The Ultimate Guide to Selecting, Preparing, and Cooking Asparagus

One of the delights of spring is the return of asparagus season. Here's how to make the most of it.

plate of cooked asparagus
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What's not to love about asparagus? These splendid little spears taste delicious when roasted or raw, steamed or sautéed, and (particularly) when served atop pizza or stirred into pasta. But before you start cooking with asparagus, it's important to know exactly how to select the freshest possible asparagus at the grocery store, as well as the proper way to store and prepare it. Here's everything you'll need to know come springtime (or sooner) when asparagus is in season, plus delicious recipes to try.

How to Choose Asparagus

Size isn't an indicator of quality or flavor; thick asparagus is just more mature than the thin variety. Instead, look for bright green or violet-tinged spears with firm (not limp) stems. Make sure the tips are closed and compact. When the bunch is squeezed, it should squeak. Also, be sure to avoid stalks that appear woody.

Thick vs. Thin Asparagus Spears

Thin spears, thick spears―both can be sweet and tender, as long as they're fresh. The diameter of an asparagus spear indicates when it was harvested. Thick spears are generally harvested at the beginning of the season―the stalks get thinner as the season wears on. Texture is related to how fast the spears grow. The longer they grow, the more fibrous they become. Peeling can take care of that, however.

The Other Colors

Green isn't the only shade asparagus comes in. The much rarer white asparagus has a milder flavor and a softer texture. Farmers cover the stalks with soil as they grow, which prevents sunlight from reaching the shoots. This retards the development of chlorophyll (which makes plants green), resulting in the delicate creamy color―and a plant that has all the nutrition of iceberg lettuce. Purple asparagus (like Viola and Purple Passion) is sometimes available at farmers' markets. It is slightly sweeter and more tender than green asparagus and turns dark green when cooked because the purple pigment is destroyed by heat.

How to Store Asparagus

Trim the bottoms and wrap the cut ends in a damp paper towel. Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to three days. Or treat your spears like fresh flowers: Place the cut ends in a bowl or a vase filled with an inch of water and cover the tops with a plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator.

How to Peel and Trim Asparagus

Use a vegetable peeler to take off the outer layer. This will eliminate most of the stringiness and remove any sand hiding in the fronds on the stalk. Peeled asparagus cooks quickly (the stems and tips will be done at the same time) and remains greener during cooking. You can peel stalks up to a day before cooking and store them wrapped in damp paper towels in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator. Conventional asparagus wisdom says snapping the spear breaks away the tough, fibrous end. This works well when harvesting in the field, but in the kitchen, it's a sorry waste of good food. Once a spear has been peeled, simply cut off the dry white part.

How to Cook Asparagus

Unlike carrots, asparagus tastes better cooked, and it takes only a few minutes. The goal is to preserve the bright color and delicate flavor. Peeling asparagus before cooking will help achieve this. Broiling or roasting the spears intensifies their inherent sweetness; steamed or boiled asparagus is great for salads.

If you boil, forget the fancy equipment. Just launch the spears into a skillet full of lightly salted boiling water. The pan should be large enough to fit the spears in one or two layers, so that they cook evenly and quickly. Don't cover the skillet, otherwise, the asparagus will go from bright green to army drab. Start testing for doneness after two or three minutes by piercing the ends with a knife. They should be barely tender, with a slight crunch. Asparagus will continue to cook after you've removed it from the pan. If you like asparagus with snap, drop it into a sinkful of cold water to stop the cooking.

5 Ways to Prepare Asparagus

Thyme-Roasted Asparagus and Potatoes

Toss cut-up asparagus and quartered small new potatoes with olive oil and fresh thyme sprigs. Roast at 400º F until tender, 20 to 25 minutes

Asparagus and Tortellini Soup

Cook fresh tortellini in chicken broth until tender, adding cut-up asparagus during the last few minutes. Top with shaved Parmesan and serve with crusty bread.

Crunchy Asparagus Salad With Feta

Toss thinly sliced raw asparagus with olive oil and crumbled Feta.

Lemony Asparagus With Hard-Cooked Eggs

Boil asparagus, then run under cold water to cool. Drizzle with olive oil and fresh lemon juice; sprinkle with chopped hard-cooked eggs and chives.

Gingery Sautéed Shrimp and Asparagus

Sauté cut-up asparagus in olive oil with peeled and deveined shrimp, sliced shallots, and grated fresh ginger. Toss with mint before serving.

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