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. 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.
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.
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 6 to 8 minutes (recommended before adding to dishes). Avoid overcooking fiddleheads. They pair well with butter and lemon and are excellent in egg dishes or with hollandaise sauce. For a real treat, cook them in combination with their spring foraged brethren, morel mushrooms.
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 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 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 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, 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.