Can I Use American Violets in Cooking?

Good Questions - With Expert Answer from "Wildman" Steve Brill

Q: The NY Times published an article recently about using wild violets in foodstuffs. My understanding was that the typical wild violet in the Midwest or Northeast (Viola sororia or papilionacea) are not the same as the violets used in, for example, France.

Last night I picked lots of wild violets with the hope of making violet syrup. However, the result neither smells nor tastes anything like the lovely, light, springtime syrups with which I am familiar. What can you tell me about using Viola sororia or papilionacea in cooking? How can a novice tell the difference between "American" violets and the violets (Viola odorata) used by the French? Are Viola sororia or papilionacea the correct type to be used in syrup-making?

Sent by Lexy

Editor: Lexy, we don't know much at all about violets, so we turned to "Wildman" Steve Brill, an expert on foraged foods. Here's what he told us:

Because they're different species, American violets are odorless, unlike European ones, so you won't get an aromatic syrup unless you cheat and add violet extract.

You can add the American species' flowers and leaves to salads, or cook the leaves like spinach, in the spring, before the leaves get tough with the approach of summer. The flowers, in season in early spring, make great cake decorations and add color and flavor to salads.

So, no, the flowers are not going to give you the kind of syrup you are looking for. But you can candy the flowers in sugar.

• More about Steve Brill and his New York City foraging tours: Foraging with the "Wildman"
• Steve Brill's cookbooks and foraging manuals at his website (get a signed copy!)

Have any of you ever cooked with violets?

Related: Seasonal Spotlight: Edible Flowers

(Image: Candied violets from Market Hall Foods)