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6 Stinging Nettle Recipes for a Superfood-Filled Spring

6 Stinging Nettle Recipes for a Superfood-Filled Spring

Posted by Ingrid Bauer, MD, MS on Apr 8th 2021

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica and other species) are among the most ubiquitous and useful medicine, food, and fiber plants found throughout the world. Originally native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa, nettles have been used for thousands of years for a wide range of purposes. Easy to grow and abundant in many wild places, Urtica spp. offer a diverse toolkit for humans and play an important ecological role as fodder for butterflies and many other creatures. Let’s explore the folkloric, medicinal, and culinary roles of nettle (along with some delicious recipes!).

Growing & Harvesting Nettles

Urtica is a dynamic genus in the Urticaceae family that includes two primary species: U. dioica (a perennial dioecious herb) and U. urens (an annual weed). Among Urtica dioica, the North American subspecies are actually monoecious, meaning that male and female parts grow on the same plants. U. dioica spreads primarily via the spread of tough yellow rhizomes, although it also produces abundant seeds. It flourishes in moist, nitrogen-rich soils, which means it does quite well in agricultural run-off and roadside areas that may be contaminated with petrochemicals and heavy metals.

Nettle is easy to propagate by dividing pieces of the rhizome, or it can also be planted by seed (though the germination rate is low). It flourishes in rich, irrigated garden soil in partial shade. It has square stems and opposite leaves, and upon emergence looks quite like a plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae). However, the stems and leaves are coated with tiny hairs that contain formic acid, acetic acid, acetylcholine, and other irritants that induce pain, burning, and itching in the skin. Nettles’ sting can be lessened by applying a paste of baking soda to the irritated area, but consider planting nettles in a garden patch away from where kids (and pets) might play to avoid unpleasant encounters!

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When harvesting nettles, make sure to do so in the mid- to late-spring before the plant goes to flower. Wearing long sleeves, pants, and thick gloves, snip the top foot or so of the stem containing the greenest leaves. If wildcrafting, make sure the soil is not contaminated, and leave plenty for other humans and especially for the insects. To dry the nettles, tie a few stems together in a bundle and hang upside down in a well-ventilated shady area. To process the leaves fresh, strip off the stem and make into a tincture, infused vinegar, or any number of tasty and nutritious recipes (see below!).

Nettles in European Folklore

Nettles are well entwined in European fairy tales and common sayings dating back to Greco-Roman times. Irish saints were said to have subsisted on nettle teas during fasting. On the other hand, nettles have sometimes been associated with desolation, as they are often found growing in the rich soil of abandoned homesteads. Their sting was also used as a form of self-punishment intended to cool the flames of desire.

In German, the phrase “to sit in nettles” means to get in trouble. In Dutch, “a nettle situation” is a prickly predicament. In French, the saying “don’t push grandma in the nettles” means be careful not to abuse a situation. A famous Aesop fable recounts:

A Boy, stung by a Nettle, ran home crying, to get his mother to blow on the hurt and kiss it. "Son," said the Boy's mother, when she had comforted him, "the next time you come near a Nettle, grasp it firmly, and it will be as soft as silk." The moral is: Whatever you do, do with all your might.

(While Aesop’s fable suggests that the underside of nettle leaves may be less painful, I haven’t found any part of the plant to be soft as silk!) As a child, I preferred the story of the Six Swans (published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812), which recounts the story of a girl who must weave six tunics out of nettle fibers to turn her brothers from swans back into humans. I imagined her sitting for six years in silence, her hands burning with nettle stings, as she worked tirelessly to save her family.

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Medicinal Benefits of Nettles

Nettle leaf infusion has traditionally been used across the globe as a diuretic, blood tonic, astringent, uterine tonic, inflammation mitigator, and for alleviating seasonal allergy symptoms.

NETTLE FOR PMS, PREGNANCY & NURSING

Michael Moore heralded nettle tea as an excellent diuretic useful in leg swelling, premenstrual bloating, gout, and inflamed skin conditions “...particularly when the problem is aggravated by anxieties, freak outs, or really bad food (and combinations thereof).” Moore also recommended nettle internally for bleeding, whether due to irritation in the gastrointestinal tract or excessive uterine bleeding—which coincides with its reputation as a uterine tonic. Many herbalists combine nettle with raspberry leaf as a nutritive, womb-strengthening brew during pregnancy. Post-partum, nettle also has a reputation for building blood and promoting lactation.

NETTLE FOR ALLERGIES

Nettle leaf has a reputation for reducing symptoms associated with seasonal allergies, likely through the inhibition of the inflammatory pathways associated with hayfever. A trial of 69 people treated with 600 mg of freeze-dried nettle leaf showed that over half reported significant relief from seasonal allergy symptoms. Nettle leaf combines well with other herbs that reduce sinus irritation, such as ambrosia, goldenrod, yerba santa, and yarrow (all found in our Clear Passage Tincture formula) or the Asian medicinals found in the traditional Chinese formula Bi Yan Pian.

NETTLE FOR URINARY TRACT & PROSTATE HEALTH

The German Commission E approves nettle leaf as a supportive therapy for lower urinary tract infections and the prevention of kidney stones. Contemporary research and practice suggests that nettle root may promote a healthy prostate and reduce lower urinary tract symptoms associated with prostatic enlargement. Nettle root compounds may interfere with the effects of testosterone and inflammation on the prostate, thus combatting enlargement and urinary obstruction. Multiple placebo-controlled trials focused on prostate health have demonstrated safety and efficacy of products including nettle root (with or without saw palmetto fruit, or Pygeum africanum, bark) including non-inferiority to alpha-1 antagonists (tamsulosin) and aromatase inhibitors (finasteride).

NETTLE FOR JOINT HEALTH & INFLAMMATION

Topically, the stinging action of nettle has long been used to address discomfort in the joints. Roman soldiers were said to have flagellated themselves with fresh nettles to shoo away pain, and in Latin America, “urticarse” (to hit oneself with nettle) is a traditional remedy for arthritis. Topical creams using nettle leaf extract may provide a less painful yet still beneficial treatment for joint pain. 

6 Stinging Nettle Recipes

With a flavor similar to spinach but nuttier, slightly spicy undertones and a richer texture, nettles are one of my favorite spring vegetables. As a bonus, nettle is the original superfood! Rich in protein (25% by dry weight), chlorophyll, iron, vitamin A, C, potassium, manganese, and calcium, nettle makes a superb fresh vegetable, and is also wonderful as a powder for green smoothies and toppings.

Make sure to eat nettles before they go to flower or seed, or the leaves become gritty and may irritate the urinary tract. Use gloves to handle nettles during preparation, and blanch before using in recipes!

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1. CLASSIC NETTLE TEA

The most simple of herbal preparations involves steeping plant material in hot water to create an infusion (or “tea”). Infusions are an excellent way to enjoy nettle’s nutritional benefits, and they can be surprisingly refreshing as well! For a brighter flavor, combine with mint, lemon balm, or lemon verbena, or for a warmer and more stimulating brew, add a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme. Note that nettle tea has a rapid diuretic effect, so avoid consuming before bed if you want a good night’s rest. For the same reason, be cautious if you take medications for blood pressure or water retention, which may cause additive effects when combined with nettle infusion.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp. dried nettle leaf (or ½ cup chopped fresh leaf)

Directions

  1. Bring water to a boil in a non-reactive kettle or pan.
  2. Add nettle leaf to water, cover, and let steep for 5 minutes.
  3. Strain out leaves and drink hot or cool.

2. NETTLE OXYMEL RECIPE

An oxymel is a shelf-stable honey and vinegar herbal infusion that has been part of folk medicine for centuries (and likely longer). Enjoy a spoonful of this nettle oxymel straight or mixed into tea to ward off complaints during pollen season, or when you need an extra dose of nutritive support. For more on the benefits of oxymels, Lung Support Oxymel post!

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. nettle tops (leaves and tender stems)
  • 750 mL raw apple cider vinegar
  • 250 mL raw honey

Directions

  1. While wearing gloves, clean and finely chop nettles and transfer to a ½ gallon glass canning jar.
  2. In a separate glass jar, combine room-temperature vinegar and honey and stir periodically until honey is dissolved.
  3. Pour honey and vinegar mixture into the first jar until nettles are covered with liquid, ensuring all plant matter is submerged (to avoid mold). Secure lid.
  4. Store in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks, shaking every few days.
  5. Strain out leaves and store liquid in dark glass jars with airtight lids for up to 6 months (or longer in the refrigerator).

3. NETTLE SYRUP RECIPE FOR A HEALTHY GLOW

This fortifying syrup nourishes the blood, skin, and hair. It is great to use during times of stress, after menstruation or a prolonged illness, while breastfeeding, or any time the body needs an extra boost (for a ready-made version, try the Strong Woman Syrup available in our shop). Talk to your doctor about this formula if you have excess iron stores, liver or kidney disease, coagulation problems, if you take blood-thinners, or if you are pregnant.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. fresh nettle tops (or 4 oz. dry)
  • 2 oz. dried dang gui root
  • 2 oz. dried milky oat tops (or ¼ lb. fresh)
  • 2 oz. dried burdock root (or ¼ lb. fresh, approximately 1 large root)
  • 1 oz. dried horsetail (or 2 oz. fresh)
  • 2 oz. prunes and/or raisins
  • 1 gallon (4 L) water
  • 1 cup blackstrap molasses
  • (Optional) ~ 2 Tbsp. citric acid

Directions

  1. Combine herbs, dried fruit, and water in a non-reactive (stainless steel or ceramic-lined) pot and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat and simmer on low heat at least two hours, or until water level has dropped to about half.
  3. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain out herbs, pressing through cheesecloth to capture all the liquid.
  4. While liquid is still warm (not hot), add molasses and stir until dissolved.
  5. Transfer to glass jar and store in refrigerator for up to 1 month.
  6. (Optional): To extend shelf life, add a tablespoon per quart of citric acid, or preserve with alcohol. To do this, measure final syrup volume and add 50% of that volume of your favorite standard ABV liquor (brandy or vodka works well), to create a syrup that is 20% pure ethanol by volume. For example, if steps 1-4 resulted in 2 liters of syrup, you would need to add 1 liter of 40-proof alcohol to approach a 20% alcohol syrup.

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4. NETTLE SPANAKOPITA RECIPE

A local twist on a Greek favorite, this dish never ceases to dazzle our taste buds!

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 lb. fresh nettle leaves, removed from stem (either U. dioica and U. urens will work)
  • 2 Tbsp. + ½ cup oil or butter (divided)
  • 1 lb. fresh spinach or chard, coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • 8 oz. feta cheese
  • 1 package phyllo dough (gluten free is available)
  • 12 in. x 18 in. baking dish, 2 inches deep

Directions

  1. Bring water to a boil in a non-reactive pot.
  2. Add nettles to water and boil for 5 minutes to blanch, then transfer leaves to a colander to drain.
  3. While nettle leaves cool, heat 2 tablespoons butter or oil in a skillet and saute garlic and chard, stirring until leaves are coated and slightly wilted.
  4. Add nettles and stir.
  5. Add a few pinches of salt, stir, cover and let cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. When the vegetables are soft but not too mushy, turn off heat and let cool.
  7. Meanwhile, crumble feta and melt butter (if using oil, no melting needed).
  8. Lay out filo dough sheets across two slightly damp kitchen towels. When all ingredients are ready, prepare a 12 in. x 18 in. baking dish (2 inches deep) by brushing butter/oil liberally onto the bottom of pan using a pastry brush.
  9. Lay the first sheet of phyllo dough into the bottom of the pan, brush with more butter, and then layer on another sheet.
  10. Continue brushing and layering phyllo dough to create a stack of 10 sheets in the pan.
  11. Spread greens mixture evenly over layered phyllo dough (leave any excess liquid in skillet).
  12. Sprinkle feta cheese evenly over the greens layer.
  13. Top greens and cheese layer with another sheet of phyllo dough, brushing with butter and repeating until at least 5 dough layers thick. Brush top layer with butter.
  14. Cover with foil and bake at 350° F for 20 minutes, then remove foil and bake another 10 minutes to brown.
  15. If desired, sprinkle with dried nettles and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil to serve.

5. NETTLE GOMASIO RECIPE

Gomasio is a traditional Japanese topping made by toasting sesame seeds with sea salt, then grinding coarsely. As a child, this was one of my favorite kitchen chores. I loved the nutty aroma of the sesame seeds and the texture of the wooden mallet grinding around the suribachi (the Japanese version of a mortar and pestle). Powdered nettles, sea vegetables, and aromatic herbs give an added nutritive kick to this classic recipe that tastes great on top of rice, soba noodles, roasted vegetables, or a cup of hot bone broth or vegan broth.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup raw, unhulled sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbsp. sea salt
  • 1 Tbsp. ground or finely shredded nori, kombu, and/or wakame
  • 1 Tbsp. dried nettle powder
  • ½ Tbsp. dried thyme
  • ½ Tbsp. dried sage
  • ½ Tbsp. dried rosemary

Directions

  1. In a cast iron pan, toast sesame seeds and salt on medium heat until a few seeds start to pop.
  2. Turn off the heat and transfer mixture to a mortar, suribachi, or food processor, then add seaweed and herbs.
  3. Using a pestle or food processor, grind mixture coarsely, leaving about half the sesame seeds intact.
  4. Store in a sealed glass jar, ideally on your table or counter where you can use as often as desired.

6. NETTLE SAAG RECIPE

Nettles make a good substitute for or addition to spinach (saag) or Swiss chard in almost any dish. This tasty Indian-inspired recipe creates a creamy vegetable dish that goes well with dahl (lentil soup) and rice or chapati.

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 lb. fresh nettle leaves, removed from stem (either U. dioica and U. urens will work)
  • 4 Tbsp. ghee, olive oil, or coconut oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped (or substitute 1 tsp. asafoetida powder)
  • 1 inch fresh ginger root, finely chopped
  • 1 small jalapeno or serrano pepper, finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp. turmeric root powder
  • 1 tsp. coriander seed powder
  • 1 tsp. cumin seed (whole)
  • 1 lb. fresh spinach or chard, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup cream of choice: heavy whipping cream, crème fraiche, coconut cream, or other non-dairy substitute
  • Salt, to taste

Directions

  1. Bring water to a boil in a non-reactive pot.
  2. Add nettles to water and boil for 5 minutes to blanch, then transfer leaves to a colander to drain.
  3. While leaves cool, heat oil in a skillet and sauté garlic, ginger, pepper, and spices.
  4. Add chard and stir until coated in spices.
  5. Add the nettles and stir.
  6. Add a few pinches of salt, stir, and cover. Stir every few minutes, replacing cover after (if needed, add a small amount of water to prevent sticking).
  7. When the vegetables are soft but not too mushy, turn off heat and add cream. Adjust salt and serve warm.

WANT MORE FRESH INSPIRATION?
CHECK OUT THIS DANDELION & NETTLE PESTO RECIPE!

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Written by Ingrid Bauer, MD, MS: With experience that bridges Western and Eastern medicine, Ingrid brings rigorous scientific knowledge to Five Flavors Herbs. A graduate of the UC Berkeley/UCSF Joint Medical Program and the American School of Herbalism in Santa Cruz, CA, Ingrid integrates plant-based medicine into mainstream healthcare. She is passionate about bringing holistic care to people from all walks of life. 

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Sources:

Roschek B Jr, Fink RC, McMichael M, Alberte RS. Nettle extract (Urtica dioica) affects key receptors and enzymes associated with allergic rhinitis. Phytother Res. 2009 Jul;23(7):920-6. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2763. PMID: 19140159.

Mittman P. Randomized, double-blind study of freeze-dried Urtica dioica in the treatment of allergic rhinitis. Planta Med. 1990 Feb;56(1):44-7. doi: 10.1055/s-2006-960881. PMID: 2192379.

Moore, M. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe: Red Crane Books, 1993: p188.

Stansbury, J. Herbal Formularies for Health Professionals Volume 1: Digestion and Elimination. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018: p144.