Asparagus are a delectable addition to your plate, and an excellent source of vitamin K. Both delicate and versatile, this springtime stalk takes well to several cooking methods. Read on for how to cook asparagus any way you wish, and my chef tips for choosing and seasoning your bunch.
The health benefits of eating asparagus
When in season in the spring and early summer, asparagus are a fun, flavorful, unique addition to your diet. As the weather warms and we bring the grill out of hibernation, I love drizzling grilled asparagus with a bright orange vinaigrette. Asparagus pair well with most any meat or fish, and add beautiful color and texture to pasta and vegan dishes.
Like many deeply colored vegetables, the spears are antioxidant rock stars, a great source of vitamins K, C and folate and a cup offers almost two grams of gut-friendly fiber.
Picking and choosing the best bunch
The integrity of asparagus is fleeting once harvested, but can be preserved if the spears are carefully stored. Fresh asparagus bunches in the produce section should be standing in a shallow tray of water. Frozen asparagus spears are a great option in the winter months to toss in pasta dishes or mix in your scrambled eggs.
Look for spears rich in color with tight-knit tips, firm and smooth stems and no signs of cracking or drying.
Green. Green asparagus are the most common variety, and come in a range of sizes. Thinner spears take well to pan-roasting and sautéing, while thicker ones are perfect for oven-roasting or grilling.
White. White asparagus are deprived of sunlight as they grow, preventing the formation of chlorophyll (the green pigment in plants). With tougher skin, it’s best to trim the bottoms AND peel white asparagus before cooking.
Purple. This deeply-hued vegetable with Italian origins is significantly sweeter than its white or purple cousins. If you are able to find this exotic variety, take care in storing it and cook it as soon as possible.
Methods for trimming + peeling asparagus
Depending on who you ask, you could be told five different methods for prepping asparagus. Some simply trim away the woodier lower stems. Many chefs consider not peeling the spears culinary sacrilege. For the sake of calling the shots in your own kitchen, I believe the correct answer depends on the asparagus.
Unless you are cooking asparagus spears as thin as pencils, trimming the woody bottoms is a best practice. Even with super-slim spears, I like to trim away the bottom half-inch of the stem to even them out.
Trim Method #1. I like the natural snap method of bending one spear in half until it snaps naturally. To prevent it from simply breaking in half, hold the spear at the very bottom and a couple inches below the tip. Line up the remaining spears and cut them to same length as the one you snapped naturally.
Trim Method #2. Simply slice away the bottom couple inches of the stem. The thicker the spears, the higher up on the stem you want to slice.
Peeling the skin.
In fine dining, this is an imperative step in preparing asparagus as it removes the fibrous skin and equals a more palatable mouthful. In your home kitchen, I say you decide. With thicker spears, I take a few moments to peel away the skin from the bottom third after trimming.
The Exception: white asparagus. White asparagus are grown differently from green or purple, and peeling is a must. Not only can the lower stems be downright sinewy, the skin is much thicker. Not edible times. Peel away my friends, if you happen to snag white asparagus in season.
Boiling: the fastest way to cook asparagus (but be careful)
Boiling is not the sexiest cooking method, but it gets the job done with minimal time and effort. Do know that with asparagus or any vegetable, boiling will leach out water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C, B6 and B12.
How to boil asparagus. Bring a medium or large pot of water to boil. Add several pinches of salt, and then peeled and/or trimmed asparagus.
Stay close when boiling. Especially in spring, young, tender asparagus spears can turn to mush in a matter of moments.
How to blanch asparagus
One technique culinary students and budding chefs learn from the start is how to blanch vegetables. Blanching is simply adding a step to boiling: immediately placing boiled vegetables in ice water to bring down their temperature, which prevents carry-over cooking and sets the color.
A brief stint in the ice bath is all that’s needed. Too much frozen swimming risks a water-logged bunch.
How to roast (or bake) asparagus
While the oven is the place for both roasting and baking any food, the difference is in the temperature and the state of the food.
Roasting is done at higher temperatures where the goal is to caramelize (brown) the sugars in the food. Baking is typically carried out at temperatures of 350° F/177° C or lower, and traditionally refers to a homogenous mixture like cake batter, not whole pieces of food.
Roasted asparagus. Toss trimmed asparagus in a high-heat oil like avocado or refined coconut and season with salt, pepper and any dried herbs and spices. Roast spread evenly on a baking pan at a heat of 375°-425° F until tender and a deep golden brown. Shake the pan or toss the asparagus occasionally to encourage even browning. Cover with foil if the spears threaten to over-brown before the stems are tender.
Slow-roasted (baked) asparagus. If you don’t like your vegetables too crispy or too caramelized, bake oiled and seasoned asparagus in a 325° F/160° C oven until fork tender. The cooking time will be significantly longer than roasting. They will still brown, just not as much.
Pan-roasted or sautéed asparagus
Pan-roasting and sautéing are essentially the same cooking technique. To sauté or pan-roast any food is to cook and brown it in a shallow pan with a small amount of oil or butter (fat). For a crispier, fresher side dish, I love sautéing smaller pieces of peeled asparagus in brown butter until tender.
Choose spears on the thinner side for this technique, with thicker stems you risk burning the outside before the stems are tender.
The delicate art of steaming asparagus
Steaming is perhaps the best way to cook any vegetable when you are looking to maximize its nutritional value. With boiling, the water leaches out certain nutrients, and roasting at high temperatures degrades heat-sensitive ones.
How long to steam asparagus?
Well, it depends. With any cooking venture, I hesitate to give exact times, and question anyone who claims to know them. All stoves are different, and no one vegetable is an exact clone of another. How long a thinner bunch of asparagus cooks in my steamer, will be different from the cooking time of your thicker, more fibrous stalks.
When steaming asparagus, begin checking the smallest stalk after the first five minutes. Then checking every few minutes after that is a safe way to prevent a mushy result.
Grilled asparagus with a simple, spunky dressing
Check out my write-up on grilled asparagus here.
Ideas for asparagus recipes
Asparagus with bacon. For boiled or steamed asparagus, crisp small pieces of bacon or pancetta in a pan over medium heat, then toss together. If roasting, sprinkle small pieces of bacon among the spears on the pan before roasting. Bacon-wrapped asparagus is very popular (below), and a simple technique for umami-filled edible times.
Parmesan. Grate Parmesan over any cooked asparagus, and drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil for a good dose of healthy (monounsaturated) fat.
Hollandaise. If you’re in the mood for a little challenge, whip up a batch of hollandaise sauce. If you’ve never made it before, I explain how to make hollandaise sauce here. Rich yet tart, silky and luxurious, classic hollandaise complements many dishes including those with salmon, chicken, beef and of course, asparagus.
Quiche or frittata. Asparagus lend a lovely, earthy element to baked egg dishes. The spears should be par-cooked and blanched (briefly soaked in ice water) prior to joining the quiche or frittata batter. For the standard egg custard ratio and my favorite quiche with tomatoes and asparagus, check this out.
My favorite oven-roasted asparagus technique
If I’m going to roast asparagus, there will bacon. Or pancetta. Or even salty, crispy prosciutto. Whether asparagus speckled with small crispy morsels or bundles of whole spears wrapped in meaty strips, asparagus and bacon is a match made in heaven. If you have a heat-proof rack, it helps the bundles cook faster and more evenly.
I love this method because roasting brings out an intense sweet nuance, and is seriously a minimal-mess dish. Because along with eating more in-season vegetables, we all need fewer dishes to clean.
Yours in spears,Print
An easy, indulgent (and keto!) side dish for any dinner. What I love about this way of roasting asparagus, is that it’s insanely flexible and incredibly simple. Plus, it calls for bacon.
- one bunch of asparagus (16–18 individual spears)
- 4–8 strips of good quality bacon
- avocado oil
- salt and black pepper
- Heat oven to 400° F/200° C.
- Snap one asparagus spear into two pieces by holding a couple inches from the tip and at the bottom. Then bend it, allowing the stem to snap naturally.
- Trim the rest of the bunch to the same length.
- Create groups of spears with three to five asparagus each (cook’s choice, of course!).
- Roll each group of asparagus up in a strip of bacon, giving each a few inches space on the sheet pan.
- Roast for 20-30 minutes, until the bacon is dark and crispy, and the asparagus are fork tender. If the asparagus brown too quickly before fully cooked, turn the oven down 20°-30° or cover the pan with foil.
‘Unwrapped’ Bacon + Asparagus
- Complete steps 1 thru 3 above.
- Slice several bacon strips cross-wise into 1-inch pieces, and scatter among salted and oiled asparagus on sheet pan. Drape several pieces of sliced bacon over each spear.
- Roast 15-20 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus, until the largest one is fork tender.
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