Real Food Encyclopedia | Fiddleheads
Few vegetables are as beautiful as fiddleheads, the shoots of various species of fern. And, as long as they’re foraged carefully, they’re very sustainable, too. The predominant type of fiddlehead is bright green, with tightly coiled heads, sometimes with bits of the forest floor still clinging to them. With a flavor slightly reminiscent of asparagus, but somehow also nutty and pleasantly bitter, fiddleheads are, in some parts of the country, a delicious reminder that the doldrums of winter are finally over.
Fun Facts about Fiddleheads:
- Melvin Nash, Canadian author of “Cooking North America’s Finest Gourmet Fiddleheads” (and inventor of a “personal fiddlehead-harvesting machine”) notes that the Maliseet and the Mi’kmaq tribes of Eastern Canada and Maine were probably the first groups to harvest the edible ostrich fern shoots. Acadians, descendants of French colonists who settled in Eastern Canada and Maine, apparently picked up this fiddlehead-eating practice from the Maliseet and the Mi’kmaq, with whom they were in contact. Fiddleheads are still a very popular seasonal delicacy in Maine, Quebec and other parts of Eastern Canada.
- According to ethnobotanists from the University of North Carolina, bracken fern fiddleheads have been used worldwide for lots of interesting things including: beer making (Siberia and Norway), a treatment for intestinal worms and diarrhea (North America) and as a preservative for wine (Europe).
What to Look for When Buying Fiddleheads
Fiddleheads of the ostrich fern, probably the most common fiddleheads seen in most of the US, really do resemble the scroll of a violin, with a tightly curled head and a fairly thick stem. They are beautifully bright green and in the Northeast are one of the very first veggies available in the earliest part of spring. Many other types of ferns look very similar, and some are highly and immediately poisonous, so unless you are a foraging expert, please avoid trying to harvest your own!
Other types of fiddleheads, like the bracken fern, look a little different — described as “curled like an eagle’s talon” or, perhaps more poetically, resembling “an arthritic bird’s talons.”
Look for ostrich fern fiddleheads that are tightly curled and no bigger than a half-dollar (any larger and they start to get tough). Unfurled fiddleheads are also not yummy. You may notice brown, papery bits clinging to the veggie — that’s just a part of the plant itself, most of which will be rinsed off when you clean them.
Sustainability of Fiddleheads
Most fiddleheads aren’t cultivated; rather, they are foraged in forested areas. (Banks of rivers and creeks are supposed to be quite popular amongst fiddlehead foragers.) However, in Ontario, Canada, one enterprising farmer seems to be changing the traditional foraging method for fiddlehead collection. He started NorCliff Farms, where he has planted ostrich ferns for harvest for the commercial market.
As long as foragers are environmentally conscious, fiddlehead foraging seems to have little environmental impact. The Wall Street Journal, in an article about fiddleheads notes, “the unwritten ethic among fiddlehead foragers is to take three violin tops.” Here is a super interesting video about foraging for fiddleheads in the Berkshire Mountains.
Fiddleheads of many species (including ostrich ferns and bracken) are in season in most places in the US from late March through June. Look for them at farmers’ markets and specialty stores; they are unlikely to be found in the average supermarket.
Storing Fresh Fiddleheads
Fiddleheads don’t keep for long — stored in the crisper in your fridge, no more than a couple of days. The stem ends will probably turn dark brown; just trim them before cooking.
Cooking with Fiddleheads
Lovely fiddleheads are as diverse in the kitchen as any green veggie, as long as you steam or boil them first. Thanks to concerns about foodborne illness, all fiddleheads should be very well cleaned as well. Do not eat them raw. See below, under nutrition, for more details on that. Public health officials recommend boiling the veggie for 10-15 minutes, or steaming for at least 10 minutes.
To clean fiddleheads properly, fill a bowl or basin with water, add the fiddleheads, and then gently swish the veggies around. This removes the brown, papery bits that sometimes cling to them and any dirt or grit that may be hidden inside those pretty little coils.
After the necessary steaming or boiling, fiddleheads are delicious sautéed in butter, fried (like this tempura-fried fiddlehead recipe, yum!), made into soup, tossed into risotto (or pasta) or grilled. They are extra delicious paired with their seasonal buddies — morels and ramps or spring onions. Fiddleheads pair nicely with new potatoes and eggs, too.
Fiddleheads of various species are also eaten in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Hawaiian, Thai and Indian cuisines. In Korean cuisine, fiddleheads are eaten in bibimbap (a dish of rice, vegetables, eggs and sometimes meat, traditionally made with bracken fern fiddleheads (gosari) or with royal ferns (gobi namul) or sautéed. The Japanese eat bracken fern fiddleheads (warabi) as a vegetable and in soup — here’s an amazing recipe roundup of Japanese bracken dishes. Warabi can also be found in Hawaii, where it is used in dishes like this warabi salad. Indonesians make a dish called gulai pakis that combines fiddleheads with coconut milk, lemongrass and turmeric, while the Thais eat ferns (pak kood) in soups, salads and steamed (and here’s a take on a Thai curry made with fiddleheads and shrimp). Fiddleheads of various species are also part of traditional Himalayan cuisine in India (called nigro or lingra); dishes include fiddlehead curry, a sautéed fiddlehead dish with cheese, and fiddlehead pickles.
Bracken fern rhizomes (roots) are also eaten — they are made into a type of super pricy starch in Japan (with which a super yummy-looking mochi is made) and were traditionally roasted in ashes by many Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest.
Fiddleheads are commonly frozen. Here’s a great step-by-step how-to guide (with video). They are also frequently pickled. Here’s a yummy pickled fiddlehead recipe from Maine, and one from pickling expert Marisa McClellan.
Fiddleheads are high in Vitamins A and C, and are good sources of niacin and manganese and even contain some protein and iron. Like most vegetables, they are high in fiber and low in calories. Researchers in Canada have recently discovered that ostrich fern fiddleheads are quite high in omega-3 fatty acids. These same Canadian researchers have also discovered that ostrich fern fiddleheads are high in other antioxidants, too, with twice the antioxidants of blueberries.
Some bad news: There is pretty compelling evidence that some types of fiddleheads cause cancer, most notably bracken ferns (Pteridium family), common in Korean and Japanese cuisine; also found commonly on the West Coast of the US. As Hank Shaw (author of the amazing website Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook) discusses in his article on bracken ferns for The Atlantic, the current thinking is that certain preparation methods lesson the carcinogenic affects of these types of fiddleheads, but they should probably be eaten in moderation — and never, ever raw.
Fiddleheads have also been linked to a number of food-borne illnesses in both the US and Canada. It is still unclear what the cause of the illness is, but what is known is that, like bracken ferns, ostrich fern fiddleheads should never be eaten raw or even lightly sautéed. They also need to be washed really, really well prior to cooking.