If you have recently picked up a bag of fiddleheads from the farmers market, you may be wondering how to cook fiddleheads safely, and the best way to prepare them. I'll show you how to clean, cook, and pan-fry this Springtime delicacy. So you can become a member of the fan club too!
Every year, as the trees begin to bud and the hummingbirds return to their feeders, a huge crop of fiddleheads arrive at Farmer's Markets all across New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Maine. The signs and social media posts proudly declare, "Fiddleheads have arrived!"
Eager East coasters such as myself rush in to pick up a bag (or two) of this Spring delicacy, gladly paying whatever price they are charging.
Although fiddleheads are a bit of an acquired taste, they become a yearly rite of passage for those of us in the region. If we're lucky, we have them 2 or 3 times before they dwindle away, not to be seen again until the following spring.
Most often, we get to enjoy them just once. Today I'm going to show you the most common way they are cooked and prepared - steamed (or boiled) then pan-fried in butter and finished with salt, pepper, and a touch of lemon juice or vinegar.
Like beet greens and Swiss chard, enjoying fiddleheads is less about the seasonings and how you dress them up, and more about celebrating and honoring their unique flavor and texture.
What are Fiddleheads?
Fiddleheads are the coiled fronds of the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) that appear in the early Spring months. Also known as fiddlehead ferns, they get their name from taking on the appearance of the head of a fiddle or violin, with their spiraled heads and a long stem.
Fiddleheads are a Springtime delicacy in Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, although they are also popular in Australia, Japan, and many European countries. They grow best in damp, cool areas like riverbanks and forests, making the coastal Northeast a hotspot for these tasty foraged treats.
- Fiddleheads: These can be found at Farmers' Markets and stands across New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Maine during fiddlehead season (late April-early June). They are high in vitamin C and taste similar to asparagus, spinach, and Swiss chard.
- Lemon (or vinegar): It's very common to use vinegar to add a nice acidity to cooked fiddleheads, but lemon juice is my favorite option.
- Butter: For sauteing the fiddleheads once they are cooked. If you prefer, you could use some olive oil for the added benefit of Omega 3 fatty acids.
- Salt and pepper: This is done to your taste, so be sure to sample them as you season. I like to use kosher salt, but you can use whatever you have on hand.
- Large pot
- Skillet or frying pan
- Steamer basket (optional)
- Salad spinner (optional)
How to Clean Fiddleheads
- If still in place, remove the brown papery pieces from the head.
- Trim ¼-1/2 inch of the stem off the bottom of each fiddlehead, effectively removing the browned edges.
- Place the fiddleheads in a colander or salad spinner and rinse well with cool water.
- Spin or toss the greens gently, rinsing with cool water until the water runs mostly clean.
- Shake or spin to remove excess water.
- Proceed with steaming or boiling to cook, or use in your favorite fiddlehead recipes.
How to Cook Fiddleheads
If this is your first time preparing fiddleheads, you're going to love this simple method. This is how 9/10 people in my region cook their yearly feed of fiddleheads, and it is a delicious way to enjoy these edible ferns.
Step one: Place clean fiddleheads into a pot of boiling water, or one fitted with a steamer basket. Boil for 15 minutes or steam for 10-12 minutes.
Drain and place in an ice bath (optional).
Step two: Heat a large skillet over medium heat and melt 3 tablespoons of butter.
Add the fiddleheads, and saute until lightly browned - about 2-3 minutes.
Step three: Season to your liking with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or cider vinegar.
Step four: Toss to combine, then serve immediately.
Hint: If you want to preserve the beautiful bright green color, you can do so by placing the freshly steamed fiddleheads in an ice bath. This will stop the cooking process, allowing them to stay crisp and green.
Fiddleheads are best when you eat them freshly cooked, but you can definitely store leftovers if you don't mind them being on the mushy side later on.
- Store leftover fiddleheads in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- Reheat in the microwave in 30-second intervals, OR saute in a pan with 1 tablespoon of oil or butter.
How to Freeze Fiddleheads
If you have extra fiddleheads that you would like to preserve for the rest of the year, you can do so by freezing them. For the best results, do not cook them fully before freezing.
- Boil cleaned and trimmed fiddleheads for 2 minutes.
- Drain the fiddleheads and place them into an ice bath.
- Pat dry and place into freezer bags or containers.
- Label and freeze for up to 1 year.
- To prepare, thaw and steam for 10-12 minutes, or boil for 15 minutes.
- Ice bath: Dunking the freshly steamed or boiled fiddleheads into a bowl of cold water, ice water, or cubed ice is a great way to preserve color and crispness. This stops the cooking process, allowing the fiddleheads to maintain their bright color.
- Sourcing: Make sure you buy your fiddleheads from a trustworthy source. Farmers who cultivate them, Farmer's Markets, and local grocery stores are all good options. Do not forage for them unless you are experienced or are working with a guide.
Cooking Fiddleheads Safely
Health Canada has given some guidelines for cooking Fiddleheads safely since they are often wild-foraged and can cause food poisoning if not prepared properly, or if you eat undercooked fiddleheads.
Using the Right Kind
The most important thing is to ensure you are eating fiddleheads from the appropriate variety. You want Ostrich fern fiddleheads, with the Latin name Matteuccia struthiopteris.
If you are purchasing fiddleheads from a Farmer's Market or grocery store, you can be assured that they are the appropriate variety, since they are often cultivated rather than foraged.
If you are foraging them, be sure to educate yourself on properly identifying them and/or ask for the help of an experienced local forager.
Steaming or Boiling
In order to prepare fiddleheads safely, they need to be boiled or steamed for a certain amount of time (10-15 minutes, depending on the method).
How long to boil fiddleheads: 15 minutes.
How long to steam fiddleheads: 10-12 minutes.
With vinegar: It's traditional to serve fiddleheads with cider or white vinegar, so feel free to substitute either of those for the lemon juice called for in this recipe.
Without butter: If you don't have butter on hand, are dairy-free, or want a slightly different flavor, you can use olive oil instead.
Frequently Asked Questions
Fiddleheads have a unique flavor, with slightly bitter notes that sweeten with sauteing. They taste very similar to Swiss chard, with a somewhat asparagus-like flavor.
If you live in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Maine you may be able to find fiddleheads in your local grocery store from late April through to Early June. The best place to find them though is farmer's markets and farm stands in the early Spring. If you live outside of the Northeast you can have them shipped to you by specialty grocery stores.
Fiddleheads are a seasonal delicacy in Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, and are widely consumed. The only variety of fiddleheads that are considered safe to eat is the type that is created by the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Fiddleheads must be steamed for 12 minutes or boiled for 15 minutes to ensure they are safe to eat.
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- 1 pound fiddleheads cleaned* and trimmed
- Boiling salted water
- 3 tablespoons butter
- ½ lemon juiced (or 2 tablespoons cider vinegar)
- Kosher salt to taste
- Pepper to taste
- Fit a large pot with a steamer basket, and fill it with water so that it reaches the same level as the steamer. If you don’t have a steamer, fill the pot with 5-6 cups of water - you will boil the fiddleheads instead.
- Bring to a boil over high heat, remove the steamer basket (if using), and add a generous amount of salt.
- Add the fiddleheads to the steamer basket, or directly to the boiling water. Steam for 12 minutes, or boil for 15 minutes, until the stems are tender, but still bright in color.
- Drain the fiddleheads in a colander over the sink.
- Heat a medium-sized skillet over medium heat and add the butter, stirring to melt.
- Add the fiddleheads into the simmering butter, and toss to coat.
- Saute for 2-3 minutes, or until the edges begin to brown and everything is coated in melted butter.
- Squeeze in the lemon juice and add kosher salt and black pepper to your taste.
- Serve immediately.