Real Food Encyclopedia | Spinach

Culinary historians agree that the birthplace of spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is southwest Asia, with a particular eye on Persia. In fact, it was known as the “Persian green” in China when it arrived from Nepal in the mid 7th century.

By the 10th century, influential physicians were singing spinach’s praises; many point to the renowned Rhazes (aka al-Razi) for the first written documentation of its role in diet and health. By the twelfth-century agronomist Ibn al-Awam, an Arab who lived in Spain, referred to the vegetable as the “prince of leafy greens” in his work.

Spinach also endeared itself to royalty. As the story goes, when teen bride Catherine de Medici married Henry II, King of France in 1533, she shared her love for spinach and declared that any dish containing it would be dubbed “a la Florentine,” a reference to her native city, Florence. The term is still found on menus today.

English settler John Winthrop, Jr., governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, bought “spynadge” seed in 1631, and it was a staple ingredient in 17th century English colonial gardens. Thomas Jefferson planted spinach in his gardens at Monticello as early as 1774 and well into his retirement.

In 1806, the vegetable made its debut in American seed catalogs. And by 1930, around the same time that Popeye the Sailorman stepped into the comics scene (more on him in a bit), Clarence Birdseye, an American inventor, launched Birds Eye Frosted Foods, a line of frozen food. Spinach was one of the debut offerings.

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Fun Facts about Spinach:

  • In the 1920s, the vegetable had a terrible image problem in the U.S. It was the brunt of the joke in a 1928 New Yorker cartoon that became legendary.
  • Another cartoon character would help its consumption in the early 1930s increase by 30 percent. Popeye the Sailorman ate spinach by the can for strength to fight on behalf of his lady love, Olive Oyl, saying “I’m strong to the finish ’cause I eats me spinach,” forever connecting it with vitality.
  • The town of Crystal City, Texas, hitched a wagon to Popeye’s star, proclaiming itself the “Spinach Capital of the World,” with the launch of an annual spinach festival in 1936. The following year, spinach growers, with the blessing of comic strip creator E.C. Selgar, commissioned a statue of Popeye that was erected across from the city hall. In 1946, Del Monte Foods opened a production facility in the town, and has been canning it there ever since.
  • In 1987, Alma, a small town in western Arkansas, decided that it too was the “Spinach Capital of the World.” After all, it was the home of Allens Vegetables, where more than half of all U.S. canned spinach was processed. Every April since 1987, Alma hosts an annual festival and has also commissioned its own Popeye statue, as well as a water tower declaring its world-class stature.

What to look for when buying spinach

Leaves will either be very crinkly, somewhat crinkly or flat and smooth. Flat-leaf varieties tend to have a thin stem; the crinkly kin possess a more fibrous and thicker stem.

It’s okay if your bunched spinach is loaded with grit, but it’s not okay if your purchase is starting to yellow or smell sour. You want green leaves and stems, firm and upright. Take a pass on anything flabby or mushy.



Conventionally grown spinach has some of the highest levels of pesticide residue among supermarket produce, according to the Environmental Working Group and its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. With a number two ranking, spinach makes the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Plus list (a list EWG created to single out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues).

Conventional spinach has had its share of food safety woes as well. In 2006, a massive E. coli outbreak that resulted in three deaths and more than 200 confirmed illnesses in 26 states was associated with packaged baby spinach. In the years since, there have been several additional spinach-related outbreaks, including in 2012 when 20 people in fell ill in New York State after eating a spinach and spring mix blend.

We recommend buying locally when possible, inquiring about production methods and above all, washing all leafy greens thoroughly, especially when consuming them raw.


Although available year-round in supermarkets, it is naturally a cool-weather crop, which means that fall and spring are its peak seasons. It cannot tolerate extreme cold or heat.


China leads world production, followed by the U.S. and Japan. California is the top producing state, both for fresh spinach and “spinach for processing” (i.e., canned and frozen spinach). Arizona, New Jersey and Texas are other major spinach states.

Eating Spinach


Those tender leaves are vulnerable to decay. Unlike chard, kale and other green leafy friends, bunched spinach keeps, at the most, for a few days in the refrigerator crisper. Moisture is a villain, so dump accumulating water from produce bags and keep it unwashed until ready to use. Pre-washed spinach in bags and containers will keep for up to a week, but that’s no reason to get complacent.


Pro tips:

  • Bunched spinach is notoriously gritty, so thorough washing — rather than a quick rinse — is a critical first step before cooking. Pre-washed spinach sold in bags and plastic containers should be rinsed under running water.
  • To clean gritty spinach: Trim the root ends, which often are loaded with sand and dirt. Place a large bowl in the sink, add the greens and fill with cold water until the greens are barely covered. Gently swish the greens once or twice, then lift out of the bowl. Empty the water and rinse out any lingering dirt at the bottom of the bowl. Repeat, until there is no evidence of dirt; this could take at least three cycles.

For salads and other raw preparations, we suggest using flat-leaf spinach, or young “baby” spinach, which are both tender and slightly sweet. Curlier varieties sometimes can be fibrous, so if using raw, cut into ribbons or smaller pieces.

When cooking, do you boil, or not? There are varying schools of thought on the matter.  Many cookbook authors — Nigel Slater, Jack Bishop and Deborah Madison, among them — recommend transferring just-washed spinach to a saucepan, using just the residual water that clings to the spinach leaves for a quick wilt. The argument is that fewer soluble vitamins are lost compared to spinach cooked in rapidly boiling water. Nigel Slater also suggests dipping greens into leftover still-boiling pasta water with a slotted spoon for 30 seconds.

But others argue that boiling helps reduce the amount of oxalic acid, which can interfere with calcium and iron absorption.

After you’ve cooked it, doctor it up before serving. Drain the spinach, then place in a skillet with a smidge of your favorite fat — anchovies, bacon, coconut oil, chopped walnuts — for an instant layer of flavor. Dairy fat loves spinach too, making magic in quesadillas, yogurt dips, as well as creamed spinach, the classic steak house side dish.

But remember, spinach is more than 90 percent water and shrinks a lot when you cook it. An average-size bunch of spinach will yield two to three cooked side-dish servings.

Cooking With Less Waste


When life gets in the way of cooking spinach, you can save it from the compost bucket and freeze it. Wash the leaves, then boil for two minutes. Transfer to an ice bath to stop cooking. Drain, then dry in a salad spinner (or blot dry with towels). Pack in freezer-safe containers, date and label, and place in the freezer.


In the nutrient department, spinach has got it all. One cup of cooked spinach contains four grams of fiber and more than five grams of protein, all clocking in at 41 calories.

Exceptionally rich in Vitamins A and K, spinach delivers big time in calcium, potassium, Vitamins B-2 and B-6, Vitamin C and iron. It even has those heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, plus a respectable serving of choline, a B vitamin that supports the nervous system and snuffs out inflammation.

And if the vitamins and minerals weren’t enough to sell you, the vegetable is loaded with disease-fighting phytonutrients called carotenoids that are being studied for their links to cancer prevention.

The caveats: Oxalates, which may be an issue for people with kidney or gall bladder conditions; and purines, which can contribute to excess buildup of uric acid, a potential issue with anyone suffering from gout. In addition, the amount of oxalic acid in spinach is enough to interfere with the calcium benefits from spinach. Consult your medical provider for further details.

Top photo by redhouse/Twenty20.