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. Fiddleheads are foraged from the wild in certain parts of the U.S. and Canada where they're also most often consumed. Some foragers sell them to markets, making them available to more people. Best when simply prepared by sautéing or steaming right after harvest, fiddleheads offer a charming taste of spring for simple dishes.
What Are Fiddleheads?
Fiddleheads are the tightly coiled tips of ferns that are eaten cooked. These delicate delights are available only in early spring when ferns grow their new shoots. The young fern fronds are mainly available by foraging or at farmers markets.
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.
It's not necessary to forage them yourself because fiddleheads may be found at markets that specialize in wild foods. They are not widely available, however, and are expensive due to their short season. Fiddleheads require little preparation beyond a thorough rinse. They are best lightly cooked, whether sautéed, steamed, or boiled, and can be served as a light side or on top of a dish.
Fiddleheads and Food Safety
The most important thing to remember when it comes to fiddleheads is that they need to be cooked. Fiddleheads have been linked to cases of severe food poisoning caused by what is believed to be some sort of toxin in the fiddleheads. Although the exact nature of the toxin is unknown, cooking seems to render it harmless. Fiddleheads need to be cooked thoroughly, as undercooked ones are believed to be just as dangerous as raw ones.
The botanical meaning of the word fiddlehead refers to the stage of development of a fern when the fronds are coiled. This means that ferns other than the ostrich fern can look like fiddleheads, but other varieties can make you sick. If you intend to forage for fiddleheads, it's important to be able to identify them.
As long as you purchase your fiddleheads from the grocery store or farmers market you can be sure you're getting actual ostrich ferns. Apart from that, just make sure the fronds are tightly wound with no discoloration. Smaller ones will tend to have a milder flavor.
How to Cook With Fiddleheads
To prepare fiddleheads, start by removing any of the papery brown skin and trim away any brown stem ends. Wash them thoroughly to remove any dirt from the fronds. A good way to wash them is to fill a sink with cold water and submerge the fiddleheads, swishing them around to loosen any dirt. Depending on how dirty they are, you might have to fill the sink again and repeat the process.
The next step is to boil the fiddleheads. This stage of cooking is for the purpose of deactivating the toxin, so even if you plan to roast or sauté the fiddleheads, don't skip this step. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the fiddleheads, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Then drain the fiddleheads and plunge them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Let them cool until they're no longer warm to the touch, then drain again and dry them thoroughly with paper towels. Fiddleheads cooked this way will be tender but will retain their crisp, snappy bite.
Instead of boiling, you can steam them in a steamer basket for 10 to 12 minutes, then chill in the ice bath and drain as described. When steamed, fiddleheads have a slightly more bitter flavor than when they're boiled, similar to broccoli rabe. Steamed or boiled fiddleheads can be served as-is or sautéed.
What Do They Taste Like?
Fiddleheads have a grassy, springlike 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 can substitute them in recipes that call for green beans, asparagus, and brussels sprouts, for example. The simplest way to serve prepare them is to sauté the blanched fiddleheads in olive oil and garlic, season with Kosher salt, and finish with a splash of lemon juice.
Fiddleheads pair well with eggs, so they can go into omelets, frittatas, and scrambles. They're wonderful add-ins for pasta, rice, and risotto, and they're a perfect, crunchy ingredient in salads and soups. You could even batter and fry them to make fiddlehead tempura. Fiddleheads also go nicely with salmon, both roasted and smoked, and they also work well in Asian dishes, where they combine with soy sauce, ginger, and sesame.
Where to Buy 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. Online stores that specialize in wild produce will ship fiddleheads fresh (when in season) or frozen (while supplies last). Due to their delicate nature, fiddleheads are often prepackaged by the pound rather than sold loose. Bulk frozen fiddleheads are available, typically up to 5 pounds. Prices vary greatly, and you will find that some are extremely expensive.
Look for bright green specimens with tightly coiled tops. You want only one to two 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, rinse and dry them thoroughly, then wrap them lightly in plastic wrap and keep chilled in the coldest part of the refrigerator (typically in the back on a top shelf). They will continue to ripen and uncurl, so it's best to eat them within a day. Storage can be stretched to a week, though they will not have the fresh flavor and crispness.
Due to their short season, many fiddlehead fans like to pickle them. They can also be frozen for up to nine months. It's best to blanch them, dip them in cold water, and dry them 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.