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The phrase “nettle soup” applies to almost any broth-based soup made with boiled stinging nettles. Stinging nettles are herbs with the scientific classification Urtica dioica. They are consumed much less frequently than most other herbs but are nonetheless renowned for many health benefits. Nettle soup is a popular nettle preparation because the nettles lose most, if not all, of their sting in boiling.
Stinging nettles are originally believed to have originated in Northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region. Most nettle soup recipes are variants of soups traditionally made in these cultures, though nettles grow wild throughout much of Europe, Asia, and North America today. Nettle soups are relatively easy to adapt, and cooks often add their own twists and ingredients.
In its most traditional from, nettle soup requires little more than water, chives or green onions, and butter. The nettles must be boiled briefly to reduce their sting and are then drained and mashed with the chives or green onions to make a paste. That paste is sautéed in butter, then re-boiled in the original liquid to make a rich broth. Soup made in this fashion is typically referred to as Swedish nettle soup and is frequently served with soft boiled eggs.
More modern versions of the soup are often cream or milk based and are typically pureed to make a cream of nettle soup. Potatoes, yellow onion, and leek are common additions. Many cooks use nettle as they would any leafy green. The taste of nettle is often compared to spinach, and cooks often cook nettles and spinach interchangeably in soups and other dishes.
One of the biggest differences between nettles and most any other plants is its sting. Nettle leaves are covered in small “hairs” that contain a chemical compound. When these hairs come into contact with the skin, they can leave a rash and often cause a burning sensation. Many herbalists and natural medicine practitioners believe that ingesting small quantities of this compound can have beneficial consequences.
Much of the chemical’s potency is dulled in the boiling required to make nettle soup. Soups nevertheless preserve the nutrient content of the leaves, however, which are rich in vitamins and antioxidants. Most nettle soup recipes call for no more than a pound (about 0.5 kg) of fresh nettles, which is widely recognized to be a safe amount for regular consumption.
Nettle soup is often a very economical dish to prepare, as nettles grow wild in most places. They are often one of the first plants to break through the snow packs at the start of spring. If left alone, nettles will bloom in early summer, but young plants are usually best for nettle soup. Most recipes call for only the top third or so of a new nettle stalk’s leaves.
It is sometimes possible to find nettle in grocery stores, but this is rare in North America. Some farmers sell stinging nettles in bundles at farmer’s markets, and herb farms sometimes grow it, as well. Handling fresh nettles can be problematic because of their sting. Most nettle vendors wear gloves when handling the herb, and nettles are usually packaged tightly in plastic to prevent any skin contact.