If babysitting a pot on the stove is not your idea of a good time, these Slow Cooker Collard Greens with Smoked Turkey are going to need to pay you a visit. Instead of minding a huge stockpot for hours on Sunday or during the holidays, these greens putter away all by their lonesome in your slow cooker. Not only does this recipe free up valuable stovetop real estate, but it also gives you the freedom to chill.
And don’t, for a second, think this method of cooking sacrifices any flavor or tenderness. Nay! NAY, I said! It actually gives you a more consistent result because there are no freak fluctuations or uneven cooking. This may well be your relied upon method for greens-cooking from here on out.
Vegan? I’ve got you covered. Pork-lover? Me too! Mustard or Turnip Greens more your flow? I ain’t mad at that. I’ll include instructions on how to adapt this recipe for all your preferences.
*I originally published this recipe in October 2018. I’ve updated it for clarity and more detailed information and adjusted the recipe to make more pot likker. The images have also been updated because the old ones sucked.*
What are Collard Greens?
I feel like a lot of people associate collard greens with lettuce and salad greens when, in fact, they’re more closely related to broccoli and cabbage. That’s why they tend to have a bitter flavor with firm leaves. Collards grow directly in the ground, as cabbage or lettuce does. This is also why they need to be thoroughly cleaned before cooking. They are a good source of Vitamins A and K. Leaves can grow a couple of feet high year-round, but their season is late autumn and winter. This is when they’ll taste best. They have a bitter flavor, which I offset with the addition of sugar.
Many cultures around the globe eat collard greens. Besides simmered, as in this recipe, my favorite way to eat them is in tandem with the Brazilian dish feijoada. A recipe of black beans simmered with chunks of pork.
Why are collard greens so popular in African-American cuisine?
If you don’t already know, I’m bi-racial. My father is African-American from New Jersey. His South Carolinian parents made the Great Migration, along with 6 million+ others, to the North, and that’s where his, and later on my, story started. Despite my ancestor’s migration from South Carolina to New Jersey, they, like many others, held fast to the foods they grew up eating in the south.
Enslaved peoples and share-croppers in the south were only allowed to grow certain crops to supplement the pitiful rations they and their families were given to sustain themselves. Collards were one of the few foods they were given permission to grow. Later, after abolition, they were allowed to grow them, but they had to pay for the seed to sow them from what were still slave wages. Thankfully (and I say that with dripping sarcasm), collards are a hearty, somewhat easy-to-grow crop. They do well in the winter months and keep pretty well once harvested for longer periods. The result was that they became a staple crop in the African-American diet.
My enslaved ancestors did what they were renowned for and made something epic from a product their enslavers and landlords probably thought was beneath them. Collard greens made by a Black grandmother are incomparable, which is why they have become the fabric of this country’s cuisine.
Hence the reason collard greens became synonymous with African-American cuisine: we perfected them. They sustained us, but they also represent the ingenuity of our culture. We can make amazing things from something bitter and tough. This is true for many cultures that love these greens, but it is why collards greens have become one of the symbols of African-American culture.
What do I need to make Slow-Cooker Collard Greens with Smoked Turkey?
The recipe is made with fresh collard greens, apple cider vinegar, sugar, black pepper, seasoned salt, red pepper flakes, chicken stock, garlic, onion, and smoked turkey wings. I’ll sprinkle swaps and substitutions throughout the post. I’ll also include instructions on converting this recipe to a stovetop version if ease is not your vibe.
Oh! You’ll also need a slow cooker. Along with a cutting board, knife, and spoon, that is all you need for this recipe.
How do I shop for Collard Greens?
Collard greens (as with most broad, leafy greens) are tough if they’re not cooked long enough. You may not think so to look at the thin leaf, but take one bite of hastily-stewed greens, and you’ll figure it out real quick. A pot of tender greens begins in the produce section. I mean, that’s if you’re not lucky enough to have a garden where they’re growing. Which describes me.
Look for dark green leaves with minimal yellowing and insect bites. You want flexible leaves, but not wilted, that come away from the stem fairly easily. When broken, the stem should snap and not bend or feel rubbery.
When deciding how much you need to feed your crew, plan for 1 1/2 bunches per person, or 5-6 pounds. Greens cook down as spinach does, so you will need a good amount to feed your peoples. Get more and double the recipe if you think you want a ton of leftover greens. You’ll definitely need two slow cookers, though.
Can I use bagged greens for this recipe?
Yes. In fact, I often have no choice but to use bagged greens myself. When the craving hits for a pot of greens, I must appease it. It is the law. Sometimes that means greens on the stalk are not in the produce section. Bagged greens are more than okay to use in this recipe. But! Don’t be like some people and assume that, just because they’re bagged, you don’t need to go through the process of sorting and cleaning them. Bagged or not, greens need to be prepped before cooking.
A bunch of collard greens- stems and all usually weigh about 8 ounces. I recommend buying a 5-pound bag because, again, you still have to sort through them.
How do I trim and clean Collard Greens for the Slow Cooker?
This is why I say you have to sort through even bagged greens. Because machines sort the veggies, you sometimes encounter massive pieces of stems or even the plant’s root. Take your time to go through each bag of greens. Discard massive pieces like this, as well as the pieces of stem that are as big as the two in my left hand in the image above. The stem in my right hand (above) is fine. You can compost the stems. I tried to use them in my veggie stock but found they made it too bitter.
I guess buying bunches of collards (unbagged) is easier in this sense because all you need to do is tear the leaves away from the stem. Once the leaves and stem are parted, stack the leaves on top of each other in piles of five. Cut the leaves in half down its length (where the stem was), then roll the stacks of halves up cigar-style. Use a sharp knife to cut the “collard cigars” into 1-inch thick sections and chuck them into a very clean sink or a big bucket.
This white dishpan is my collards-soaking bucket. That’s its sole purpose in life: to hold my greens.
Can I use a different type of greens for this slow cooker recipe?
The two most popular greens next to collards are turnip and mustard. There are others- beet, dandelion, kale, and chard- but I wouldn’t consider using them in this recipe. Mustard and turnip greens are the best subs for this.
Turnip greens look very similar to collards, but their leaves are more tender, taste much sweeter, and have a slightly peppery flavor. I wouldn’t make any changes to the recipe if I were to use turnip greens.
Mustard greens have bright green leaves that look a lot like kale. They taste more like arugula than collards, though, with a peppery, biting flavor. So, if you plan to use them in place of collards, reduce the amount of black pepper in this recipe to 3/4 teaspoons.
You can also use a blend of the three greens in this recipe. Make no changes if you do.
Do I have to soak Collard Greens before putting them into the slow cooker?
I don’t trust people enough not to wash my produce before cooking or eating it.
You need to remove any pesticides sprayed on these greens and get rid of the grit and dirt on them. There’s nothing worse than getting a mouthful of grit when you’re eating greens. And don’t let them taste good!! You’ll be madder than a three-legged dog trying to bury a turd on an icy pond. One of the biggest insults to a Black person is to tell them they didn’t wash their greens well. The other is that their greens aren’t tender. No sir, no ma’am, we’re not doing that here.
To prep your greens, you do soak them, but not for the reason you may think. “Soaking” the greens just loosens the dirt and grit on them. Dump the cut leaves into your immaculately clean sink (or greens bucket). Cover them with 4-5 inches of cold water and agitate the water to shake loose that grit. I like to pretend that I’m “shampooing” the leaves by gently rubbing them between my hands. Not too roughly, but enough to rub off the dirt. This massaging also helps tenderize the leaves. Allow the greens to sit in the water for 5 minutes. This gives that dirt a chance to fall to the bottom of the sink.
Lift the leaves from the water without disturbing the dirt at the bottom of your basin. Empty the sink or bucket, then give it a rinse to remove the dirt. Put the greens back in and repeat the washing process two more times. Yes, even if you bought bagged greens, wash them.
Once the greens are thoroughly cleansed, set them aside. It’s okay if they still have water on them. That will help during the cooking process.
How do I season greens?
Greens need a good dose of salt to flavor them. I kill a bunch of spice birds with one stone by using seasoned salt. Which is another staple in the Black kitchen. Don’t go berzerk adding too much salt too early on, though. I see people on social media adding an insane, blood-pressure-affecting amount of salt, and I cringe. Start with the listed amount and add more at the end to taste. Remember, we still have the cured, smoked turkey (salty) and the chicken stock (which contains salt) to add to the slow cooker. You can always add salt, but you can’t take it away once the collards are cooked.
In addition to the salt, we add crushed red pepper flakes. They give a smooch of spice to the greens. These pepper flakes don’t make the greens spicy, though, so don’t worry about that. If you like spicy greens, you can add more pepper flakes or just wait to add some hot sauce to the finished product.
What makes Greens taste bitter?
Greens are bitter because that’s just the way God made them. That’s the Marta answer. The chemistry answer is because of glucosinolates. Shout out to homeschool chemistry!!
Glucosinolates are a chemical compound found in many dark, green leafy veggies. Broccoli, cabbage, and collard greens all contain this compound of glucosides which contain sulfur. It’s what causes them all to have that bitter flavor.
I add sugar to cut through the natural bitterness of the greens. Now, don’t go wild and add a whole cup of sugar to your greens. Yes, I’ve seen it happen. That’s just a waste of good food. A little sugar is all you need to balance the bitter greens. You shouldn’t attempt to rid them completely of their flavor. The contrast of flavors is what makes for a great pot of greens.
Combine the spices and sugar together to form a spice blend. You can make this spice blend a week ahead and store it in a glass jar in the pantry as well.
Does vinegar make the greens tender?
The acidity in vinegar, along with the long cooking time, is what helps break down the tough, fibrous leaves. I use apple cider vinegar partly because it has more sweetness and because it’s not as harsh as white distilled vinegar. I mean, what’s the point of adding the sugar just to turn around and make it sour with vinegar?
You can replace the apple cider vinegar with red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, or even lemon juice. I would stay away from bold vinegar flavors or balsamic, though.
I add the vinegar to the chicken stock I’m using in this recipe to create the base of my pot likker.
What is “Pot Likker”?
So, for me, pot likker (also spelled potlikker, but never pot liquor) is just as good as a pot of greens. Pot likker is the liquid created in the bottom of the pot after you have cooked your greens. It’s called that because it’s intoxicating like liquor and because it makes you want to lick the pot. I could drink this stuff on its own. It’s just that good.
To make it, though, you need something with flavor. You could use just water, but that’s not living up to your full greens potential. Chicken stock, turkey stock, or even veggie stock is more ideal than plain ol’ water.
Begin layering these components into the slow cooker. Add half of the greens to the slow cooker, followed by half of the spice blend. Sprinkle half of the chopped onions and garlic over the greens, then pour half of the chicken stock-vinegar mix over them.
What kind of meats can I use to flavor my Collard Greens?
Flavorless food annoys the crap out of me, to be quite honest. Don’t talk to me ’bout no, “Just sauté the greens in olive oil!”
Don’t play with me.
I use smoked turkey wings to inject even more flavor into my greens (legs or necks or tails will also work). Smoked ham hocks are what I used to use, but because I always host a variety of people for holiday dinners, I started making them pork-free. If you don’t need to worry about that, feel free to substitute smoked ham hocks or pork necks for the turkey.
Smoked meats transfer their flavor to the greens and add an additional layer of deliciousness to them and the pot likker.
Because I want that flavor to permeate the entire batch of greens, I top the first layer of ingredients with 1 or 2 of the wings.
Is all of this going to fit in my slow cooker?!?
Um… maybe? You definitely need an 8-quart slow cooker for this recipe. If you have anything smaller and can’t buy or borrow a larger one, you may need to take this to the stovetop. This layering step ensures all of the ingredients play nicely together from the start of cooking. If you have one of those massive turkey roasting slow cookers, you can just dump everything in and get to cooking.
After you nestle your wings onto the first layer of the greens, push everything down with your hands to make room in the slow cooker. Then, repeat the layering process with the remaining ingredients.
Your lid may not sit nicely on the greens for the first hour of cooking. You can make a seal by wrapping it with foil, but I find that if I push down on the lid hard enough, it lays on there sufficiently enough to start the cooking process. If your slow cooker is just too full, fit as many of the greens as you can, but make sure all of the other ingredients are in the slow cooker. Start the cooking, then, after an hour of cooking, the greens wilt down enough for you to add the remaining ingredients and for you to put the lid on and seal it completely.
Can I make these vegetarian Slow Cooker Collard Greens?
If you have someone who follows a vegan or vegetarian diet coming to dinner, omit the smoked meat and add 2 tablespoons of tamari (a gluten-free, vegan soy sauce) to mimic its smokiness. You will also substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock.
How long do I need to cook the Greens in the Slow Cooker?
Set your slow cooker’s timer to 8 hours on high and go about your life. Check in every once in a while, and give the greens a stir. This ensures the top layer of greens is getting as much love as the bottom.
After 8 hours, the greens will be swimming in that pot likker and feel tender. A tender green doesn’t offer resistance when you bite into it. If your greens are still tough, simmer them for another hour on high.
How do I make these Collard Greens on the stovetop?
To make this recipe on the stovetop, you need to add a couple of extra steps:
- Add the chicken stock to a 20-quart stockpot with a lid. Next, add all of the turkey wings, onions, and garlic to the pot. Bring the liquid in the pot up to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cover the pot.
- Simmer the turkey wings for 30 minutes to infuse the chicken stock with their flavor.
- Stir the greens, spice blend, and vinegar into the pot. Allow the liquid to come to a gentle boil, then reduce the temperature to medium-low.
- Cover the pot and simmer the greens, occasionally stirring, for 2 hours or until tender.
Not too difficult, but also not as hands-off as the slow cooker method.
Can you overcook Collard Greens?
You would have to try really hard to overcook collard greens. That’s what makes them so great. I prefer to have my collard greens silky soft, so the longer cooking time is ideal for my preferences. Now, I have been known to leave a pot of greens simmering on the stove on low heat for hours and have never been disappointed with the results. That said, you have to check the level of the pot likker to make sure it’s not evaporating too much.
If you prefer collard greens with some chew to them, you can reduce the cooking time in the slow cooker to just 6 hours on high (or 1 hour on the stovetop).
For the sake of the greens, though, don’t cook them on high heat for more than 12 hours. After the greens are tender to your liking, reduce the temperature to warm and leave them heating until you’re ready to serve them.
How do I serve these Slow Cooker Collard Greens?
Once the greens are fully cooked, remove the turkey wings from the pot and allow the meat to cool slightly. Once you can handle them, shred the meat from the bones and stir the meat back into the greens.
Here’s what I love about this recipe- you can either transfer it to a fancy-schmancy serving bowl or serve it directly from the slow cooker (below). These greens are like lasagna or stew in that the longer they sit, the better they taste.
If it’s not the holidays and I’ve made greens, it’s usually so I can eat them on their own with some Cornbread. I do them as a side dish if I’m serving these for Sunday dinner or the holidays.
Spoon them onto your serving dishes with a spoon (not a slotted spoon), so you can get some of that amazing pot likker.
How do I store leftovers?
Allow the greens to cool, then transfer them to a food storage container.
Greens store well in the fridge for up to 5 days. To reheat them, just warm them in a pot on the stove over medium heat until steaming (about 10 minutes). Stir them occasionally to ensure they heat evenly. You can also reheat them in the microwave for 2-3 minutes.
Can I freeze Slow Cooker Collard Greens?
I make these a month before the holidays and freeze them. It’s one of the ways I save time during the busy holiday season.
Transfer the cooled greens to a freezer storage bag and freeze them lying flat. Once they’re frozen solid, stand the flat bag up in the freezer. This takes up less space. The day before you plan to serve them, pull them out of the freezer and allow them to thaw in the fridge. Since they’re fully cooked, they only need to be warmed through. If you’re making these for Thanksgiving, you can warm them up after pulling the Turkey or Pernil from the oven. Just heat them over medium heat on the stove. Give them a stir during their warming period to make they are warmed through.
Give this Slow Cooker Collard Greens with Smoked Turkey recipe a try this weekend, and let me know what you think in the comments below. Don’t forget to pin this recipe to your sides board or holiday meal board, too!
Slow Cooker Collard Greens with Smoked Turkey
- 8-quart (or larger) slow cooker
- 6 pounds (approx. 12 bunches or 2 3/4 kilograms) collard greens or 5 pounds (2 1/4 kilograms) bagged greens
- 1/3 cup (67 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons (28 grams) seasoned salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 cups (500 milliliters) chicken stock
- 1/2 cup (125 milliliters) apple cider vinegar
- 1 large (3 cups or 275 grams) white onion peeled and chopped
- 6 cloves (1/3 cup or 45 grams) garlic peeled and sliced
- 3 pounds (approx. 1 1/2 kilograms) smoked turkey wings or drumsticks
Prep and Wash the Greens
- Tear the collard leaves away from the stem. Once the leaves and stem are parted, stack the leaves on top of each other in piles of five. Cut the leaves in half down its length, then roll the stacks of halves up cigar-style. Use a sharp knife to cut the "collard cigars" into 1-inch thick sections. If you are using bagged greens, sort through each bag and discard pieces of stems that are larger in girth than 1/8-inch.
- Dump the cut greens into a very clean sink (or greens bucket). Cover them with 4-5 inches of cold water and agitate the water to shake the dirt from the leaves. Gently massage the leaves to loosen the dirt and begin tenderizing the greens. Allow the greens to sit in the water for 5 minutes.
- Lift the leaves from the water without disturbing the dirt at the bottom of your basin. Empty the sink or bucket and rinse it out to remove the dirt. Put the greens back in and repeat the washing process two more times. Once the greens are thoroughly cleansed, set them aside. It's okay if they still have water on them.
Layer the Components for Cooking
- In a small mixing bowl, use a spoon or your fingers to combine the sugar, seasoned salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes. Once the mixture is combined set it aside. In a separate bowl, stir together the chicken stock and apple cider vinegar.
- Begin layering the components into the slow cooker by adding half of the greens to the slow cooker, followed by half of the spice blend. Sprinkle half of the chopped onions and garlic over the greens, then pour half of the chicken stock-vinegar mix over them. Top the first layer of ingredients with half the quantity of wings.
- After you nestle the wings onto this first layer of the greens, push everything down with your hands to make room in the slow cooker. Repeat the layering process with the remaining ingredients.
Cook the Greens
- The lid of the slow cooker might not sit snugly on the slow cooker for the first hour of cooking. You can make a seal by wrapping it with foil, or just push down on the lid firmly and cook the greens for an hour. After an hour, the greens will wilt down enough to put the lid on and seal it completely.
- Set your slow cooker temperature to high and cook the greens for 8 hours, stirring every hour from top to bottom to ensure all of the greens cook evenly. This may be messy for the first 2 hours as the slow cooker will be very full.
- After 8 hours, the greens will be swimming in pot likker and will be tender to the bite. A tender green doesn't offer resistance when you bite into it.
- Once the greens are fully cooked, remove the turkey wings from the pot and allow the meat to cool slightly. Once the wings are cool enough to handle, shred the meat from the bones and stir the meat back into the greens.
- Serve with the pot likker as a side dish or as a main course with cornbread.
Swaps and Substitutions
- Replace the collard greens with turnip greens, mustard greens or a combination of the three. No recipe changes are needed if you use turnip greens or the 3-greens blend.
- To use mustard greens in place of the collards, reduce the amount of black pepper in this recipe to 3/4 teaspoons.
- If you like spicy greens, add an additional teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes.
- Replace the apple cider vinegar with red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, or lemon juice. Avoid bold vinegar flavors or balsamic, though.
- Use turkey stock or veggie stock as a substitute for chicken stock.
- Replace the smoked turkey wings with smoked turkey drumsticks, necks or tails.
- Smoked ham hocks or neck bones can be used in place of the smoked turkey wings.
- For vegan or vegetarian Slow Cooker Collard Greens, omit the smoked meat and add 2 tablespoons of tamari (a gluten-free, vegan soy sauce) and replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock.
Tips and Tricks
- When shopping for your greens:
- Look for dark green leaves with minimal yellowing and insect bites.
- Select bunches with flexible, but unwilted, leaves that come away from the stem fairly easily. When broken, the stem should snap and not bend or feel rubbery.
- Plan for 1 1/2 bunches of greens per person, or 5-6 pounds.
- You can make the spice blend ahead and store it in a glass jar in the pantry for up to 6 months.
- If you have a large turkey roaster/slow cooker, you can just dump everything into it and skip the layering step.
- If your slow cooker is just too full, fit as many of the greens as you can, but make sure all of the other ingredients are in the slow cooker. Start the cooking, then, after an hour of cooking, the greens wilt down enough for you to add the remaining ingredients and for you to put the lid on and seal it completely.
- If your greens are still tough after cooking for 8 hours, simmer them for another hour on high.
- If you prefer collard greens with some chew to them, you can reduce the cooking time in the slow cooker to just 6 hours on high (or 1 hour on the stovetop).
- To maintain the integrity of greens, don't cook them on high heat for more than 12 hours. After the greens are tender to your liking, reduce the temperature to warm and leave them heating (up to 3 hours) until you're ready to serve them.
Stovetop Collard Greens
- Add the chicken stock to a 20-quart stockpot with a lid. Next, add all of the turkey wings, onions, and garlic to the pot.
- Bring the liquid in the pot up to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cover the pot. Simmer the turkey wings for 30 minutes to infuse the chicken stock with their flavor.
- Stir the greens, spice blend, and vinegar into the pot. Allow the liquid to come to a gentle boil, then reduce the temperature to medium-low.
- Cover the pot and simmer the greens, occasionally stirring, for 2 hours or until tender.
- Allow the greens to cool, then transfer them to a food storage container.
- Greens store well in the fridge for up to 5 days.
- Warm leftover greens in a pot on the stove over medium heat or in the slow cooker on low until steaming (about 10 minutes).
- Stir the greens occasionally to ensure they heat evenly. You can also reheat them in the microwave for 2-3 minutes.
- Transfer the cooled greens to a freezer storage bag and freeze them lying flat. Once they're frozen solid, stand the flat bag up in the freezer.
- Thaw frozen greens overnight in the fridge.
- They only need to be warmed through since they're fully cooked. Just heat them on low in the slow cooker or in a stock pot over medium heat on the stove. Give them a stir during their warming period to make they are warmed through.