even brands of pre-seasoned collard greens tend to use dried onion or garlic powder rather than the fresh stuff.) Diced onions and minced garlic can quickly add a more complex flavor to canned collard greens, but tread carefully. Canned greens are already cooked, and you don’t want to cook them to death, so the best practice is to saute your onions and garlic separately, then add them to the collard greens.

You don’t have to use both onions and garlic, as either one adds plenty of flavor. For a lot of Southerners, Vidalia onions are the top choice for cooking (or even for eating raw), but any type of onion you enjoy is fine. In fact, any member of the allium family will taste good with greens. If you have leeks or shallots on hand, give them a try. The addition of fresh onions and/or garlic that you cooked yourself will go a long way towards making your canned collards taste closer to homemade. 

4. Splash in some vinegar

bowl of apple cider vinegar

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Vinegar is practically a non-negotiable component for some eaters of greens. Many lovers of collard greens, turnip greens, and mustard greens pour generous amounts of vinegar on them after they are served, using it as a condiment. It’s not uncommon to see a cruet of vinegar on the table when collard greens are served, whether in homes or at a restaurant. Even for those who don’t pour it on after serving, it’s good to include vinegar in the cooking process, as vinegar balances the salty taste of collard greens.

Splashing on some vinegar, whether before or after cooking, adds a brightness to the taste of canned collard greens that’s much needed. Apple cider vinegar is a favorite to use with greens, but malt vinegar, red wine vinegar, or even rice vinegar are tasty additions. You can also bring some vibrancy to canned collard greens without vinegar by using a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice. (Fresh lemon, by the way, can enliven just about any type of canned vegetables.) 

5. Include a smoky component

collards with smoked turkey

The taste of smoke is part of what makes home-cooked collard greens so memorable. It’s also one of the things that’s missing from a can of collard greens. If you want to get that slow-simmered taste from a can, one of the best things you can do is impart a bit of smokiness. You can’t smoke a can of greens, but you can smoke a turkey wing. (You can also buy already-smoked turkey wings at some grocery stores.) Cut the meat off of the smoked wing and add plenty to your drained collard greens.

You can add smoky flavor to collard greens and keep them plant-based by adding smoke-flavored seasonings. Smoked paprika is an excellent way to add smokiness to canned greens, while also adding some sweet and peppery spiciness. A few drops of liquid smoke can also do the trick. Smoked salt can be a nice addition, but use a light hand, as canned greens tend to already be salty.

6. Add soy sauce to canned collard greens

bowl of soy sauce

Collard greens are so popular in the South that it may seem that the only way to prepare greens is in a Southern style. Greens are enjoyed all over the world, though, and even in the U.S., they are enjoyed by Americans with diverse cultural backgrounds. Chinese cuisine makes use of a multitude of greens, such as bok choy, napa cabbage, and mustard greens. If you’re looking for a way to add flavor to canned collards, take a cue from the flavor profiles of Chinese dishes and add a splash of good-quality soy sauce.

Like vinegar, soy sauce can be mixed in thoroughly before you heat up the greens, or you can add it at the table as a condiment. Either way, soy sauce punches up greens with an earthy umami taste. Soy sauce is tasty just by itself, but you can more fully commit to the flavor profile by also adding ginger, garlic, and sesame oil to your collard greens. 

7. Sprinkle in red pepper flakes

bowl of red pepper flakes

Take a look at the collard greens recipes of many famous chefs (especially those who specialize in soul food), and you’ll see some subtle differences between them, but you’ll also start to notice some ingredients that are the same. One of the frequently used ingredients of several chefs is red pepper. In the case of “Koshersoul” author Michael W. Twitty, the addition of fresh red peppers gives his collards their bite, but for celebrity chef Carla Hall, and plenty of others, crushed red pepper flakes are the go-to ingredient for greens. 

The beauty of using dried pepper flakes is that you can keep them in the cupboard, so they’re always on hand. They can be added to canned collard greens before or after heating, in any quantity you desire. Keep in mind that brands of pepper flakes vary in the intensity of their heat, so taste some before you go crazy with the shaker. You can always let folks who like it hotter add more at the table.

8. Pour in some cream

portion of creamed greens

Creamed spinach is a crowd-pleaser. In fact, for some people, it’s the only way they’ll even eat spinach at all. When it comes to other greens, though, the idea of creaming them doesn’t seem to be given serious thought. It’s time to rectify that! Creamed collard greens are every bit as good as their spinach-based cousin, and they’re a great way to use canned collards when you don’t feel like making the whole recipe from scratch.

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While you can go all the way and add the full list of ingredients to make creamed collard greens, simply adding a bit of cream or whole milk to your canned collard greens will give them a creamy texture that’s like a stripped-down version of the dish. Stirring in a little flour with the cream to make a roux will improve the texture even more. Add seasonings just as you would with creamed spinach, or keep it simple. 

9. Simmer canned collard greens with stock

pot of collard greens

The fact that canned collard greens are already cooked is what makes them so convenient — there’s no need to simmer them for hours on the stovetop. However, that lack of simmering with flavorful ingredients means they haven’t had a chance to absorb the goodness and flavor of a delicious, savory broth. You don’t want to overcook the already-cooked greens, but you can give them a quick simmer with broth and give canned collards some of what they lack.

Chicken broth or stock is a go-to choice for collard greens, and if you’ve got homemade stock, all the better. If choosing a canned or boxed stock, low-sodium varieties will keep your canned collards from being overly salty. Better Than Bouillon provides a rich, savory broth with just a few spoonfuls, and you can keep it on hand in the refrigerator (one jar lasts for a long time). Don’t forget to drain the can before simmering, or your broth will be watery rather than rich. 

10. Add meat

collards with ham hock

The classic Southern collard greens recipe just about always calls for meat of some kind, though almost everyone has a strong opinion on just what that meat component should be. Pork products are most frequently added to collards, especially in the form of ham hocks or pork neck bones in Southern and soul food cuisine. Other recipes call for diced ham or bacon, and some forego pork completely and use smoked turkey for the boost it gives the greens. 

When making collard greens from a can, you won’t need as much meat as you would if you were cooking a pot from scratch, as you won’t be flavoring the cooking liquid. You can simply chop up some ham or crumble some bacon and mix it into your collard greens before serving. Of course, you can always crumble it on the top as a way of letting people know that these aren’t merely plain old canned greens. 

11. Top canned collard greens with cheese

cubes of cheddar cheese

Adding cheese might seem like an unusual choice, but plenty of modern chefs have created some unexpected ways to use collard greens. Collards quesadillas, collards-topped pizza, collards grilled cheese, and collard greens dip are just a few of the ways greens and cheese have been combined into single dishes. The bigger question is, why didn’t we think of this sooner? Now that we know better, we can add cheese to the list of ingredients that can add interest to canned collard greens.

Smoky cheeses — like smoked cheddar, smoked provolone, or smoked Gruyère — make perfect partners for collard greens, adding that much-desired smoky flavor to the unflavored canned variety. Extra-sharp cheddar, Swiss, and Parmesan are also good choices. After draining your canned collard greens, shred or slice your preferred cheese over them in a baking dish and place it under a hot broiler until it’s nice and melty, and watch your greens get gobbled up!

12. Add a pinch of brown sugar

spoonful of brown sugar

One of the simplest ways to perk up the flavor of canned collard greens is to add a pinch of brown sugar. If you’re among those who find all greens a little too bitter for your taste, you’ll be pleased to know that adding sugar smooths out the flavor considerably. You only need a little, as you don’t want the greens to taste too sweet. Ideally, you won’t notice the sugar at all; you’ll just notice the flavor seems balanced.

Some cooks like to make their collard greens with a combination of bacon and brown sugar, for a sweet and smoky taste. If you’re adding brown sugar to your canned collard greens, consider adding bacon as well to maximize the flavor. If you only have white sugar on hand, you can use a pinch or two, but keep in mind that brown sugar adds a deep molasses-like flavor to collard greens that you’ll miss if you use refined sugar. 

13. Stir in some hot sauce

bottles of hot sauce

If you like dishes with a spicy kick, hot sauce is an easy way to bring flavor to canned collard greens. It’s not a lowbrow addition, either. Even the renowned Robert Carter, executive chef of the now-defunct Carter’s Kitchen, includes hot sauce in his peppered collard greens recipe. Carter’s recipe calls for either the peppered vinegar liquid from a bottle of pickled peppers or a hit of Cholula hot sauce. Because the flavors of these ingredients are different, the conclusion one can draw is that any kind of hot sauce you prefer is the kind you should use.

If you like the sweet and garlicky flavor of sriracha sauce, then add plenty of it to your canned collard greens. Like something more solid and traditional? Stick with tried-and-true Tabasco. Some Southerners swear by Louisiana Hot Sauce, while others prefer Crystal. With so many varieties to choose from, if you’re serving canned collard greens, you might want to have a selection on the table and let guests take their pick. 

14. Blend in some miso paste

bowl of miso paste

It’s been well established that greens and Asian flavors go well together, and soy sauce isn’t the only way to impart some Eastern flair into your collards. For some serious depth of flavor, try stirring some miso paste into canned collard greens. If you’re unfamiliar with miso, it’s a fermented soybean-based paste that’s blended with salt, rice, and other ingredients. Its flavor is salty, earthy, and strong. Just a little goes a long way, similarly to how one bouillon cube can flavor a whole pot of soup. 

To use miso paste in canned collard greens, all you’ll need to do is stir a small spoonful into your greens before heating them. For even more flavor, try making a compound butter with miso paste, and then add it to your collard greens. The fat from the butter will give your greens an even more luxurious flavor and texture. 

15. Mix in some peanut butter

jar of peanut butter

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You may be thinking, “Peanut butter? Have you lost your mind?” If this is the case, then you’re probably not from West Africa, where collard greens and peanut butter go together like peanut butter and jelly. Peanuts and peanut butter are the basis of some of the world’s best savory dishes, such as pad Thai and chicken satay, adding a sweet nutty flavor to sauces, soups, and stews. Collard greens recipes of West Africa include cooking them with peanut butter and seafood, and in Zimbabwe greens are cooked with peanut butter and tomatoes. 

If you’d like to try peanut butter with your canned collard greens, keep in mind that it pairs well with spicy flavors. When adding peanut butter, you’ll want to balance the flavor with red pepper flakes, fresh hot peppers, chile crisp, or hot sauce. The result will be a sweet and spicy dish of collard greens with African-inspired flavors.

16. Cook canned collard greens with coconut milk

glass of fresh coconut milk

Liudmyla Yaremenko/Getty Images

Coconut milk is another ingredient that might already be a familiar pairing with collard greens, depending on your cultural background. The braising of greens in coconut milk is common in the Caribbean, and vegans from all over the world are adopting the practice as a way to add flavor to greens without adding meat products. The rich, sweet taste of coconut milk is a beautiful contrast to bitter greens of any kind. 

Even better is the pairing of coconut milk with curry, and adding both to canned collard greens will give the dish a Thai or Indonesian-inspired vibe. Add coconut milk a little at a time as you gently saute your collards, until your dish reaches the consistency you’d like, and stir in some curry powder for flavor. You can add onions, peppers, and chickpeas for a more complete dish, or keep it simple to serve as a side. The result will be something you won’t believe started in a can.

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