Sautéed spinach is truly one of the simplest and fastest vegetable side dishes to cook for dinner. Or any other meal, including breakfast. Here are a few tips on how to sauté spinach and ideas for crowd-pleasing seasonings and pairings.
Spinach is a dark, leafy green chockful of vitamins and minerals. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (my go-to source for nutrition guidance) named spinach one of the healthiest vegetables you can eat.
That's probably because it offers plenty of Vitamins K and A, magnesium, and good amounts of several B vitamins. And the best part about baby spinach is the leaves cook up in five minutes flat.
In culinary school, when the chef instructor of our seasonally-inspired restaurant taught me how to sauté spinach, he kept the lesson brief:
- Heat pan.
- Add spinach.
- Season with salt.
(I might've looked at him like he was nuts).
But truly, spinach needs no fancy culinary technique or cooking liquid. The leaves give off moisture as they heat up which steams and wilts the greens. A pinch of salt will speed up the process but isn't necessary.
Sautéing spinach with garlic or shallots is a wonderful way to add nuance to an otherwise one-dimensional vegetable dish. But if you simply want pure spinach, skip the first two steps.
- Heat the pan. Heat a medium or large sauté pan of any kind over medium-low heat. Stainless steel, non-stick, and cast iron skillets all work great.
- Sauté aromatic vegetables. In a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or butter, cook minced garlic, shallots, or onions over medium-low heat until they soften and turn translucent. Sprinkle in a tiny pinch of salt to the aromatics as you cook them.
- Add the spinach. Add your fresh or frozen spinach to the pan, a pinch of salt, and turn the heat up to medium. If all of the spinach you want to cook doesn't fit at first, add it in stages as the first leaves in the pot wilt down and space opens up.
- Wilt and cook the spinach. Stir fairly often while the spinach softens and cooks. If the spinach begins to stick, splash a little water or cooking stock in the pan to loosen up the stuck leaves and prevent burning.
- Season well. Season the greens generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper, if you like. A little drizzle of extra virgin olive oil adds great healthy fat. Pastured butter is simply divine.
- Add vegetables with Vitamin C. Spinach naturally contains good amounts of iron. But the type of iron isn't as easily broken down by the body as the type of iron in meat. Bell peppers, tomatoes, and citrus all contain lots of Vitamin C and help unlock the stubborn iron in spinach.
- Cooking frozen spinach. Unlike with fresh spinach, frozen will come with a little excess moisture that needs to simmer off during cooking. This doesn't affect the taste in any way. But give the liquid a few extra minutes to cook away to avoid a soupy side dish.
- Start with more than you think you need. The volume of spinach reduces drastically as it cooks. One bag of fresh spinach serves two adults. So for a family of four or more, I recommend grabbing at least two regular bags of baby spinach leaves, or one large container that's more than 10 ounces. Frozen spinach reduces less in volume than fresh since it's pre-cooked.
Simple sautéed spinach with garlic and a drizzle of olive oil is (of course) a completely plant-based dish. And there are plenty of ways to add more flavor and keep your spinach vegan and vegetarian.
A little butter or olive oil is all the bitter leaves need for balance and a silkier mouthfeel. Minced shallots and garlic add sweetness and a little aromatic excitement. If you eat meat, the salty, fatty, umami of bacon pairs extremely well with bitter spinach. Especially if you need to tempt your people into eating it.
- Bell peppers. Chop or dice any color bell pepper and sauté it first in a little butter or olive oil before adding your spinach to the pan.
- Mushrooms. Mushrooms will add texture and an almost-meaty richness to sautéed spinach. For the best texture, sauté chopped or diced mushrooms in a little oil over medium-high heat before adding the spinach to the pan. Fight the urge to stir, it will prevent the mushrooms from crisping up golden, brown, and delicious.
- Cheese and nuts. Almonds, cashews, and pine nuts add a bit of protein and more fiber and crunch. Any aged, hard cheese is delicious when grated over finished spinach. For a truly creamy side dish, here's how to cream kale, spinach, or any green that tastes straight outta the steakhouse.
- Fresh tomatoes. Especially when they're in season, tomatoes add beautiful color to sautéed spinach and balance out the bitterness with subtlety sweet, tart flavors. Toss in diced tomatoes right at the end of cooking, once the spinach is wilted, soft, and nearly done.
- Korean-style. Sauté minced garlic with the spinach leaves. Then drizzle cooked spinach with toasted sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, a few drops of fish sauce, and garnish with sliced scallions (green onions).
- Bacon, pancetta, or prosciutto. Crisp small pieces of bacon or pancetta in the pan first, then cook the spinach in the rendered bacon fat (you're welcome). Or quickly sauté prosciutto in a small amount of olive oil just until it begins to crisp.
The bitter green is lovely tossed into any pasta dish, beans, or with wild rice for a vegetarian or vegan meal. And if you eat meat, spinach pairs well with a variety of roasted, grilled, or pan-roasted meat and fish.
- Chef Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken
- Pollo Al Chilindron (Chicken with Peppers)
- Easy Stuffed Pork Loin
- Sockeye Salmon
- Roast Beef in a Cast Iron Skillet
Frequently Asked Questions
Spinach is a fast and healthy choice for any meal. The easiest way to sauté spinach with eggs or breakfast meats is to cook it in the same pan. If adding eggs, cook fresh spinach in a little butter or oil over medium heat until the moisture simmers away. Then you can make space in the pan and fry your eggs. Or just pour in your whisked eggs for a scramble. With frozen spinach, you can add it right in the pan at the same time you fry or scramble your eggs. It's pre-cooked and a small amount won't flood the pan with liquid.
To get the longest shelf life out of fresh spinach, discard any wilting or discolored leaves and wrap the spinach in damp paper towels. Then store the wrapped leaves in an airtight container like a glass dish with a lid or plastic food storage baggie.
To freeze fresh spinach leaves you can either blanch them first by dropping them quickly in a pot of boiling water for just a minute. Or simply freeze the fresh leaves in a freezer bag or airtight container. If you choose to blanch your spinach, you may want to squeeze the excess water out with a kitchen towel before freezing.
One spinach lesson I remember clearly from culinary school was courtesy of my nutrition professor. She emphasized the benefits of eating spinach with foods containing high amounts of Vitamin C to unlock all its iron.
So I often toss in mandarin or clementine segments at the end of sautéing my spinach (from a bag of Little Cuties or similar). The juicy orange segments take sautéed spinach from bitter and bland to colorful and delicious. And since the little oranges are super sweet, my tiny humans scarf the spinach right up.
The outsiders in the recipe - shallots, garlic, and clementine segments - are completely optional. To get a quick fix of sautéed spinach, just pour the bag into the pan and let it cook itself.
- About 12 ounces (2 small packages) of baby or frozen spinach, or mature spinach leaves*
- ¼ teaspoon of kosher or flake salt
- 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil or butter
- ½ of a shallot, peeled and minced, optional
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced, optional
- 2 mandarins or clementines, peeled and segmented, optional
- If you are adding garlic or shallots or both, remove the skin and mince them well. The easiest way to mince aromatic vegetables is to first chop them into small pieces. Then run your knife back and forth over the pile with short up and down chopping motions until the pieces are very small.
- Heat a medium or large sauté pan of any kind over medium heat.
- In a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or butter, sauté minced garlic, shallots, or onions until they soften and turn translucent. Keep the heat low enough that the vegetables don't brown too much. Add a pinch of salt to the aromatics as you cook them.
- Add your fresh or frozen spinach to the pan, a pinch of salt, and turn the heat up a little bit. If all of the spinach doesn't fit at first, add it in stages once the first leaves in the pot wilt down and space opens up.
- Stir occasionally while the spinach softens and cooks. If the spinach begins to stick, splash a little water, stock, or broth in the pan to loosen up the stuck leaves and prevent burning.
- Season the greens with a tiny pinch more salt and freshly ground black pepper, if you like. Last, drizzle in a little extra virgin olive oil or mix in a tablespoon or two of butter.
- Store any leftover sautéed spinach sealed in an airtight container for up to a week. Or freeze for a few months.
On Buying Fresh Spinach
The small bags or containers of baby spinach are typically five to six ounces. If you plan to buy bunches of mature spinach, three or four bunches should equal the same amount as two small bags. Peel mature spinach leaves off of the stem and roughly chop them before cooking.
How to Store Fresh Spinach
Right after buying spinach, discard any wilting or discolored leaves and wrap the spinach in paper towels. Then sprinkle cold water on the towels until they are damp. Place the wrapped leaves in an airtight container like a glass dish with a lid or plastic food storage baggie.
On the Nutrition Information
The Nutrition Information below is based on the recipe as written with one small shallot, two cloves of garlic, the segments of two small clementines, and two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
Keywords: spinach, how to saute spinach, sauteed spinach with garlic
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