Watercress is a member of the cabbage family and is a rapidly growing leafy vegetable. When eaten raw it has a fresh peppery taste that brightens virtually any food including salads and sandwiches. It also works well in cooked food like stir-fries; however, the leaves lose some of their pungency once cooked.
If you can't find watercress in the supermarket or it's out of season, then you're going to need a suitable replacement. We've pulled together 10 excellent watercress substitutes which will work in any recipe that calls for the original ingredient. Keep reading to find the right choice for your next meal.
What can I use to replace watercress?
The best alternatives to watercress are arugula, nasturtium, endive, or upland cress. They all have a peppery flavor and a soft leafy texture, ideal for any recipe that calls for watercress. Spinach is a good choice if you are looking for a milder tasting leafy green.
Arugula, also known as rocket, is your best option for replacing watercress in a dish. It has a mild peppery profile and is readily available in most grocery stores. If you're growing arugula at home, then keep in mind that the young leaves have a less intense bite than the mature ones which develop a pungent pepperiness. Arugula leaves that are sold in stores are relatively mild.
Pizza, soup, and pasta all benefit from the addition of arugula. Its leaves are not as crunchy, but they are hardier than watercress; it will tolerate cooking methods such as braising and stir-frying. Watercress tends to turn mushy if it is cooked too long.
2. Nasturtium leaves
Nasturtium, also known as Indian cress or monk’s cress, offers a similar pungent, pepper-like flavor to watercress. Botanists discovered the similarities and decided that the botanical name for watercress should be Nasturtium officinale. This naming reinforces the similarity of the two plants. You can use the leaves in any recipe that calls for watercress and the brightly colored flowers can be used as a garnish for visual appeal.
The biggest challenge of using nasturtium leaves is finding them in-store. It is a seasonal ingredient and most supermarkets won't stock it. Your best option is to try specialty food stores or search online. Another option is to grow this plant at home – it is easy to grow and doesn’t use up a lot of space in the garden.
Tip: Check out our guide to edible flowers to learn how to plate up amazing looking food for that special occasion.
Endives are a part of the chicory plant family and are known for their crisp and pungent bitter profile. They are excellent added to salads for those that like lots of flavor in their food. Once cooked, the punchy flavor softens and it becomes mildly sweet and slightly tart. This is a great option for grilling, roasting, or braising. It withstands the heat much better than watercress. Another similar vegetable to endive which you might want to consider is the less bitter escarole.
4. Upland cress
Upland cress is also known as land cress, American cress, or early yellow rocket. Rather than being a semi-aquatic plant, like watercress, it is grown in dry soil. The leaves have a similar flavor to watercress although they have a stronger peppery bite, similar to arugula. We recommend using this type of cress if you need an ingredient that will hold up well in food, without wilting and turning soft. It will make a better, crisper addition to sandwiches and will retain its texture in cooked dishes.
5. Radish sprouts
Radish sprouts belong to the same family as watercress and have a similar peppery punch. They also have similarly shaped leaves so they can easily fit into salads, sandwiches, or any other recipe you choose.
You may find radish sprouts difficult to find at your local store but they're easy to grow at home even if you don't have a lot of space. Grow them in pots for a nutrient-rich ingredient.
Spinach is included on this list for those that want a completely different option. Not everyone enjoys the peppery taste of watercress and that's where spinach steps in. The raw green leaves have a slightly sweet, mild flavor with a pleasant crunch that is perfect for salads. Once cooked, its texture becomes much softer – the leaves only require a brief cook time.
For those that want their spinach to taste more like watercress then we recommend adding a liberal sprinkling of black pepper.
Purslane can be eaten cooked or raw and is a leafy vegetable that has a slightly salty, sour undertone. Some people find this vegetable a little acrid, similar to arugula. The texture of purslane is crispy and juicy with a water content of 93%.
Use purslane in a wide range of raw applications such as juices, salads, pesto, dips, smoothies, or sandwiches. It is also delicious cooked and can be used in quiches, curries, stir-fries, soups, or stews.
8. Dandelion Greens
Dandelion greens are highly nutritious, well known for their high levels of iron, calcium, vitamins, and minerals. They have a bitter and peppery taste although not as pronounced as watercress.
Select the young leaves if you get the choice because these are the mildest. The mature leaves become very bitter and would be unpleasant eaten raw.
In cooking, dandelion greens are a robust ingredient that can withstand heat well, without turning mushy or breaking up.
Extra reading: Learn more about substitutes for dandelion greens here.
Kale is a member of the Brassicaceae family and it is fairly easy to find in most grocery stores. If you're struggling to find some of the other options on this list then you could use kale in a pinch. It has a stronger bitter flavor with leaves that are tougher in texture.
Some may not enjoy this ingredient used in salads as it can be overpowering. However, it is good in stews and soups and it can withstand longer cooking times as well as high heat cooking like stir-fries.
Radicchio leaves are bitter and spicy and are good for eating raw or cooked. If you choose this option, then your dish will take on a different appearance as the leaves are red with white veins running through. In most cases, the different color won't be a deal-breaker. Having this red shade in your next sandwich or salad shouldn't be a problem for most.
Watercress is a nutritious leafy vegetable that is ideal for adding fresh, bitey flavor to food. If you're looking for a substitute then your best options are arugula, nasturtium, endive, or upland cress. Although they aren't exactly the same in flavor or texture, they will all provide a similar peppery, bitter taste. In some cases, you may find these alternatives are an improvement, with several options holding up better when cooked.
What is your favorite leafy vegetable? Please let us know in the comments below.