How to Cook Asparagus
How to Cook Asparagus
A primer on How to Cook Asparagus
In a previous Forq article, I uncovered the fascinating fact that asparagus has played a large and long-standing part in our healthy diet that goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. Hopefully this healthy bundle of heritage has been enough to whet your appetite and experience the different ways in which to cook asparagus. Fashions come and go in the kitchen and the way you cook asparagus has had its fair share of diversity. In the 90’s I remember being initially alarmed at the thought of under-cooking my vegetables and promoting the simply prepared al dente movement. The crunching sound of something healthy that wasn’t a potato chip was, well just weird. More recently, the kitchen trend was to slow-roast anything that looked remotely vegetable in a bath of olive oil and seasoning. I personally had no trouble accepting this cooking method into my kitchen. Asparagus is an incredibly adaptable vegetable that is happy stark naked with no makeup and an early night or dressed to the nines ready for a wild party of friendship and flavor. This is not to say that any one cooking method is better than the other for the asparagus. It’s all about perspective. Asparagus has proved it can perform at any culinary fashion scene, with the aim to please – and sometimes surprise – the senses.
Asparagus is an incredibly versatile vegetable that is happy stark naked with no makeup and an early night or dressed to the nines ready for a wild party of friendship and flavor.
If Pick Your Own (PYO) is not your thing and, like most of us the grocery store is more convenient, you’ll need to be reassured your asparagus will not be a dry, stringy disappointment. One way to check for a fresh, tender asparagus is to look at the base of the stem. If it appears beige and dried out instead of green and moist, it was probably cut at least the day before and this will impact on the flavor. As soon as the asparagus is sliced from its crown, the natural sugars begin to fade making the vegetable indigestible. You should ideally select a bunch that was harvested the same day to get the freshest flavor and firmest tips. Storage of asparagus should be upright in the fridge with the stems kept moist in a tub of water or wet tissue. The tips should be left exposed and aired to avoid any softening. The thinner, younger asparagus tend to retain their increased tenderness and freshness slightly longer but no bunch of asparagus should be left in the fridge for more than two to three days before indulging.
Depending on how close to the crown the asparagus was harvested, it may have a slight woody flavor and brownish base that needs to be trimmed. To do this you can either snap or chop off the asparagus end. If chopping appeals then I would aim to take off ½ to 1 inch to ensure the woody toughness has been discarded. Asparagus snapping usually requires placing the index finger and thumb of one hand around the asparagus base and the index finger and thumb of the other hand about 1 inch up the stem or where the woody color ends. The asparagus stem should literally snap with very little effort if the snapping point is tender. If not, shift the snapping point further away from the base until it snaps easily. Personally, I gain a lot of satisfaction from the sound of asparagus snapping. I’d even put it up there with bubble wrap. Asparagus peeling on the other hand is not a personal favorite as I like to see a bit of texture. Plus some of that asparagus goodness is being removed just for the sake of beauty. That’s not to say it wouldn’t work for the next person so feel free to try it if you like the smooth look, especially on the chunkier stems. All you need is a peeler and some patience as you de-stalk the little leaf buds off the stem.
Sharing recipes with your friends is as easy as pie!Download Now!
The seven insightful ways to cook asparagus
Many people stumble at how to cook asparagus for several reasons. It’s partly because of the unusual linear shape which leads many to think that to cook asparagus must be complicated. In fact asparagus is the perfect ingredient for a simple recipe or an easy cooking opportunity because of one simple rule: less is more. The asparagus flavor needs very little encouraging as, just like its position in the field, it can stand perfectly well on its own. Yes, you can prop it up with other tastes and textures that flatter the asparagus shape and flavor. But if you really want to savour the true flavor then a simple recipe to cook asparagus will produce the best results. There are generally about seven very insightful ways to cook asparagus which I will cover in this article and they are: steaming, blanching, microwaving, roasting, saute, broiling (USA – grilling outside USA) and grilling (USA – BBQing outside USA). With all of these methods, I explain the basic way in which to cook asparagus without the addition of other flavors such as lemon, pepper etc but feel free to add your own ingredients!
The “less-is-more” approach to cook asparagus
The first three deliver the ultimate healthy fast food approach to cook asparagus with the use of water. I call them the ‘less is more’ approach and they are steaming, blanching and microwaving. These three water-based ways to cook asparagus preserve the unique flavor by retaining the moisture without dehydration. What makes these three methods an easy cooking and a healthy fast food opportunity is the short cook time. This quick dip means the flavors remain locked into the asparagus, retaining more of that unique asparagus flavor. That said, if the asparagus is exposed to water for too long and becomes overcooked, the stems will become waterlogged and lose their flavor. Another sign of overcooking using these three methods is the color of the water in the pan. A very general goal is to steam, blanch or microwave asparagus for no more than two to three minutes and stop while the water is still a very pale green color. The resulting cooked asparagus should be slightly al dente crunchy on the inside but with a tender exterior. Apart from the short cooking time for all three of these less-is-more cooking methods, they each have different requirements and are broken down in stages:
Cook asparagus by steaming
Steamed asparagus seems to be one of the most popular ways to cook these slender stems so I’ll consider this method first. To cook asparagus by steaming it should be of no surprise to read you’ll need a steamer. Not only that but one that can accommodate the elongated shape of your prepared asparagus. Your standard-sized round steamer with the spears resting horizontally is one option, although I find I need to slice off more of the stem than I need to, to fit them in. After feeling the constant guilt of discarding these perfectly good asparagus stems just for the sake of size, I took the financial leap to invest in my very own asparagus steamer. It’s really just a skinny saucepan but now that I have it I can’t do without it as it’s great for steaming other vegetables and sauces too. The next time your Mother asks you what you’d like for your birthday, surprise her by asking for an asparagus steamer – or even surprise her with one.
Steamed asparagus cooking method:
Typically add about 2-3 cups of water in the bottom part of the saucepan for a trimmed bunch of about 12 asparagus spears.
Once the water starts to boil, pop the spears either horizontally in a regular steamer rack or vertically in a posh asparagus steamer rack. This rack sits above the boiling water and in the steam.
Immediately start the timer. I don’t literally mean to keep your eye glued to the ticking second hand of a clock as maybe you’ve got better things to do in those 2-3 minutes. This time can be slightly more or less depending on stem thickness. But if you want to successfully cook asparagus by steaming then it is ultra-important not to over-do the cooking time.
You’ll know when you’ve steamed an asparagus spear perfectly when the boiled water finishes very pale green; the spears retain their bright color; there is only a slight droop to the spear tip; when you bite into the stem there’s that soft entry followed by the firm finish and – most importantly – you haven’t washed away the deliciously unique taste of asparagus. (Good luck!)
Cook asparagus by blanching
Cooking asparagus by blanching is great for retaining its trademark vibrant green color and crisp texture.
Blanched asparagus cooking method:
Blanching requires a deep, wide pan to fit the trimmed spears easily.
Add about 8 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt – if desired – for a bunch of 12 spears, and turn up the heat.
Once the water is boiling carefully add the spears.
Either before or during those 2-3 minutes of cooking time, prepare a bowl of ice-cold water as this will be where the spears will be dumped and ‘shocked’ afterwards to halt the cooking process.
After about 2-3 minutes (depending on stem thickness) carefully transfer the stems out of the boiling water with a large slotted spoon or tongs and into the bowl of icy water.
The spears should be left in the bowl to cool down for a few minutes before being dried off on a layer of kitchen towel. This blanching with the shock-cooling method is great for recipes that require cold asparagus spears or as preparation for sauteing. You can forego the icy water if the spears are to be eaten immediately and hot.
Another, slightly different approach to blanching is to position the asparagus spears in a rectangular oven proof dish on the kitchen counter and cover completely with previously boiled water. Leave the spears to sit in the water for about 10 minutes before draining.
Cook asparagus by the microwave
The microwave offers a convenient opportunity to cook asparagus. Although you won’t get quite the same “soft-on-the-outside, firm-on-the-inside” result as you would with steaming or blanching, the consistent cooked through approach may be a preference for some people. The important rule is to add just the right amount of water to the mix. There are two ways to cook asparagus using the microwave: the steamed kitchen towel and the water immersion method.
Steamed kitchen towel cooking method:
Soak 4-5 pieces of kitchen towel with water
Wrap them around a loose bundle of about 12 asparagus spears, making sure the tips are covered.
Place the wrapped asparagus in the microwave for about 3 minutes.
Be careful opening up the bundle after microwaving as the wet paper towel will contain a lot of steam from the microwaved water. Depending on your microwave power setting, the result can produce a crisp and green asparagus.
The water immersion cooking method:
Simply spread out and immerse your regular bunch of spears in a rectangular microwavable dish
Add one cup of water.
Place either a piece of kitchen towel on top of the spears to retain the steam or a lid with some space for the steam to escape.
Cook for 4 or so minutes. After which, you should have the same tender spears that are ready for eating.
The well-oiled approach to cooking asparagus
The last four methods to cook asparagus provide the opportunity be be more experimental with the marriage of other complementary flavors. To cook asparagus by roasting, saute, broiling (often called grilling outside the US), or grilling (called BBQing outside the USA – confusing, huh?) usually – but not always – require you to add some oil, some seasoning and the indulgence of time. This makes these four methods less of the healthy fast food option but the asparagus flavors take on a more concentrated, caramelized flavor that’s so hard to resist. You could choose to cook without oil but the spear will easily dehydrate and become fibrous so I wouldn’t recommend it. Anyway, what’s to fear with a little bit of healthy omega-3-giving olive oil!
Cook asparagus by roasting
Roasting asparagus is extremely painless. Yet the rewards are a delectably concentrated flavor and a more chewy, caramelized texture than what you would get with the “less-is-more” method of steaming.
Set the oven to about 420 Fahrenheit
Arrange your asparagus spears on a baking tray. Drizzle some olive oil and salt, if desired, over the spears and pop into the oven for about 15-20 minutes depending on how well cooked you like them.
You might want to check on them after about 10 minutes and give them a little shake or a turn, but that’s it.
Cook asparagus by sautéing or pan frying
Cooking sautéed or pan fried asparagus is a fast and flavorful way to get that meal on the table.
Depending on your chosen dish, cut up your bunch of asparagus spears into whatever size pieces you’d like. Slice along the stem if they’re particularly thick. I generally make my asparagus chunks about 1- 1 ½ inches long.
Take a wide, shallow skillet for maximum heated surface and add about 2 tablespoons of oil and and turn up the heat to maximum.
Once the oil is hot, add the asparagus chunks to the pan and constantly flick the pan to allow the chunks to saute – or jump – and cook in all areas.
After about 3 minutes of jumping the asparagus chunks should be ready for eating.
Cook asparagus by broiling (USA) or grilling (outside USA)
To cook asparagus by broiling or grilling is basically the same approach but just a different name for it depending on which side of the Atlantic your kitchen is located, or so I’m told.
Prepare and trim the asparagus spears.
Lay a large piece of foil on top of the bars in the broiler shelf.
In a bowl, drizzle the spears with olive oil and some salt if desired and carefully coat the whole of the spear by mixing the oil around the bowl.
Pre-heat the broiler at medium hot.
Transfer each spear to the foil-covered broiler shelf and line them up from left to right.
Keep the door to the broiler open so not only can you keep an eye on broiling progress but it allows the steam to escape and avoid the asparagus taking on a soft, semi-steamed look and feel.
After about 3 minutes, turn over the spears using a pair of tongs.
Broil for a further 3 minutes or so and then transfer to a plate and eat immediately.
Cooking asparagus by grilling (USA) or BBQ (outside the USA)
The method for grilling your asparagus spears over a grill or a BBQ where the heat comes from beneath the spears rather than above is actually very similar to the broiling method. The only difference is the positioning on the grill and the resulting charred flavor. With this method you will also need about 4 wooden skewers.
Prepare and trim the asparagus spears.
Soak the wooden skewers in water for 10 or minutes.
In a bowl, drizzle the 12 or so spears with olive oil and some salt if desired and carefully coat the whole of the spear by mixing the oil around the bowl.
Take two lots of 6 spears and line them up in a row. Insert two skewers about 1 inch from the each end and through each of the 6 spears so it looks like a raft.
Pre-heat the broiler at medium hot.
Place both of the asparagus rafts on the grill shelf and close the lid.
After about 3 minutes, turn over both of the asparagus rafts using a pair of tongs and grill the other side for another 3 minutes or until it is appropriately charred to just how you like it.
If locally produced asparagus is your only option, you will only have a couple of months of the year at best to gorge on and cook asparagus. Why not find out about ways in which to preserve that flavor and enjoy all year round by canning and pickling your asparagus described in another article. The Forq app is great for posting new ideas on how to preserve that asparagus flavor. If you need to be inspired, advised or educated on how to cook asparagus, the Forq app provides the most user-friendly format for a fabulous foodie community.
FORQ Featured Asparagus Recipes
Eggs with Asparagus, Mushrooms, and Garlic Scapes
This dish uses some of the true gems of the late spring and summer and combines them with farm fresh eggs for a dish you’ll want to make again and again.
Poached Asparagus with White Miso Beurre Blanc
This variation of the classic beurre blanc sauce pairs perfectly with quickly poached fresh asparagus.
Panzanella with Asparagus and Pecorino Romano
A twist on the traditional Tuscan version, this panzanella adds asparagus and pecorino romano to the wonderful combination of toasted bread and ripe tomato.
Millet with Asparagus, Mushrooms, and Goat CheeseThis healthy dish uses a wonderful but frequently forgotten ancient grain and pairs it with lightly sautéed asparagus and mushrooms, which are then finished with goat cheese.
Shaved Asparagus Salad with Sriracha-Lemon Vinaigrette and Pecorino RomanoThis cold salad is brightened by the tang of lemon and cheese and the hot, garlic flavor of Sriracha.
Beef & Asparagus Stir FryThis stir fry works really well if the asparagus and water chestnuts keep their crunch alongside the succulent beef strips.
Asparagus & Ricotta QuicheEmbrace pie crust making in this tasty asparagus quiche recipe where fresh flavors and cheesy creaminess dominate.
Asparagus in Hollandaise Sauce with Crusted SalmonCrack the ‘double emulsion’ method of making hollandaise with this surprisingly simple asparagus and salmon recipe.
Filet steak & peppered asparagus with sweet potatoGreen peppercorn and asparagus make a wonderful partnership in this indulgent steak recipe.
Thai Green Curry with Chicken & AsparagusTransform the mood in your kitchen with the fragrant aroma of Thai green curry and the fresh flavor of asparagus.
Who’s Cooking Today
I’ve sampled exotic and unusual foods on my travels, but nothing beats coming home and sharing my experiences in the kitchen and in my writing. I love the sticky leftover goo of barbecued pork ribs that my kids can’t quite polish off on their own; I yearn for the safe and homely aroma of roast chicken as I pull it from the oven; I adore the sizzle and smell of broiled bacon on a wet Sunday morning. Food will always be my friend as it is meant for sharing. You can enjoy my written and visual translation of taste at jambip.com or via the various social media channels.
More delicious asparagus recipes!
The full FORQ asparagus archive, straight from our FORQ Enthusiasts.
[shareaholic app=”share_buttons” id=”17786760″]