Human genetic and in vivo animal studies have helped to define the critical importance of podocytes for kidney function in health and disease. However, as in any other research area, by default these approaches do not allow for mechanistic studies. Such mechanistic studies require the availability of cells grown ex vivo (i.e., in culture) with the ability to directly study mechanistic events and control the environment such that specific hypotheses can be tested. A seminal breakthrough came about a decade ago with the documentation of differentiation in culture of primary rat and human podocytes and the subsequent development of conditionally immortalized differentiated podocyte cell lines that allow deciphering the decisive steps of differentiation and function of 'in vivo' podocytes. Although this paper is not intended to provide a comprehensive review of podocyte biology, nor their role in proteinuric renal diseases or progressive glomerulosclerosis, it will focus specifically on several aspects of podocytes in culture. In particular, we will discuss the scientific and research rationale and need for cultured podocytes, how podocyte cell-culture evolved, and how cultured podocytes are currently being used to uncover novel functions of podocytes that can then be validated in vivo in animal or human studies. In addition, we provide a detailed description of how to properly culture and characterize podocytes to avoid potential pitfalls.