Spring Produce 101: Everything You Need to Know About Asparagus

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

Do you know the ropes when it comes to this beautiful, seasonal vegetable?

Asparagus is a great addition to many dishes, contributing snap, crunch, and a beautiful green color to the plate. We love to incorporate this vegetable into salads, stir-fries, risottos, pastas, and in fillings for omelets and quiches. But do you know the ropes when it comes to shopping for, storing, and cooking with asparagus? We’ve pulled together key bits of information you’ll need in order to get the most out of this fresh, spring vegetable.

TRIMMING ASPARAGUS

  Trimming Asparagus

Even the most thin, delicate spears of asparagus still have tough, woody ends that have to be removed. To break off the ends at precisely the right point, all you need is your hands. Grip the stalk about halfway down. With your other hand, hold the stem between your thumb and index finger about an inch or so from the bottom and bend the stalk until it snaps.

STORING ASPARAGUS

  Storing Asparagus

THE EXPERIMENT: To determine how to best maintain the bright color and crisp texture in asparagus, we tested refrigerating spears in the plastic supermarket-produce bag, enclosed in a paper bag, wrapped in a damp paper towel, and with the stalk ends trimmed and standing up in a small amount of water.

THE RESULTS: Those asparagus in the plastic bag had become slimy, while the paper bag and towel bunches had shriveled tips and limp stalks. However, the bunch stored in water looked as good as fresh and retained its firm texture.

To store asparagus this way, trim the bottom 1/2 inch of the stalks and stand the spears upright in a glass. Add enough water to cover the bottom of the stalks by 1 inch and place the glass in the refrigerator. Asparagus stored this way should remain relatively fresh for about four days; you may need to add a little more water every few days. Re-trim the very bottom of the stalks before using.

WHITE ASPARAGUS—EXPLAINED

  White Asparagus

White asparagus is simply green asparagus that has never seen the light of day. The plant is grown under soil or some other covering to block out the sun’s rays, preventing photosynthesis and the development of chlorophyll, which turns the spears green. Europeans prize locally grown white asparagus as a springtime delicacy, but since there are no domestic producers in the U.S., the great majority of white asparagus available in supermarkets is imported from Peru. When we pan-roasted Peruvian white asparagus and green asparagus and sampled them side by side, tasters dubbed the green spears “vegetal,” “sweet,” and “grassy,” with a “slightly mineral” aftertaste. The white spears had a less pronounced flavor, reminding tasters of “a cross between peas and turnips.” Overall, the white spears didn’t wow us, presumably because their delicate flavor had faded during shipping and storage.

If we have the opportunity to try freshly picked white asparagus, we won’t hesitate. As for the usual supermarket offerings, with a price difference of at least $2 per pound (we paid $3.99 per pound for green and $5.99 per pound for white), we’ll stick with the green stuff.

EASY WAYS TO COOK ASPARAGUS

Broiling and pan-roasting concentrate flavors in delicate asparagus. Broiling is best with thin asparagus spears, while pan-roasting works best with asparagus that is at least 1/2 inch thick near the base. Each method below uses 2 pounds of asparagus and serves 6.

Simple Broiled Asparagus

1. Adjust oven rack to uppermost position (about 4 inches from the heating element) and heat broiler.

2. Toss 2 pounds of trimmed asparagus with 1 tablespoon olive oil, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper, then lay spears in single layer on heavy rimmed baking sheet. Broil about 4 inches from heating element, shaking pan halfway through to turn spears, until asparagus is tender and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes.

3. Cool asparagus 5 minutes and arrange on serving dish.

Pan-Roasted Asparagus

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in 12-inch skillet  over medium-high heat. When butter has melted, add 1 pound of trimmed asparagus to skillet with tips pointed in one direction; add another 1 pound trimmed spears with tips pointed in opposite direction. Using tongs, distribute spears in even layer (spears will not quite fit into single layer); cover and cook until asparagus is bright green and still crisp, about 5 minutes.

2. Uncover and increase heat to high; season asparagus with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook until spears are tender and well browned along one side, 5 to 7 minutes, using tongs to occasionally move spears from center of pan to edge of pan to ensure all are browned. Transfer asparagus to serving dish, adjust seasonings with salt and pepper, and, if desired, squeeze lemon half over spears. Serve immediately.

  Stir-Fried Asparagus with Shiitake Mushrooms

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Stir-Fried Asparagus with Shiitake Mushrooms

To achieve stir-fried asparagus with a flavorful browned exterior and a crisp-tender texture, we start with a hot pan and only stir the asparagus occasionally, allowing the vegetables to char and caramelize.

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