What Is White Asparagus? (And Why Is it Different from Green and Purple?)

May 24, 2016

After a winter of root vegetables and bread and other wan, white foods, it's no wonder we make such a big deal out of the return of green things to our markets and diets. And yet, every spring, alongside the bundles of long-awaited green asparagus appear spooky-looking white asparagus, like long, thick, pale fingers—not real ones, but the fake witchy ones with the nails you can buy at costume stores around Halloween.

White asparagus may seem sort of faddish, but it's been part of the asparagus eating and growing tradition for hundreds of years (Saveur reports it's been around since the 1600s, when the technique for growing it was first developed)—and aside from how it's grown, it's exactly the same as green asparagus. (Purple asparagus, on the other hand, is a different variety of asparagus entirely, and gets its color from high levels of antioxidants. While grown the same way as green asparagus, it is sweeter and lower in fiber—and thus, more tender.)

Mmm...asparagus. Purple, white and green! We're kind of in love with this stuff. Into the steamer you shall go!

A photo posted by FIELDS China (@fields_lifestyle) on

As veal is to beef, white asparagus is to green asparagus. It's beloved for its tenderness, achieved through its growing method—which happens completely without light. "When they grow it in the field, as the tip sticks its head out of the ground, they cover it with mesh and straw on top," Pat Ahern—a.k.a. Produce Pat—of wholesale supplier Baldor Foods told me. "Asparagus can grow pretty quickly, and they just keep covering it up to keep the light out." This prevents them from photosynthesizing, which in turn prevents them from turning green. And the result is a stalk of asparagus that is tender, sweet-bitter, less grassy-tasting than its green counterpart, and completely white.

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Between its tenderness and laborious growing practices, white asparagus is even more prized (and more expensive) than the first stalks of the green stuff at the market—and you probably won't find white asparagus at American farmers markets, or American-grown asparagus in grocery stores. Pat has never seen it grown in the U.S., likely because of the intense amount of labor; you have to keep covering the stalks with straw or tarps as it grows, and it grows quickly (as fast as 1 centimeter an hour!).

See? Asparagus comes out of the ground white, turning green only once it has significant access to sunlight. Growers of white asparagus cover the tips with more soil or with a tarp or hay as soon as the tips poke out of the soil, keeping photosynthesis from occurring.

This is true of other vegetables rarely grown in the U.S., too, like forced rhubarb and endive. Both are grown using methods similar to that used for white asparagus, and both are grown hardly at all in America. And growers aren't even out of the woods once the white asparagus is harvested: It takes on a green tinge after it's been exposed to light, even in the grocery store. (This, Pat told me, is how you can tell if the white asparagus isn't selling quickly—it starts to turn green.)

#Aligre #marche #whiteasparagus #strawberry

A photo posted by Kayo (@kasazu) on

But white asparagus is grown widely throughout Western Europe, especially in Germany, where festivals—Spargelfest!—celebrate its arrival every spring with entire menus devoted to white asparagus (Spargel is its name in German; green asparagus is denoted as Grüner Spargel).

While white asparagus isn't as popular as green in the U.S. just yet, Pat said that demand for it increases each year—so we might keep an eye out for Spargelfests stateside soon, too.

White, green, or purple—how do you cook asparagus at its best? Tell us in the comments.

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  • HalfPint
  • caninechef
  • julie
  • Erik
  • 702551
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


HalfPint May 25, 2016
A couple of years ago, Costco in San Jose CA carried white asparagus for a reasonable price too. It was disappointing. Yes, they were tender, but not as sweet as the green type and there was a slightly bitter flavor. I steamed them & served with butter. Made Vietnamese White Asparagus Crab Soup. It was good, but I couldn't understand, beyond the labor-intensive production and hard-to-get in US, why they would be more highly prized than other asparagus. I didn't think they were all that special.
702551 May 25, 2016
I've had them here in the United States as well as during some of my trips to Europe and I don't understand the hype about these white ones (I dutifully buy my weekly bunch of green asparagus during the local growing season which just concluded).

I suppose many see the first white asparagus as the harbinger that spring is coming since the ground in their area is still too cold for ripening green asparagus, hence the celebrations and "spargel festivals" like they have in Germany.

I too see asparagus as the spring bellwether and while I am happy to buy it when it arrives, it is less impactful. We usually don't even get the white ones, the regular green ones start showing up in mid to late March.

This article would have been more timely had it been published in mid-March, not late May.
sarah May 31, 2016
Being from northern Germany, I can say you have to be lucky to get good asparagus. The green one is deemed rather exotic here, and the white is usually bought directly from the farmer, rather than the grocery store or even green market. Once May comes on every corner stands pop up who sell it. The prizes vary greatly, depending on the weather, and so does the taste. While it can be stringy, tough and bitter, the ones grown in good weather are far more delicious than any green variety I ever tasted. Maybe I should add that the local varieties have been especially bred to be sweeter and more mild. ;While my grandparents added sugar and vinegar while cooking, today's is even pure enjoyed even by children.
caninechef May 25, 2016
My great grandfather had a farm in New Jersey and evidently grew white asparagus. This would have been circa 1920 and my impression was he only grew white asparagus and that was the norm for this crop in the time/area. Maybe New York City was undergoing a white asparagus craze. It was grown under a tent like affair described to me as a tunnel. My mother said as a small child she would be sent to crawl under the superstructure to cut the asparagus.

Growing up we used to eat canned white asparagus as a salad, the only way I have ever seen white asparagus until very recently. It was this product that prompted my mother to tell me about gathering it as a child. I have in the last 2 years or so seen fresh white in the stores. The popular and pricy product seems to be mixed bunches of green/white/purple. This in the Northeast.
julie May 25, 2016
So I was a bit confused with this article. The headline is completely misleading. This was all about white asparagus, not so much about the other two. You only mentioned purple once, the rest was white. Not a bad article, but I was hoping for a bit more info on all three.
Caroline L. May 25, 2016
hi julie, you're right! thanks for this note—i've changed the headline to better reflect the article.
Erik May 24, 2016
If you ask me, best way to prepare white asparagus is 'à la Flamande', served with melted salted butter, finely crushed (semi) hard boiled egg and chopped parsley.
Traditionally the white asparagus is cooked or steamed, but when they are very fresh and not too thick I love them just peeled. With the mixed butter, egg and parsley as a dip.
702551 May 24, 2016
I've seen white asparagus locally (SF Bay Area) at a few places. If you are going to find it anywhere around here, the place to check would be the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, maybe from Zuckerman's.

Also, I've seen white asparagus at Sigona's Farmers Market (despite its name, it is a grocery store not an open air farmers market).

One occasionally runs into dishes with white asparagus at restaurants, so clearly there are some local growers although almost their entire crop might be going to restaurants instead of retail (farmers market, grocers, etc.).

Here in the SF Bay Area, the (green) asparagus season is pretty much over. A handful of stands might have the last few bunches, but my go-to farmer (the aforementioned Zuckerman's) was completely done this past weekend.

The white spargel roadside stands in Germany pop up in late March. I don't know how long their spargel season lasts, but two months is the typical duration of the northern California green asparagus season.

After years of trying various cooking methods (steam, pan fry, grill, roast, etc.), I've come to the conclusion that I like *my* asparagus as simple as possible to not divert attention from the pure flavor of really fresh asparagus, thus boiled in salted water and shocked in an ice bath.
702551 May 24, 2016
Oh, and if I want a "sauce" or flavoring, I just use a little melted butter.
Fredrik B. May 24, 2016
Eh, rhubarb? Are you sure that's not just in the case of forced rhubarb, because most people I know are all but infested by it once spring comes (a bit like courgettes for americans)
Caroline L. May 24, 2016
hi frederik—you're right! thanks so much for this note; i've updated the piece to reflect it.