Grown and used since ancient Roman times, arugula was first used as a medicinal herb and aphrodisiac. The leafy green is now popular in Italian cuisine and is grown and eaten around the world. The leaves tend to be deep green in color with deep notches up and down both sides. Some leaves have full, round ends while others are more pointy. Arugula is frequently eaten raw as a salad green but can also be enjoyed cooked in a variety of dishes.
What Is Arugula?
Even though arugula appears frequently in spring salad mixes, it is actually a member of the cabbage and mustard green family. This explains its signature peppery bite, prized by chefs and home cooks alike. Also known as rocket, rucola, and roquette, the green can be found year-round but is in peak season in the early spring and fall. It’s quick and easy to prepare and, while it’s more expensive than plain old lettuce, affordable.
How to Use Arugula
Arugula is often sold in bunches and can catch dirt and sand. Give the leaves a good rinse and dry with a salad spinner. If needed, trim the root ends.
Arugula is frequently served raw in salads. The peppery flavor pairs nicely with other strong flavors like salty cheeses, bright citrus, and more. It’s also used to top cooked pizzas or whirled into pesto. The greens can also be sautéed for a mild side dish or added to soups, pasta, and other dishes.
What Does It Taste Like?
Arugula has a peppery, spicy, and slightly tart flavor. It has a green freshness that makes it a popular addition to salad mixes. The leaves are tender with a crisp stem, much like raw spinach. Cooked, arugula also resembles the delicate texture of cooked spinach. The flavor of cooked arugula is more mellow than when raw, with a very light spicy bite.
Arugula can be mixed into salads containing mild lettuces for more flavor and texture or can be used as the base for a punchy salad. An acidic dressing using vinegar or citrus balances out the pepper flavor nicely. The green is also a welcome addition to cooked dishes. When a recipe calls for spinach or escarole, swap in arugula for a little more flavor. We like regular or wild arugula in the potato and sausage soup below.
Arugula is often used to make a peppery fresh pesto sauce. Try replacing half of the basil in the pesto recipe below with fresh arugula.
Where to Buy Arugula
Arugula is sold either by the bunch or as loose leaves, much like spinach. In general, bunched arugula has larger leaves and loose-leaf arugula has smaller leaves. Bagged arugula is often available year-round in supermarkets, with bunches and loose arugula showing up more in the fall and early spring. Small and wild arugula appear at the farmers’ market during these seasons, too.
Look for bright green, perky leaves of a uniform color. Avoid yellowing, damaged, wilted, or excessively moist-looking leaves. A bit of dirt is fine—it is likely the result of recent rain or watering.
If growing arugula at home, plaint in full sun during cool weather. Baby arugula leaves can be harvested in just a few weeks, with full-sized leaves ready in a little over a month.
Wrap bunched or loose arugula in paper towels and store in a plastic bag in the crisper of the refrigerator. The greens will keep for up to two days. Don’t wash until just before using.
Bagged arugula will often keep, unopened, for up to five days. Once opened, use the greens within a couple of days. Cooked arugula will keep for up to three days in the refrigerator. Freezing arugula is not recommended.
Arugula vs. Mizuna
While at the farmers’ market, you may notice a crate of fresh greens labeled mizuna or Japanese mustard greens that look strikingly similar to arugula. Mizuna is commonly used in Japanese cooking and can be prepared in much the same way as arugula—gently cooked or raw in salads. They can sometimes be swapped in recipes, but arugula is more tender when cooked and has a stronger peppery flavor.
The arugula sold in the store tends to be similar varieties with small, tender leaves. Some are rounded at the top, while others have deep notches going all the way up and down the spine, but the overall size and taste are the same. Wild arugula sometimes appears at farmers’ markets in the early spring and fall. The longer, larger leaves tend to be darker green and more intense in peppery flavor. The intensity of wild arugula makes it especially good for cooking since the leaves retain more flavor.