Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.Today: we're talking about fiddlehead ferns—learn what to look for, how to prep them, and get ideas for safely enjoying them in meals all week long.
Did your mom ever tell you to eat your vegetables so you’d grow big and strong? Bet she never promised invisibility. In Europe’s Middle Ages, people believed that carrying “fern seed” would make you disappear from sight. Shakespeare even referenced these magical powers in Henry IV! While we can't vouch for super powers, we can affirm that ferns are to thank for a fleeting spring treat.
What is a fiddlehead fern, anyway?
The term fiddlehead fern is generally used to reference ostrich fern fiddleheads, but fiddlehead actually refers to a stage of growth—and the name fittingly comes from its resemblance to the spiraling scroll at the top of a fiddle. That unfurled shape is because they are young, wee ferns, yet to unravel into full-sized, adult ferns. If you see them at the market, be sure to snatch these springtime delicacies up, as they are in season for just a few weeks every spring (usually May). If you haven’t eaten fiddleheads before, many describe the flavor as sweet like spinach, vegetal like artichoke, crisp like a waxy green bean, and kind of nutty like a mushroom. Basically, all the good tastes of vegetables furled into one.
How to Forage or Shop for Fiddleheads
If you're foraging for fiddleheads, take care to properly identify ostrich fern fiddleheads and always follow sustainable harvesting guidelines. Look for the deep groove (4)—think of the shape of a celery stalk—on the side of the stem facing the coil. Avoid ferns with an all-over fuzziness; ostrich fern fiddleheads are smooth, with brown papery bits that easily rub off.
When picking fiddleheads, choose small, firm, and tightly furled specimens. Pass on any that are starting to uncurl (1), or that are discolored (2)—fiddleheads should be a bright jade green (3), and still tightly furled. (Note: some fiddleheads will have a lot of the papery brown chaff, but once rubbed off, they are bright green.)
How to Store & Prep
After carefully packing and hauling your fern finds, you’ll want to consume them shortly after bringing them home, as their delicate flavor is volatile. If you have to store them, keep them in the fridge wrapped tightly in plastic wrap (5), and use them within a couple of days. They won’t spoil quickly, but they will lose flavor and firmness. For longer storage, try pickling. It's possible to freeze fiddleheads to extend their season, but Elizabeth Scheider advises against it. She finds they become fibrous and fishy, and prefers to “cherish them as vernal ephemera.”
Look for them at a farmers market or specialty grocer. The stalks are edible, although unless you’re picking them yourself, generally you’ll just see the coiled tops being sold. Give the fiddleheads a good dunk and rinse in cold water, then place them in a bowl of water and rub to remove all of their papery scale-like coverings.
Consider This Fair Warning
When we say fiddleheads, we are strictly talking about ostrich fern fiddleheads, as they are considered the safest for consumption. People frequently forage for fiddleheads of other varieties like the lady fern or the shield fern, and consider them to be safe as long as they're cooked. Bracken fern fiddleheads are an especially controversial variety; many believe the ferns are fine to consume in small quantities, but they're known to contain a carcinogen.
Not to turn into Debbie Downer and ruin your meal, but we should also mention that fiddleheads have been to blame for cases of food poisoning—though not the ostrich fern variety you'll probably be eating. Even though their sprightly, fresh demeanor might tempt you to eat them raw—we definitely wouldn’t advise it. When raw, fiddleheads can be slightly toxic and are, well, kind of unpleasant-tasting. But after a quick blanching, boiling, sauteing, roasting, or braising (at least five minutes, but not much more than that is needed!), the fiddleheads will surely be safe (and delicious) to eat. As a result of these cases, safety standards recommend boiling fiddleheads for 15 minutes or steaming them for 10 to 12 minutes prior to use in recipes. Of course, there is debate about this as well: John Mickel, senior curator emeritus at The New York Botanical Garden, suggests that cooking just 5 minutes is sufficient.
Let's Get Cooking!
Either way, your fiddleheads shouldn’t be consumed raw. If you’re at a loss for how to approach them, think of how you might approach fresh, springtime asparagus or haricot verts: cooked and seasoned lightly. Fiddleheads really are best when only just cooked through, so their bright, springy flavor can shine through.
Boiling fiddleheads will best retain their color and texture, and will help to remove any bitterness. In order to highlight their unique flavor, fiddleheads are arguably best prepared simply: bring a pot of salted water (we usually estimate one to two teaspoons per quart of water) to a boil over medium to medium high heat. Drop the well-washed and husked ferns in the salted boiling water, and let cook for about 5 minutes—or until crisp-tender and still very bright green. Using a slotted spoon, fish out the fiddleheads. Feel free to serve them as is, or you can lightly sauté the blanched fiddleheads in a large skillet with butter, and finish them with lemon juice for a perfect side dish.
Of course we’re fans of gilding the lily, too—so if you’re looking for more ideas, we’ve got you covered.
Recipes to Fiddle With
There’s fiddleheads with eggs:
Or fiddleheads as sides!
What are your favorite ways to cook with fiddleheads?