There are a lot of vegetables that herald the arrival of spring (fiddlehead ferns, ramps, early peas), but If there is one universally loved and easy to find vegetable that shouts “Spring!” the loudest it’s probably asparagus. When those first spears appear in the markets, you know for sure the winter is in the rearview mirror.
What Are Asparagus?
Asparagus are members of a flowering plant family, and the shoots from the plants grow in long slender stalks with a tightly closed bud at the tip. Those are the part of the plant that we buy, cook, and eat.
Different Types of Asparagus
Asparagus varies in color, with green being the most commonly available and popular in the U.S. There is also purple asparagus, and white asparagus, which is very popular in Europe (the whiteness is due to the face that it is grown without any sunlight to prompt photosynthesis). There is also wild asparagus.
Asparagus are harvested from February to June in various locales, with March and April being the prime season in most places.
Where to Find Asparagus
Asparagus pops up in early spring at Farmers’ markets all over the country, but you can also buy it in the market in the produce section.
Different countries grow asparagus at different times of the year, and in some cases it’s grown in greenhouses, so even though it’s a spring vegetable, it can be found at the market pretty much year round. But there is a world of difference between fresh local (or even semi-local) asparagus, and asparagus that has been flown in from some far-flung place.
How to Choose Asparagus
Look for asparagus that are not too dried out at the cut ends (all asparagus is a bit dried at the base where it was cut from the plant). The tips should be tightly closed as well, without any fraying or damage. The stalks themselves should be firm and smooth other than the tiny petal-leaves that emerge. If you see asparagus that looks wrinkled or withered, skip it.
How to Store Asparagus
Think of asparagus as the flowering vegetable that they are. When you get them home, trim off an inch or so from the bottom, and place them in a tall wide glass or vase or measuring cup with a couple of inches of water. Loosely cover the tops with a plastic bag and store in the fridge for 3 to 7 days, depending on their freshness. You can also leave them in a bag in a produce drawer, but they do tend to get a little banged up and age a bit faster.
How to Cook Asparagus
There are so many ways to cook these lovely green stalks. They can star in a side dish, be a supporting member of a skillet meal, hold their own in a vegetable sauté. They can be steamed, boiled, stir-fried, roasted, baked, grilled, broiled – pretty much any way you can cook something, you can cook asparagus (I haven’t tried sous vide yet, but someday I will. Maybe.).
How to Steam Asparagus
You can steam asparagus by putting it on a rack or in a basket suspended over simmering water, in a pot with the lid on. But if you don’t have a steamer apparatus, it’s easy to steam them in a covered pot with just a small amount of water brought to a simmer, just enough to provide the moisture, hence the steam, that you need to cook them through.
How to Boil Asparagus
This can be done by simply including more water in the pot than you would for steaming. I prefer steaming them, as I feel less of the flavor is lost to the cooking water.
How to Blanch Asparagus
Blanching is simply cooking a food briefly in boiling water, and then immediately draining them and plunging them into ice water. Blanching is a quick-cook method, usually used with vegetables, that not only softens the vegetables slightly, but also locks in their color by dunking them right after cooking into cold water. This also stops them from cooking further in the residual cooking heat, also called carryover cooking.
Ice Bath for Asparagus
The simple step of adding an ice bath to your blanching yields great results. If you cooked the vegetables for a couple of minutes and skipped the ice bath they would just soften a bit, and lose a bit of their brightness, but everything would still be a-ok. However, setting up an ice water bath takes very little extra time, and also, the bowl that you use for the water bath can be immediately put to use for something else, like a salad. it really makes a nice difference for asparagus in particular, leaving them as crisp-tender as you like, and a brilliant green.
If your asparagus are very fresh, you can slice them and use them raw in salads, or as part of a vegetable (crudité) platter. Definitely make sure you peel or trim off any tough ends, which will be unpleasant to eat. Check out the farro salad recipe at the end!
Thick Asparagus vs. Thin Asparagus
Thick or thin? Your choice. I think for a while there was something very sexy and desirable and chic about the very skinny asparagus, but really it’s a matter of preference. The thin ones just need the bottom inch or so cut off, cook faster and work nicely in sautéed or stir fried dishes. The fatter ones take longer to cook, but the thickness provides a much more satisfying bite.
How to Trim Asparagus
The most traditional kitchen technique for trimming asparagus is to hold the stalk in the middle and by the bottom end and to bend it until it snaps, removing the woody and fibrous bottom few inches from the stalk. I’m not that big of a fan of this method, I think this wastes more of the edible stalk than necessary, especially if you are preparing thick asparagus.
I prefer to cut off the bottom and then, for thick asparagus, peel the bottoms of the stalks to remove the not-so-pleasant tough outer skin of the spear. For any asparagus, you can just cut the bottom inch or so off the asparagus. Then, for thick asparagus, you simply take a vegetable peeler and peel the green outer layer off from the bottom 3-ish inches of the stalk.
How Long to Cook Asparagus
The answer depends on the thickness of the asparagus, the temperature you are cooking them at, and with some cooking methods, like baking or roasting, how crowded the pan is.
For roasting, the cooking time for thin stalks at 425°F is about 8 to 10 minutes for thin stalks, 10 to 14 minutes for thick stalks. The cooking time depends on the thickness of the stalks, and it really depends on how you like your asparagus cooked. Keep in mind that the asparagus will continue to “cook” after they leave the oven, especially if you leave them on the hot tray. Take them out a just before they are as cooked as you would ultimately like them to be.
Crisp-tender? Tender-crisp? Super soft? For quite a while now it’s been the fashion to eat asparagus and many other vegetables quite al dente; well cooked vegetables have been sneered at as old-fashioned and unchic. And while I think that vegetables cooked into oblivion are not a great thing, I also think you should cook your vegetables to how done you like to eat them. If you and your family are fans of slightly mushy veggies, then you should cook them until they are slightly mushy. You don’t need undercooked vegetables to prove you’re cool.
Is Asparagus Good for You?
Yes! Asparagus is a very nutritious vegetable. It has high doses of vitamin K, antioxidants, fiber, and is also very low in calories.
Now let’s dig into those recipes!
The basics for perfected roasted asparagus every time.
Panko bread crumbs mixed with garlic, Parmesan, olive oil and parley make a lovely crumbly topping for asparagus.
This is a 4-ingredient, 10-minute recipe.
Barely cooked asparagus lend crunch and color to this quintessential pasta salad.
The dressing is vivid with citrus and a bit (not too much!) of hot sauce.
Raw asparagus may seem surprising, but if the asparagus is very fresh it adds a wonderful delicate asparagus flavor, and a nice crunch. This is a great, portable vegetable and grain salad, perfect for a potluck or a picnic, or to pack for a work lunch.