If I serve you a whole artichoke—armored, pointy, and downright hostile-looking—it means I like you. Surprised? Consider this: Eating an artichoke involves removing its many leaves one by one, dipping each leaf in something delicious, and then scraping off the tender flesh with your teeth. The journey to the dense, nutty heart is by necessity a leisurely one. So when I present you with a whole artichoke, I’m saying, “You’re someone I want to spend time with.”
But a lot of people are daunted by the idea of preparing and serving artichokes. Forbidding appearance aside, there’s conflicting advice about the best way to trim and cook artichokes; since they can be pricey outside their growing region, just winging it seems reckless. And eating them requires artichoke‑specific techniques that aren’t exactly intuitive.
Still, it’s worth overcoming these obstacles, because the edible parts of an artichoke have a uniquely rich, almost creamy texture and an appealing flavor that’s a little like asparagus, but with added intrigue. A well-cooked artichoke needs little embellishment beyond melted butter.
Until recently I’d never cooked artichokes the same way twice, and my attempts had yielded mixed results. So I was eager to embark upon a mission: I’d demystify the whole globe artichoke—the preparation, the cooking, and the eating—once and for all, thus providing more cooks with a fabulous excuse to hang out with people they like.
An artichoke has four main components: the stem, the leaves, the choke, and the heart. Some recipes call for removing the entire stem, while others advise trimming a frugal sliver from the end and peeling the rest. Almost all recipes have you lop some leaves off the top of the artichoke to make the vegetable more attractive and easier to handle. They also recommend removing the pointy ends (which botanists refer to as “spines”) from the remaining leaves with scissors and then thoroughly rubbing every cut surface with a halved lemon to prevent the artichoke from discoloring. Finally, you cook, usually via steaming or boiling. I tried both.
I dutifully removed the tops of four artichokes, which is most easily accomplished with the sharp teeth of a serrated knife. Next up were the spines, which I snipped off with scissors. Finally, I snapped off the tiniest leaves around the stems, which yield little meat and only get in the way when you’re trying to eat. I left the stems on but trimmed and peeled them. After giving two of the artichokes the recommended lemony rubdown, I plunged a pair (one with lemon and one without, which had already oxidized) into a pot of boiling salted water and weighed them down with a small lid to keep them submerged. I placed the remaining two artichokes on a rack set over 2 inches of boiling water and covered the pot to capture the steam. After about 45 minutes, all the artichokes, acidulated and not, had turned the same deep olive green color. The color wasn’t objectionable, but it suggested that the rubbing step was a waste of time—and a lemon.
At this point, I could easily pull a leaf off each artichoke and scrape the flesh from the base with my teeth, which indicated that they were fully cooked. As I worked my way through the vegetable, I noticed two things right away. The stems were inedibly stringy, each containing only a skimpy core of tender meat that was overcooked by the time the leaves were done. Going forward, I’d simply remove them before cooking. Another discovery: The salt in the water had penetrated all the way into the hearts of the boiled artichokes, bringing forth their delicate but earthy-green flavor; by comparison, the steamed artichokes tasted flat. I’d go with boiling.
My success with the salt made me wonder about the possible benefits of spiking the water with other ingredients, but lemon peel, garlic, and peppercorns left little trace, and a couple of bay leaves struck a menthol‑like note that clashed with the artichokes’ flavor. I would stick with just salt.
With peeling, a lemon juice rubdown, and extraneous flavorings eliminated, my method was looking user-friendly, but I decided to streamline it further with two more modifications. The first was simple: letting the artichokes bob in the water as they cooked rather than weighing them down. Yes, some portion sat above the water line, but the denser edible parts—the heart and the fleshy part of the leaves—stayed submerged without assistance.
The final modification was more audacious: I opted to leave the spines on. They soften to harmlessness as the artichokes cook, and full-length leaves are more attractive and easier to grasp when you’re dismantling your artichoke at the table.
And thus the fearsome vegetable was vanquished. Buy some artichokes today, put a pot of water on to boil, and call some friends. It’s time to relax.