The most common way burdock root gets used is as a holistic medicine. However, the ingredient has gone beyond traditional medical uses and been popping up in commercial teas and skin and hair products. It's a classic ingredient in Chinese folk recipes, and in Japan, burdock root (aka gobo) is used as a starchy vegetable. This food tends to be shaped like a long carrot and, has coarse outer skin protecting the whitish inside. Whether you want to cook with burdock or wish to make the root into a healthy tea, it's time to start getting to know this ingredient.
What Is Burdock Root?
The scientific name is Arctium lappa, and in Japan, burdock root is called gobo. But no matter what you call it, this long, brown-black root has a lot of uses—both in the culinary and medicinal world. It's originally thought that burdock hales from Asia and Europe, but this plant also has a history in Indonesia and the United States, where it was sought out by the Native American tribes of Ojibwa, Malecite, Micmac, Iroquois, and Menominee, to name a few.
All cultures process the whole plant from flower to root. Though it's the root that prevails in most folk medicine, where it's used to aid in digestion and to balance out internal heat, what we today call detoxification. Europeans used a poultice of the root to help with skin conditions and to ease achy muscles. Burdock root also has been an ingredient found in home-brewed beer, something that added that bitter, hop-like nuance while giving the drink a healthy boost.
In a non-food related tale, burdock became the inspiration for Velcro, thanks to the sticky seed burrs. Legend has it Georges de Mestral, a Swiss electrical engineer, was traipsing about the mountains and observed the burrs sticking to his wool socks and dog's fur. He took the barbed seeds and replicated the gripping quality to create the famous Velcro in 1955.
What to Do With Burdock Root
Though it's mainly used for medicinal reasons, eating burdock like any other root vegetable proves common too, especially in Japan. Here the ingredient is called gobo, and it's prepped by slicing, roll cutting, sectioning into chunks, and julienning. The earthy flavor proves great when combined with juicy meats. Once roasted or boiled, you can toss it in a grain bowl, puree it into a creamy soup, and add to a hearty stew or vegetable melody. Saute thin slices of the stuff with other foods to make a stir fry or side dish. Or, stick to the holistic approach and steep the root (and other herbs) in boiling water for about 10 minutes to make tea.
What Does Burdock Root Taste Like?
Like most roots, burdock has an earthy essence and a bit of a nutty undertone. It's warming and hearty, and if you sweeten burdock tea with honey, the bitterness of the star ingredient quells, and the brew proves quite pleasant. Added to a meal, burdock can give the dish a toothsome heft, and slight meaty nuance. Some find the root to taste a little like a dirt-laced artichoke, one of the plants it's related to.
Burdock Root Recipes
You won't find many non-Japanese recipes that call for burdock root, but it can take the place of other common, bitter roots. It's mild in flavor, though the earthiness does stand out, which make chicory or lotus root the best bets when substituting for or instead of. Try it with one of these three recipes.
Where to Buy Burdock Root
You won't find burdock root at any grocery, though many Asian stores will carry it. You can buy it fresh in the spring and late fall, or purchase it powdered or dried. The latter two ways don't make for good cooking, but you can use it in teas. Another way to find dehydrated burdock root is online from many digital herbs, tea, and Asian ingredient shops.
When harvested or bought fresh, you can keep burdock root like any other root vegetable, either in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark spot in the pantry or basement. It's best not to trim the ends until you're ready to use it, and certainly don't peel the root until it's time to work with it. Dried or powdered, the ingredient will last longer as long as it's kept in a dry, dim area. Make sure it's in a sealed container so moisture and/or bugs don't invade.
Nutrition and Benefits
This ingredient sings with nutritional benefits and has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to help with digestion and as a diuretic, which can tame high blood pressure. It's also used to cleanse the blood of toxins, something that helps with blood circulation to the skin. There have been plenty of studies showing some clout in these claims, which is why you will see burdock root in the ingredient list of some beauty products. Because it has anti-inflammatory properties, the root can be used to treat skin issues, such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis when used topically.
As for actual nutrients and minerals found inside the root, it packs a good amount of manganese, magnesium, potassium, vitamin B6, and folate; and a little calcium, vitamin C, copper, zinc, and iron. There's a bit of protein too, so even if you aren't eating it to improve skin condition and blood flow, it has plenty of other stuff your body needs.
There's only one main burdock root, but you will find it under the name gobo root, especially if you're in a Japanese restaurant or shop. You may also see burdock root under the Native American name, bardana, and other monikers for the stuff, including beggar's buttons, love leaves, happy major, thorny burr, clot burr, fox clote, and cockle buttons.
As for shopping, the most common way you'll find this ingredient is powdered or dried, though seasonally, it can be sourced fresh, and also comes as an oil or extract.
In the 1970s, this food became taboo after many people were sickened with atropine poisonings from a packaged burdock root tea. Turns out the producer has mistaken the similar-looking deadly nightshade plant for the burdock, the latter having no poison in it at all. A lot of the other myths surrounding this ingredient come in the form of medical anomalies, but many are actually based on how burdock really can help the body. Ones that may not be true include using burdock as an aphrodisiac and to cure every blood-related issue.