Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a member of the beet family that was domesticated in central Asia, and is most productive in the cool seasons (heat and long days cause it to go to seed while it has relatively few leaves). In the late Middle Ages the Arabs brought it to Europe, where it soon displaced its smaller-leaved relatives orache and lamb’s-quarters, as well as amaranth and sorrel. In the classic cuisine of France, spinach was likened to cire-vierge, or virgin beeswax, capable of receiving any impression or effect, while most other vegetables imposed their taste upon the dish. Today it’s the most important leaf vegetable apart from lettuce, valued for its rapid growth, mild flavor, and tender texture when briefly cooked. (Some varieties are tender when raw, while thick-leaved varieties are chewy and less suitable for salads.) When cooked, its volume is reduced by about three-quarters. Spinach has a high content of potentially troublesome oxalates, but it remains an excellent source of vitamin A as well as of phenolic antioxidants and compounds that reduce potential cancer-causing damage to our DNA. Folic acid was first purified from spinach, which is our richest source of this important vitamin.