Cooking Asparagus—The Right Ways to Do it

Close up of uncooked green asparagus on a green background.

When it comes to cooking asparagus many of us just automatically steam or simmer it, considering that’s the way our folks probably did it. In my home, asparagus was that ugly 70s split pea green color and came doused with lots of ranch dressing. Were it not for the dressing, those depressing, wilted stalks would have sat there untouched.

So sure it’s a simple question to ask but what are the best ways of cooking asparagus? Well here are the answers, via my quick survey of what the chefs and cooks have to say.

Roast It!
Nowadays, most chefs have come to prefer roasting to simmering or steaming this perennial plant.
Roasting, being a dry heat cooking method, uses dry heat to cook the asparagus rather than water or water vapor which is what simmering and steaming use, respectively. Obviously, simmering anything in water means some of the flavor and nutrients will be lost in the water. Steaming also causes significant leaching too. Roasting, and by this I mean, baking at a high temperature, 400 degrees or higher without a lid, forces the vegetable to cook in its own juices. For vegetables with a high water content roasting is often the more flavorful way to go. Plus, if done right, you retain the natural crispness of the vegetable.

So what’s the best way to roast asparagus?

When it comes to asparagus recipes for roasting, The Pioneer Woman has a surefire one that’s bound to please. According to her, the best way to roast your asparagus is to heat your oven to 425° and rinse and dry your asparagus, popping of the tough part of the stem (they break off right where they should when you bend them in an arch). It’s important to make sure your asparagus is dry, if not you’ll end up steaming them instead of roasting. Drizzle on a nice amount of olive oil and salt them with kosher salt and good black pepper. Pop them in the oven for ten minutes and voila, perfect, tasty asparagus that has some real character! Follow link for the full recipe.

Give ‘Em the Shock Treatment

Second to roasting, blanching, not steaming or simmering is the way you want to go. Why blanch you say? Blanching is a shock treatment often used with vegetables as a way to retain or enhance their natural flavor, maintain crispness and achieve a lovely bright green or orange in the case of carrot, etcetera, etcetera.

The trick to blanching is to do it right. You’re going to quickly submerge your asparagus and then place it in an ice bath. So, most of the time, this will be the very last item you’re going to plate, so plan accordingly. Make an ice bath before you submerge the asparagus and have your serving plate set up and ready to go. If you want to salt and pepper or dress your asparagus in olive oil, have a pan or casserole dish prepped so you can toss and plate in just a few seconds.

For one pound of asparagus, use one gallon of water. Bring water to a rolling boil. Once it’s at a boil, submerge the asparagus. You can use a wire mesh rack to do this. A hot strainer works better than a cool one, since that will bring the temp of the boiling water to drop. So boil your water with the rack inside and fish it out, load the asparagus and submerge. Water should return to a rolling boil within about a minute. Skinny asparagus will take 2 minutes, thick asparagus about four. Pull out strainer and submerge asparagus in ice bath. You will see the color become a very vibrant green. Dress and plate. If you don’t want to use a strainer, that’s fine, just set a colander in the sink and plan on picking up a heavy pot that’s full of boiling water. Strain and plop into that ice bath.

Blanching is also great for vegetables you’re going to freeze and prepare later. Great instructions on how to do that here from University of Minnesota.

Go Grill!

The famous cookbook author, Mark Bittman says asparagus is “terrific when blasted with high heat” and nothing does that better than a hot, hot grill, resulting in deeply browned, slightly charred stalks with tender, hot, sweet interiors that are totally bitable and probably best followed by a swig of beer. Thick stalks are best since they won’t fall through the grill. All you need is some olive oil, a grill, salt and lemon wedges for serving.

Quick tips:

  • When you buy asparagus, look for firm tips and good color. Thinner asparagus is generally better for blanching while thicker asparagus can do fine for grilling and roasting.
  • The fresher, the better. Asparagus will keep for three days in the refrigerator but if you cook them past day one, rehydrate them by submerging them in ice water before you cook them. You can also store them in water, standing upright like flowers, in your fridge.
  • For a more polished look and/or less roughage, use a vegetable peeler to peel the bottom third of the asparagus stalk. Don’t overdo it since that can make your asparagus flimsy.

For more asparagus tips and recipes, visit this page.

Happy Cooking!

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