We occasionally link to goods offered by vendors to help the reader find relevant products. Some of these may be affiliate based, meaning we earn small commissions (at no additional cost to you) if items are purchased. Here is more about what we do.
Although we are able to get many fruits and vegetables throughout the year due to global imports and exports, I try my best to use seasonally and locally grown fresh produce whenever possible.
And now that spring is – finally!!!!! – here, there is one very special vegetable I can’t wait to find at the farmers markets:
With crisp stalks, feathery tips, and an array of colors, asparagus is a beautiful veggie I love to buy when it becomes seasonally available every year.
If you feel the same giddiness as I do, this guide is yours to embrace with open arms and big appetites.
We’ll review with you all the necessary basics in our thorough guide, and go over how to buy, prep, and cook with these brilliant spears.
How to Select, Prep, and Cook Asparagus
Getting to Know Asparagus
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) has been foraged, grown, and enjoyed for years, dating back to ancient Greek and Roman cultivation.
The season typically begins in early spring and lasts until the middle of June in temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere.
And there are many varieties available to grow and purchase – far more than just the pretty green spears you usually see at the grocery store!
If you’re interested in growing your own, and really wish to know all things asparagus, you can learn how to grow it like a pro on our sister site, Gardener’s Path!
Asparagus plants have two separate sexes, male or female, and growers may plant heirloom or hybrid varieties.
All-male hybrids generally produce a larger quantity of thicker spears, because energy is not diverted to fruit and seed production later in the season as it is in the female plants. These include popular green cultivars like ‘Jersey Knight,’ ‘Jersey King,’ and ‘Jersey Supreme.’
Stalks with a white color can be grown from any variety by restricting sunlight exposure and reducing chlorophyll production. This type typically has a more delicate taste and aroma compared to green stalks, with some slight bitterness towards the stem end.
Purple varieties, such as ‘Purple Passion’ or ‘Sweet Purple,’ are popular not just for their gorgeous hue, but for their sweeter taste and more tender texture.
And that sulfurous odor you may notice during a bathroom trip soon after consuming even just a few stalks?
It is more than likely linked to the body’s digestive breakdown of asparagusic acid and other sulfuric compounds present in the spears. Read more about it in our guide to asparagus pee.
While some can smell this strong aroma and others cannot, this small excretory embarrassment shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying delicious and healthy recipes featuring your favorite springtime spears!
Selecting the Best Produce
Here are some tips for you to check how fresh the stalks are when you are shopping at the store or farmers market:
The visual appearance of the fresh vegetables will be an immediate indicator of the quality.
Do the spears look very dry? Older, tougher stalks will need to be trimmed, and perhaps peeled as well, to remove the fibrous outer layers.
Also, be on the lookout for hollow stalks, another indication that the ends of the stalks are dry and will need to be thoroughly trimmed when prepping at home.
Do the spears look too wet? If there are any soft brown discolorations, or the stalks and tips look excessively soggy and mushy to the point of disintegration, you are better off going to another grocery store, or trying a local farmers market.
These are well past their prime, and you should not buy them.
Don’t be afraid to touch the produce – fresh spears should be strong and sturdy, with some slight flexibility when you gently bend them.
They should not feel soft and limp, and pressure marks should not result when you touch or try to bend a stalk.
Again, mushiness is an immediate sign that the spears are no longer fresh. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
You can also squeeze the cut end of one spear. Ideally, some liquid should come out if you squeeze gently. If the cut end is excessively dry, you will definitely need to trim the ends.
Go on, take a whiff! The vegetable should subtly exude a light, sweet, and “green” aroma, but it should not smell rank or oxidized.
These are all general guidelines to check for freshness – in the end, simply use your common culinary sense!
In some recipes, the quality of your fresh produce does not have to be perfect – if you are planning to cook and puree them for soups or sauces, the spears do not have to be absolutely pristine. So don’t judge too harshly.
But especially when fresh produce is locally grown and at its peak, like asparagus in the springtime, it’s really not asking too much to be on the lookout for the best quality!
After they are harvested, the fresh spears will quickly lose moisture and become increasingly fibrous, starting from the base.
These changes occur the fastest during the first 24 hours after harvesting – which is why growing your own, or buying them directly at a local farm stand, is preferred to stalks that have been shipped long distances, or sat on a shelf for days or weeks.
More mature stalks, those left to grow for a longer period and harvested late, will also be more fibrous compared to a younger harvest.
And the white variety will be more fibrous than green or purple varieties, and will therefore toughen more quickly.
That being said, you will need to do some necessary prep work before cooking your fresh haul, in order to yield the most pleasant eating experience.
Step 1 – Wash and Dry
When you’re ready to cook, remove and dispose of any bands or ties holding the bunch of spears together.
Place the spears in a large colander and wash under cold running water.
Thoroughly dry the spears with a kitchen towel to remove as much water from the surface as possible, being careful to not crush the delicate tips.
Step 2 – Trim the Bottom Ends
Trim the bottom ends of each stalk. You need to remove this portion for two main reasons:
First, the bottom end is where the fresh stalks are cut and harvested – this exposed end may be dried out, and not the most palatable or sanitary to eat.
Second, as explained previously, the most fibrous and chewiest part of a stalk is the lower third – slicing the base will remove the woodiest section.
Generally, slicing the lower third of the spears away is effective enough. However, a common method to locate a more exact slicing point is to bend one stalk until it breaks naturally.
Use this natural breakage point as a guideline for where to slice the remaining stalks during your prep stage.
Step 3 – Peel the Outer Layers (Optional)
Do you often find yourself in an unpleasant situation involving endlessly chewing on the woody fibers of poorly prepared spear during dinner?
An additional, but completely optional, step to ensuring the lower third of the vegetable is tender enough is to peel some of the outer layers.
If you are aware that your produce is more mature – typically more girthy than thin – or the spears seem to be on the drier side, you may want to consider peeling in order to remove the outer layers that may be too fibrous to break down easily when you’re eating.
After the ends are trimmed in the previous step, use a vegetable peeler to peel away some of the outer layers from the lower third of each spear.
You just have to be careful that you don’t peel off too much of the tender inner layers of the vegetable.
But don’t throw away the peels either! You can use them in your compost, or you can also use them if you are making a soup that will be pureed or strained.
Step 4 – Slice in Pieces (Optional)
Once you have trimmed and peeled the spears, you can either move forward with your recipe if they need to be left whole, or you can slice them in the appropriately-sized pieces as your recipe requires.
Slicing on a bias makes for a nice presentation.
Storing the Spears
You can keep fresh spears for a short period of time in the refrigerator. They can also be kept in the freezer for long-term storage, though this type of storage option will result in a loss of quality.
For fresh eating, you can store your farmers market or grocery store haul in the refrigerator for about a week.
So they don’t lose any more moisture, but without wetting them to the point of excess, you can apply two different refrigerator storage methods:
You can lightly wet a kitchen towel and wrap it completely around the bundle of asparagus, making sure the cut ends at the base are completely covered. Store the bunch in your vegetable crisper drawer in the fridge.
Or, you can stand all the stalks straight up in a tall container filled with a few inches of water in the fridge, enough so the ends are fully submerged, and tent the tips with a plastic bag.
You will need to replace the water every couple of days when it becomes cloudy.
You can also store them in your freezer for up to 6 months.
For the best texture after it’s defrosted, I recommend freezing blanched and shocked spears rather than storing them fresh.
If you need some help with blanching, we go over this process in detail in our recipe for fruity asparagus salad.
After blanching and chilling to stop the cooking process, freeze the spears – whole or cut – in a single layer spread out so they aren’t touching each other on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. When completely frozen in a few hours, you can transfer the pieces to an airtight container or bag to prevent freezer burn.
Freezing will still change the texture of the spears, and they will generally be more watery and less crisp. Freezer storage is an excellent option if you have a surplus after taking advantage of a sale or growing your own, but the culinary applications for frozen spears are more limited.
Don’t serve previously frozen asparagus raw, and avoid recipes that call for roasting. Instead, choose recipes like risottos, soups, or pasta dishes – anything where the vegetable plays more of a minor character, rather than a leading role. These will be perfect to use with defrosted stalks.
There are so many ways to incorporate these beautifully vibrant veggies in your cooking, from roasting to risotto.
But let’s get back to basics, and first review the easiest methods to cook the spears. Once you understand and become confident with the basics, you’ll be able to find creative and tasty ways to customize these simple techniques in your own home cooking.
Basic Cooking Methods
For the most simple and straightforward preparations, review our tutorial on cooking asparagus with multiple methods. We focus on three main cooking techniques – roasting, steaming, and blanching – and we also provide our favorite ways to add more flavor.
To get the most use out of your kitchen appliances, you can also quickly and simply prepare it in the electric pressure cooker.
If asparagus is – or becomes – one of your favorite seasonal foods, consider purchasing a specially designed pot that gently cooks the spears while they’re standing upright, which can help tougher ends cook at the same rate as the tender tips.
Only the lower part of the vegetable is submerged in the water while the rest is gently steamed.
Cristel Asparagus Pot with Lid, available from Sur La Table
This Cristel Asparagus Pot with Lid, available from Sur La Table, is made of a solid 18/10 stainless steel exterior and interior, with an aluminum-centered 3-ply base. It weighs 3.8 pounds, measures 6.3 inches in diameter and 11.4 inches in height, and a tall wire steamer basket with handle is included.
Grains and Pastas
Asparagus spears provide a vibrant and fresh addition to hearty grains and pasta dishes. Make any of the following to serve as a hearty and carb-y main course:
- Pesto Chicken Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes
- Lemon Asparagus Risotto
- Rigatoni with Asparagus and Balsamic Reduction
- Vegan Vegetable Risotto with Oven-Dried Tomatoes
You’ll know these recipes are winners when everyone at the table starts fighting for second helpings!
Are you looking for elegant side dishes that can accompany a main course? You’ll like these beautifully prepared recipes:
- Garlic Asparagus Amandine
- Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema and Pecorino
- Baked White Asparagus (Served with Tilapia)
All of these preparations keep the asparagus spears whole, providing a breathtaking presentation on the plate.
For a fresh take on salads, incorporate fresh stalks! Try the following recipes when you want a lighter meal you can munch:
- Warm Vegetable Salad with Dates, Roasted Walnuts, and Pecorino
- Asparagus and Snow Pea Salad with Black-Eyed Peas
- Asparagus and Broccoli Salad
- Purple Cabbage and Shaved Asparagus Slaw
Whether it’s served warm or cold, have fun with the playful mix of ingredients in each salad recipe.
Spring Has Sprung – And So Has Asparagus!
Now is the time to take advantage of the short harvest window, and use the freshest asparagus whenever and wherever possible!
Celebrate the return of spring by making soups, salads, pastas, risottos, and more featuring these tender spears.
Do you have a favorite variety you like to buy, or grow yourself? What’s your favorite recipe? Leave a comment below!
If you want to learn how to perfectly prep and cook other types of fresh produce, continue reading more of our comprehensive step-by-step tutorials. You’ll be a produce whiz soon enough! Let’s start with these fun ones next:
- How to Prep Onions
- How to Get the Most out of Fresh Berries
- How to Cook Broccoli, Three Different Ways
Photos by Nikki Cervone and Meghan Yager, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Nina-Kristin Isensee on April 25, 2015. Last updated on April 12, 2023.
About Nikki Cervone
Nikki Cervone is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional and cheesemonger living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.