Ingredient Intelligence

What’s the Difference Between Curly, Tuscan, and Russian Red Kale?

updated Sep 20, 2022
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Kale seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of green. For some, the curly leaves speak of raw salads, hearty bean soups, and green smoothies to come. For others … not so much. Or maybe you just need the right dish to make you fall in love.

Kale is a proud member of the cabbage family, which accounts for its rather strong, forward flavor that borders (and sometimes tips over into) bitterness. It grows in a bunch with the leaves fanning out from a central stem and with a rib running down the middle of each leaf. Those edible leaves vary in color from light green to nearly purple depending on the variety, although they are universally coarse, thick, and fairly tough.

How to Cook Kale

To prepare kale, cut out the center rib and chop the leaves into ribbons or bite-sized pieces. That center rib is edible, although fairly fibrous. Treat it like celery and chop it into bite-sized pieces to cook with a soup recipe or a sauce. The leaves can be eaten raw, sautéed until wilted, simmered with a soup, or even roasted until crisp.

There seems to be a sweet spot during cooking when the bitterness recedes and the kale’s sweeter character comes through. Overcooking makes the kale taste overly bitter and decidedly off-putting.

Here are the three most common varieties of kale you’ll see at the farmers market and grocery store. The differences between curly, tuscan, and Russian red kale comes down to the color, bitterness, and even shape of the leaves.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

1. Curly Kale

Curly leafed kale is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of kale. The bright-green leaves are sometimes curled so tightly it can be hard to chop them. This kind of kale tends to have a bright, peppery flavor that can become quite bitter.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

2. Tuscan Kale

Tuscan kale goes by many names. Among them are dinosaur kale, cavolo nero, and black kale. This kale has longer spear-like leaves with a pebbled appearance and a dark, mottled green color. Its flavor is deep and earthy — it’s less bitter than curly leafed, with an almost-nutty sweetness.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

3. Russian Red Kale

I’ve also seen a third kind of kale, Russian Red, popping up here and there at farmers markets and the more gourmet natural food stores. This kale has flat, fringed leaves that resemble oak leaves or large arugula leaves. The few times I’ve had it, I’m reminded of the outer leaves of a cabbage. They’re sweet and mild but with an edge of pepperiness.

5 Great Kale Recipes to Try

What dish made you fall in love with kale?