Foraged from the ostrich fern, fiddleheads are the plant's young shoots that look like tiny scrolls popping out of the dirt. Only available for a short window of time during the spring, they are a delicious delicacy with many devoted fans who can hardly wait for fiddlehead season. Often simply prepared the same day they're harvested, fiddleheads offer a charming taste of spring.
What Are Fiddleheads?
Fiddleheads are the tightly coiled tips of ferns. These delicate delights are available only in early spring when ferns grow their new shoots. The young fern fronds are mainly available by foraging.
The fiddleheads eaten in North America are from the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Other ferns can be toxic, so never forage without an experienced guide. It's also important to harvest just a few fiddleheads in a cluster or the fern could die. Lucky for fiddlehead fans, ostrich ferns are fairly common, especially in temperate woodland areas and near streams. They grow in dense clumps, from the northern plains states to the east coast of the United States and throughout most of Canada.
How to Cook With Fiddleheads
Rinse fiddleheads in several changes of cold water, removing any dirt or grit, before using. Fiddleheads are delicate items that quickly lose their bright flavor and crisp texture, so use them as soon as possible after harvest to experience the best taste and texture.
Fiddleheads should be at least lightly cooked (some authorities recommend they be completely cooked). Raw fiddleheads can carry foodborne illness and/or cause stomach upset if eaten in large quantities. Fiddleheads are tasty steamed or sautéed. They can also be boiled for six to eight minutes (recommended before adding to dishes). Avoid overcooking fiddleheads. They pair well with butter and lemon, and excellent in egg dishes or with hollandaise sauce. For a real treat, cook them in combination with their spring foraged brethren, morel mushrooms.
What Does It Taste Like?
Fiddleheads have a grassy, spring-like flavor with a hint of nuttiness. Many people agree that they taste like a cross between asparagus and young spinach. Some detect an artichoke flavor as well, and even a bit of mushroom.
There is usually not much fuss when it comes to cooking fiddleheads; the goal is to enjoy their flavor. They're most often simply prepared and eaten as a side rather than integrated into recipes or complex dishes. You could, however, serve sautéed or steamed fiddleheads on top of pasta and salads. They can also be added to baked egg dishes, soups, and stir-fries.
Where to Find Fiddleheads
Foraging for fiddleheads is a favorite spring activity in many areas where they grow. The season generally runs from mid-April through early May, depending on that year's weather. If you're not a forager, fiddleheads can be found at some farmers markets or grocery stores with a wild produce section. Individual foragers may also offer fiddleheads for sale by the pound. Some online stores that specialize in wild produce will ship frozen fiddleheads. Prices vary greatly and you will find that some are extremely expensive.
Look for bright green specimens with tightly coiled tops. You want only 1 to 2 inches of stem attached to the coil. Anything longer should be snapped off and discarded.
Shortly after harvest, fiddleheads start to turn brown, drying out on the ends and turning mushy in the coils. If you need to store fiddleheads, wrap them lightly in plastic wrap and keep chilled. They will continue to ripen and uncurl, so eat them within a day.
Due to their short season, many fiddlehead fans like to pickle them. They can also be frozen for up to 9 months. It's best to blanch them, dip them in cold water, and dry thoroughly first. To avoid clumping, flash-freeze fiddleheads in a single layer before transferring to freezer-safe storage bags. When ready to eat, don't thaw them; boil or steam them frozen.
Nutrition and Benefits
Fiddleheads have almost no fat and they're low in calories. These foraged finds are also a good source of vitamin C, niacin, and potassium. Though they are nutritious, eating too many will likely cause digestive issues. Keep your servings small.