How to Buy, Store, Prep, and Cook Asparagus

updated Apr 17, 2020
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Credit: Laren Volo

No other produce marks the entrance of spring with quite the same fervor as asparagus. Their long, slender stems are often the first sign of spring at the farmers market, with the promise of strawberries right on their heels. While these farmers market beauties are only available from February to June, hothouse-grown varieties are available year-round, making this vegetable a staple of home cooking and spring eating.

This comprehensive produce guide will cover everything from buying and storing this vibrant spring vegetable, to better ways to prepare and cook it.

How to Buy Asparagus

Whether you are shopping for asparagus at the farmers market or the grocery store, selecting the best bunch of asparagus is the same.

  • Look for asparagus stems that are plump and straight.
  • Avoid any bunches with dry, split, or excessively woody ends.
  • Avoid asparagus with shriveled or wrinkly stems.

What’s the Difference Between Thick and Thin Asparagus?

Choosing thick or thin asparagus is a matter of taste and of how you plan to prepare your asparagus. It was long believed that thinner stems signified a sweeter and more tender asparagus, but we now understand that thicker asparagus come from older asparagus plants and often have more vegetal flavor.

Thin asparagus is wonderful for raw applications, such as shaving it into thin ribbons or chopped and added to salads. Thin asparagus takes well to steaming, stir-fries, and turning into pesto.

Thick asparagus can be juicy and fun to eat. It is ideal for serving under hollandaise sauce or poached eggs. Thick asparagus also loves to be blanched and tossed with butter or olive oil as a simple side, or to be roasted to tender submission in the oven.

What’s the Difference Between Green, Purple, and White Varieties?

Green is the most widely available asparagus in most supermarkets. There are several varieties of green asparagus, ranging from thin to thick spears, and light green to dark green with deep purple tips.

Purple asparagus is a variety of green asparagus, grown without any special conditions. Purple Passion and Purple Pacific are two common varieties of purple asparagus. While the outside of the asparagus is purple, the interior is green and the purple hue won’t stay after cooking. Purple asparagus is generally sweeter and more tender than green asparagus, making it ideal for raw applications where it can keep its color.

White asparagus is grown without sunlight, preventing the formation of chlorophyll and keeping the asparagus white. White asparagus is thicker and less tender than purple and green varieties. It is best when the bottom two inches of the stems are peeled and then blanched. Serve with butter or hollandaise for dipping.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

How to Store Asparagus

Once you get your asparagus home, you’ll want to eat it within a few days. The best way to store your asparagus is to treat it like fresh flowers; asparagus are a member of the lily family, after all:

  • Fill a glass or jar with an inch or two of cool fresh water.
  • Trim a 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch of the asparagus’ woody end.
  • Place the asparagus, tips up, in the glass and store in the refrigerator.
  • You can cover the asparagus loosely with plastic wrap or with a plastic bag to prevent the asparagus aroma from taking over your fridge, but this isn’t required.
(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

How to Clean and Prep Asparagus

Asparagus, like any other produce, should be rinsed before consuming or cooking. But don’t rinse the asparagus before storage, as that can lead to spoilage. Instead, rinse the asparagus spears just before cooking or cutting. Use a colander and cool water to give the stems a quick rinse and then shake dry. If you need really dry stems, spread the rinsed spears out into a single layer on a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and roll up the towel to pat dry.

Read more: How to Buy, Store, Clean, and Cook Asparagus

What Should I Know About Trimming and Peeling Asparagus?

Trimming or removing the dry root ends of the asparagus, which can be tough and fibrous, makes for a better cooking and eating experience. Deciding just how much to trim will depend on the variety and thickness of your asparagus, but a good rule of thumb is at least an inch. When in doubt, give a raw stem a taste. Where the stem gets woody and dry is where you’ll want to trim the rest of the bunch.

You can use a sharp knife for trimming, or you can snap off the stem ends by hand. Hold the spear between your thumb and forefinger, then gently bend the stalk until it snaps. It will snap at the point where the asparagus goes from delightfully tender to woody.

Learn how to do it: How to Trim Asparagus

As for peeling, it depends on the asparagus. Skip peeling for very thin stems to avoid waste and prevent overcooking. Really thick asparagus often has tough outer skin close to the roots (this is especially true of white asparagus). It’s not strictly necessary, but you can peel this coating away with a vegetable peeler. Peel the bottom third of each stem, working in a downward motion to prevent waste. Note that peeled asparagus will have a slightly shorter cook time.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

How to Cook Asparagus

You’ve got plenty of options when it comes to cooking asparagus. Some, like steaming and blanching, preserve its clean, grassy flavor, while others, like roasting or grilling, bring out a mellow sweetness.

Blanching: Blanching — that is, quickly cooking asparagus in salted boiling water — is one of the most common cooking methods for this grassy vegetable. Blanching deepens the asparagus’ green color and prevents discoloration, which is important if you plan to dress it up later.

The most important thing to note about blanching is that you must salt the water to season the asparagus while it cooks. Also, don’t boil the asparagus too long, or it will become mushy and gray; just three minutes is all these stems need to become tender crisp.

Steaming: Steaming is another popular method for cooking asparagus, but rather than bringing a pot of water to a boil and breaking out your steamer basket, use the microwave and a moist paper towel to quickly steam asparagus instead.

Roasting: Roasting is one of the most beloved methods for cooking asparagus. Roasting is completely hands-off and an ideal technique for preparing large quantities of asparagus for a crowd.

Ribboning: Admittedly, turning raw asparagus into a salad is less cooking and more technique, but is certainly worthy of inclusion here. I’d say ribboning is the best way to enjoy that special bundle of asparagus you pick up at the farmers market when the season strikes. Every grassy, spring-promising flavor of the asparagus can be tasted when you serve asparagus raw. Use a hearty vegetable peeler or mandoline to slice each stem into a paper-thin ribbon.

Pickling: Pickling is fine way to preserve peak-season asparagus. It can be mighty impressive for serving alongside soft-boiled eggs and smoked salmon on your brunch table, too.

Credit: Lauren Volo

Our Favorite Asparagus Recipes

Beyond the basic cooking methods for asparagus, we should talk about our favorite ways to eat asparagus too. Once you’ve blanched, roasted, or shaved your asparagus, there are even more ways to showcase its flavor.