What Is a Fiddlehead Fern—and How Do You Cook With It?

Get to know this little green spiral.

Steamed fiddleheads with fork on blue stoneware plate
Photo: Katyenka/Getty Images

With spring comes an abundance of edible greens, some more common than others. The fiddlehead fern, for example, is an early season specialty that's gained popularity in the Instagram-fueled aesthetic era we now dine and cook in. These tiny spirals look and taste like spring itself, but what are they?

What Is a Fiddlehead Fern?

A fiddlehead fern, also called a fiddlehead green, is the tightly coiled top of a young fern. They grow wild in the Northeastern U.S. and temperate climates around the world, particularly near wetlands. Fiddleheads must be harvested as they emerge—before they mature and are no longer fiddleheads. Various types of fiddleheads exist, and can be foraged in nature by those in the know, but shouldn't be eaten raw, as some varieties of fiddlehead ferns are toxic to humans when they're not cooked.

Fiddlehead Fern Nutrition Benefits

Fiddleheads are considered a nutritious vegetable to add to any spring dish. Low in calories and a good source of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin C, fiddleheads add a delightfully attractive nutritional boost. Because they're harvested at the peak of their season, they also don't need too many additions to bring out the flavor.

How to Cook With Fiddlehead Ferns

Fiddleheads can be cooked just like any sturdy green. Think of them as delicate green beans, which can be blanched, sautéed, and even grilled in a basket. Be careful not to overcook fiddleheads, lest they turn mushy and lose their appealing swirl shape.

How Long Do Fiddlehead Ferns Stay Good For?

Whether you buy fiddlehead ferns at the farmers market or supermarket, they should be consumed within a few days. If you harvest them yourself, they may last longer, but they're best eaten quickly, and before they start to brown (which is just less attractive). Fiddlehead ferns should stay good in the refrigerator for a week, but if you want to preserve them longer, blanch and freeze them in an airtight plastic bag so you can eat them later in the summer.

Fiddlehead Fern Recipes

Sautéing may be the most popular, and best, way to enjoy fiddleheads. To do so, wash the fiddlehead ferns and pat them dry. Add them to a pot of boiling, salted water, and cook them for two minutes, or until they turn bright green. Plunge the fiddlehead ferns into a bowl of ice water so they retain their color, drain them, and dry them. Then, add the fiddlehead ferns to a pot with melted butter or cooking oil, as well as alliums—like garlic or ramps. Toss in some salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy your fiddleheads!

If you're in the mood to experiment, you can also try swapping fiddleheads into some of your favorite green vegetable recipes, or poaching them, chilling them, and serving them on salads. The vibrant green swirls can also function as a fun garnish to other spring dishes. Fiddleheads aren't cheap—they often cost $10 to $15 per pound—so it's best to get creative with how you serve them, and opt to use them as an addition or secondary green, rather than a hearty side.

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