No matter how you plan to serve it, the key to dishing up truly extraordinary asparagus every single time doesn't involve the best recipe you can find — instead it really comes down to shopping and prep before cooking.
Here's everything you need to know about cooking up great asparagus through spring, summer, and beyond.
Extraordinary Asparagus Starts When You Buy It
In order to dig into some really good asparagus when dinner rolls around, you first need to buy a bunch of really good asparagus at the grocery store or farmers market. Get familiar and inspect your asparagus. It's the best way to ensure you're bringing home the best bunch.
What does the freshest asparagus look like?
- Color: Look for asparagus that's plump and straight, with vibrant green color. Avoid any with shriveled or wrinkly stems.
- Shape & form: Check out the ends and tips. Put back any bunches with dry, split, or excessively woody stems — this is a sign of older asparagus or mushy tips.
Choose thick or thin asparagus based on how you plan to use it.
It's helpful at have at least a loose game plan for how you'll cook a bunch of asparagus before you buy it. Will you steam, roast, grill, stir-fry, or eat raw? While thick versus thin asparagus is partly a matter of taste, a helpful way to decide between the two is how they'll be cooked.
- Thin spears take well to being blanched for a salad, steamed, tossed in a stir-fry, blitzed into pesto, and being eaten raw.
- Thick spears are the better choice for grilling and roasting, and are also nice for steaming as well.
Prep Your Asparagus Right Every Time
A totally delicious finished product also relies on the prep that happens along the way. There are two (sometimes three) important steps for prepping asparagus — no matter how you plan to use it.
- Clean the tips: Dirt and sand can often get stuck in the tips of the spears, so be sure to rinse it well under cool water.
- Trim the bottoms: The bottom of asparagus is tough, woody, and should always be removed before cooking. Snap off the bottom inch or so using your fingers; the stems will naturally break where the tough woody part ends and the tender stem begins.
- Peel the skin: The step is optional, but beneficial when you're working with really thick asparagus, which can have especially tough, chewy skin (this is especially true of white asparagus). Use a vegetable peeler to peel just the bottom third of each stem, working in a downward motion, and plan to reduce the cook time by a minute or two.
Pro Tips for Every Way to Make Asparagus
The best tips for cooking asparagus all depend on the specific methods you use to cook it. Here is our best tip for each method.
- Roasting asparagus: To achieve beautifully browned, crisp roasted asparagus, arrange the spears in a single layer with plenty of space on the baking sheet. When the pan is overcrowded, the vegetables will steam rather than roast, so remember to give them some breathing room.
- Grilling asparagus: Skewer the asparagus to make flipping easier and prevent them from falling through the grill grates.
- Steaming asparagus in the microwave: Wrap the asparagus in several damp (but not soaking-wet) paper towels before cooking. It'll provide just enough moisture to make them tender, but not soggy.
- Blanching asparagus: Have an ice bath ready so the asparagus can plunge in as soon as it comes off the stove. This important step stops the cooking process immediately and ensures vegetables aren't overcooked.
- Eating asparagus raw: It you love the bright, green taste of raw asparagus, ribbons are probably the most playful way to enjoy it. Start with medium- to large-sized stalks and, using a vegetable peeler, cut strips of ribbons. It's easiest if you hold the asparagus from the bottom and cut downward and away from you.