There are two types of people in the world: people who love creamed spinach and people who haven't had good creamed spinach yet. Fortunately, I fall into the former and plan to convert everyone into the latter.
That's because good creamed spinach is nothing like the spinach you find wilting in a buffet tray. Good creamed spinach is pure luxury for your taste buds. It's tender cooked spinach swathed in a gentle sauce of aromatics and fresh spices, with just enough creamy half-and-half and grated Parmesan cheese to hold the leaves together in an irresistibly savory sauce.
Good creamed spinach is a life-changing revelation. Here's how to make it so you won't have to reserve it for steakhouse dinners and holiday feasts.
The Best Spinach for Creamed Spinach
Fresh baby spinach is best for making creamed spinach. Because it is already tender and less bitter than full-grown spinach, it requires less cooking and adds a creaminess to the finished dish. I also prefer to use baby spinach, as most bagged varieties are 10 ounces, which is the perfect amount for this recipe. If you've got full-sized leaves, feel free to use them — just chop them into bite-sized pieces before preceding.
Spinach shortcut: Thaw a 10-ounce package of frozen spinach and drain well. Make the cream sauce and add the thawed and drained spinach until heated through.
Cooking the Spinach for Creamed Spinach
The spinach for creamed spinach needs to be cooked before making the cream sauce. Blanching, a quick dip in a boiling water followed by a cool ice bath, is the preferred method for locking in color and tenderizing the spinach. You could sauté or even steam the spinach, but I've found that blanching cooks faster and more evenly — especially if you are cooking a large batch of spinach.
However, since both the boiling and the ice bath make the spinach wet, this moisture needs to be squeezed off to ensure a creamy, not watery, creamed spinach. Use the same colander you drained the spinach in to press out the excess moisture before adding the spinach to the cream sauce.
Do I really have to cook the spinach first? The short answer is "yes." You might be thinking, "Oh, the spinach will just wilt in the cream sauce, I don't really need to cook it first!" Unfortunately, having thought the same thing myself, I have found the cooking and draining of the spinach before making the cream sauce to be critical. The spinach releases more water than you might think and makes a soupy, rather than creamy, sauce.
No Cream in Creamed Spinach
You were expecting cream in this recipe or maybe even cream cheese, but both of these ingredients make for a dense, rather than smooth and creamy, creamed spinach. Instead, a combination of half-and-half and grated Parmesan cheese — both thickened with the help of a little flour — combine to make a sauce that is both luxuriously creamy and still light. You could certainly try another hard, salty cheese here such as Pecorino Romano or an aged Manchego if you have either of those on hand.
As for the other flavorings, onions and garlic are quintessential creamed spinach aromatics, but you can play around a bit with the dried spices. I love a little nutmeg (brings out the nuttiness of the cheese), and the dry mustard and cayenne make the dish taste brighter with their touch of acidity, but you can certainly skip or substitute any of these as desired.
How To Make Creamed Spinach
What You Need
10 ounces baby spinach
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons grated onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Measuring cup and spoons
Cook the spinach: Bring a 4-quart pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spinach in large handfuls until all the spinach is added, and cook for 15 seconds.
- Drain and cool the spinach: Drain the pot of spinach in a colander in the sink and immediately run the spinach under cold water to halt the cooking. Shake as much of the water off the spinach as you can by shaking the colander.
- Dry the spinach: Using your hands, press the spinach against the sides of the colander in large handfuls, squeezing to remove as much excess moisture as possible. Set aside to drain further while making the cream sauce.
- Make the cream sauce: Melt the butter in a medium frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook for 1 minute. Sprinkle the flour over the onion mixture and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Stir in the half-and-half. Cook the mixture, stirring slowly and continuously, until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens enough to coat the back of the spatula, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking until the sauce is thickened, about 2 minutes more.
Add the cheese and spinach: Stir in the cheese, nutmeg, mustard, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Add the spinach and mix well. Keep warm over very low heat.
- Spinach shortcut: Instead of blanching fresh spinach, thaw a 10-ounce package of frozen spinach and drain well. Make the cream sauce and add the thawed and drained spinach until heated through.
- Make ahead: You can make the creamed spinach up to 1 day ahead. Press plastic wrap or parchment paper directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. When ready to proceed, remove the plastic wrap and reheat over low heat until it just begins to bubble.
- Storage: Store leftover creamed spinach in the fridge for up to three days. Reheat gently over low heat.