Collard greens need a gentle, slow, luxurious braise in fragrant liquid (rather like a spa treatment), which makes a slow cooker the perfect vessel and method. With a little work up front and a thoughtful finish, a large slow cooker can yield many servings of velvety greens and brilliant potlikker — plenty for immediate feasting and plenty to freeze for later.
Choose the Right Greens
Braising is ideal for sturdy greens, like collard, kale, turnip, and mustard, but not for flimsier greens, like chard and spinach, which will dissolve into something resembling pond scum. Sturdy greens should have firm, pliant leaves with no yellowing or mushy spots. The stems make up about 25 percent of the total weight, so if you purchase a bag of ready-to-use fresh greens, you will need less.
Wash the Greens Well
Even when they look clean, greens harbor sand and invisible dirt, and there is nothing worse than a mouthful of gritty greens. Collards are easier to stem and cut when dry, and easier to wash afterward. Place the cut collards in the sink and submerge in cool water. Use your hands to gently swish them in the water to loosen any grit or dirt, which will settle on the bottom of the sink. Lift the collards out of the water and let drain. It's fine for some water to cling to them.
Start Strong and Stay Low
The stovetop prep wilts the enormous pile of collards enough to fit into the slow cooker. Set the slow cooker to low; high will cause the collards to boil rather than simmer. You might get there faster, but you won't like where you wind up.
Think of potlikker not as cooking liquid, but as rich, nutritious soup that matters as much as the greens, if not more. Flavorful fat and smoked seasoning meat are critical. Ham hocks are traditional, but they can be hard to find. Good bacon delivers pork flavor, but needs to team up with boney smoked turkey wings to imbue the potlikker with the gelatinous richness of bone broth. You can pull the meat from the turkey wings and return it to the collards at the end of cooking, if you like. However, after hours of cooking, they will have given up most of their flavor, leaving the meat bland and tough. Taste the meat to determine whether it will enhance the collards or detract from them.
After the hours of simmering that render the leaves perfectly tender, the potlikker will need to be refreshed and seasoned to ensure a balance of salt, smoke, spice, subtle sweetness, and acid. This is also your chance to customize the potlikker to your personal preference. Check the seasoning each time the collards are reheated and served.
How To Cook Collard Greens in the Slow Cooker
Makes 4 quarts (about 16 to 20 servings)
What You Need
fresh collard greens (4 pounds when stemmed and chopped)
smoky bacon, diced
Bacon fat or vegetable oil, as needed
large onion, finely chopped (about 3 cups)
rich chicken stock, plus more as needed
apple cider vinegar, plus more as needed
packed dark brown sugar, plus more as needed
freshly ground black pepper
crushed dried chipotle chile or red pepper flakes
1 1/2 pounds
smoked turkey wings
6-to 8-quart slow cooker
Stem and chop the greens: Use your hands to strip the leaves off the stems. Discard the stems and any yellowed or mushy leaves. You should wind up with around 4 pounds of leaves. Working the batches, stack about 10 leaves. Starting on a long side, roll the stack into a cylinder, and cut it crosswise to make ribbons that are 1-inch wide.
Clean the collards: Wash the collards and let drain until needed.
Cook the bacon: Cook the bacon in a large pot over medium-high heat until rendered and browned, about 8 minutes. Tilt the pot to pool the fat. If there is less than 1/4 cup, add more bacon fat or oil to make up the difference.
Cook the onion: Add the onion and salt. Cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the stock and seasoning: Stir in 6 cups of the stock, vinegar, brown sugar, pepper, and crushed chili flakes. Bring to a low boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Wilt the collards: Working in batches, add collards to the pot, gently stirring until they wilt, about 2 minutes. Use a spider, slotted spoon, or tongs to transfer the wilted collards to a large (6- to 8-quart) slow cooker.
Add the turkey legs: When all of the wilted collards are in the slow cooker, add the turkey wings and push them down into the greens. Pour the liquid from the pot into the slow cooker; it should come level with the top of the collards, so add more if needed.
Slow-cook the collards: Cover and cook on LOW for 8 to 10 hours. Do not lift the lid during the first 2 hours of cooking. When done, the collards should be fully tender and velvety. The collards are now cooked, but not finished.
Remove the turkey wings: Remove the turkey wings, taking care to remove any skin and bones that might have slipped off during cooking. You can pull the meat from the turkey wings and return it to the collards, if you like.
Season the potlikker: Taste the potlikker to ensure it is bold and balanced. Stir in salt, pepper, hot sauce, vinegar, and/or brown sugar, to taste. Because it mixes in immediately, it is better to add more heat with hot sauce instead of pepper flakes at this point. Use smoked paprika to enhance the smoky flavor, or add chipotle hot sauce to increase both spice and smoke.
Smoked turkey substitute: Smoked ham hocks can be substituted for the turkey wings.
Storage: Store leftovers into airtight containers and refrigerate for up to 4 days or freeze for up to 3 months.