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The Food Lab: All About Asparagus

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Good 'gus [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If it ain't obvious to you already, I like meat. I deal with it a lot. It's tasty. I'm good at it.

But what you might not know is that I like vegetables even more. I mean, what would late summer be without Tomato-Mayonnaise-Toast sandwiches? How can you make a ramp omelet without the ramps? If L. and T. didn't exist, we'd have to content ourselves with plain old B.'s, and where's the fun in that?

And if ramps are the harbingers of spring, then asparagus is certainly its king. Amongst the vegetables that are available year-round from the supermarket, there are very few that show as drastic a change in flavor between the imported, year-round stuff, and the fresh-from-the-earth spring variety. Like peas and corn, asparagus contains a lot of sugar at the moment of harvest. As it sits around waiting to be cooked, this sugar quite rapidly begins to form starch molecules, turning a once tender and sweet stalk bland and starchy.

But the best part of asparagus is how darn easy it is to prepare. It's a great gateway vegetable for anyone who has been too intimidated to get into vegetable cookery (I know you're out there). There's almost no way short of incinerating or canning it to completely mess it up. And even if you do manage to mess it up, it's still pretty delicious stuff.

That said, there are a few questions about the powerful green stalks that need answering.

Shopping

Whether you choose bright green stalks, mild white stalks (which are grown underground to prevent chlorophyll development), or any one of the purple varieties, you should always look for the same things: firm, crisp stalks with tight, fully closed budding tips. As the asparagus ages, the petals on the tip will slowly open up, dry out, or fall off. Asparagus should appear moist, but not wet. Fresh cut and bright, not dry or woody.

Your best bet for good asparagus is at a local farmers' market or direct from a farm. Unless your supermarkets are far far better than mine, the asparagus you get in them, even during peak season, have been out of the earth for far too long to really let their flavor shine. Unless it comes direct from the farmer, asparagus' point of origin is always written either on a label or rubberband affixed to the bunch. Do me, your farmer, and your tastebuds a favor: if you live in New England, don't buy the Peruvian asparagus in the middle of May.

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Bad 'gus

Asparagus comes in all sizes, from slim, pencil-width stalks to big fat ones as thick as your thumb, and believe it or not, the size has nothing to do with their age (I would believe it). Asparagus stalks grow from an underground base from which scores of stalks shoot forth. It takes about three seasons for this crown to begin producing edible stalks, and after that, it'll continue to produce stalks for at least a couple of decades. It's the age and variety of this crown that determines the thickness of a stalk—that is, a farmer can't simply wait for a thin stalk to grow into a thicker one. It won't happen.

While both can be fantastic, I do generally choose one size over the other depending on how I'm going to cook it (or, more likely, I choose my cooking method based on the size of asparagus I happened to pick up from the farmers' market).

To Snap or to Slice?

Depending on its age, the bottom part of a stalk of asparagus can get unpleasantly woody or fibrous, and usually needs to be trimmed. But what's the best way to do this?

Traditional wisdom will tell you that the best "foolproof" way is to simply grasp the stalk at both ends and snap it. The asparagus will magically break exactly where it needs to. This question is often debated, and generally most people come down on the side of snapping. But is it really the best method, or merely an old wives' tale?

After some pretty extensive testing, I've come to realize that it's all a bunch of hokum. Indeed, depending on exactly how you apply force to the stalk, you can get it to snap pretty much anywhere along its length, even when your hands are in the exact same position. Check this out:

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Snapping is not the ideal method.

I snapped every one of these stalks with my bare hands, holding each of them at the exact same point, and was still able to make them break wherever I wanted to along their length—quite easily, I might add. For a method to be foolproof, it cannot be so strongly dependent on user input. How do I know I'm going to snap my stalks the same way my wife will? Or even if I snap stalks the same way day after day?

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Cut just above the white bit.

Far easier is to simply line them up, visually examine where most of the stalks appear to become woody (the stalk will begin to fade to white at that point), then slice them all at once, picking out any outliers and trimming them as necessary on a case-by-case basis.

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Clean, well-trimmed stalks

Does this mean that you can't snap them? Of course not. There's more than one way to trim a stalk. Just know that you don't have to, and that most likely, you're not actually doing a better job of finding the "sweet spot" than you would do with a knife.

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Peeling optional

If you want to get extra fancy with your 'gus, you can peel the stalks in order to improve their texture. Even when properly trimmed, the outer layers can have a fibrousness that is apparently upsetting to the palates of people who do things like write Michelin guides.

For me, it's a skinless vs. skin-on hot dog thing. Sometimes I want that decisive snap and thin film-like layer that skin-on asparagus gives me, just like biting into a good Sabrett's. Other times, I'm content for tender, skinless franks. If you do decide to peel, don't throw them out! The peels are still plenty flavorful and can be used to make a creamy asparagus soup or in a vegetable stock.

Storage

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The right way to store it

The best way to store asparagus is to not. As I said, its flavor dramatically diminishes over time, so the sooner you get it in the pan and into your belly, the better.

If you absolutely must store asparagus, treat it like you would a bunch of flowers*. Place the trimmed ends into a cup of water with the stalks standing straight up, then loosely cover the tips with a plastic bag to prevent evaporation. Set the whole thing in the fridge.

Some people recommend adding salt or sugar to the water the stalks are held in, but I've never been able to detect any difference in flavor when you do this. Don't bother.

*Which it in fact isn't, despite what you may have read. Asparagus "flowers"—the part you eat—are actually modified stem structures. True asparagus flowers are six-tepaled (not to be confused with petaled, though they are, in fact, also six-petaled), bell-shaped affairs with poisonous red berries.

My Favorite Ways To Cook It

Asparagus is an extremely versatile vegetable and can be cooked in dozens of ways, though unlike, say, onions or spinach, it pretty much always takes center stage in whatever preparation you use it for. For a while, the fashion was to barely cook it so that the exterior was bright green while the interior was still essentially raw. Thankfully, we've passed that stage and have once again embraced asparagus in all its forms from raw and crunchy to braised, olive-green, and totally tender.

However you cook it, it almost always benefits from a period of hard, fast cooking which can then be followed (or not) by a slower-paced session to tenderize it. Like many vegetables, asparagus is high in sugar (even more so when it's completely fresh), and high heat takes advantage of this by caramelizing those sugars and adding a bit of complexity to the mix.

Here are my five favorite ways to eat asparagus.

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Raw

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Grilled

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Broiled

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Braised

One last thing that you probably notice after your asparagus has been done eaten: That haunting smell—haunting as in it comes back and surprises you long after you thought it was gone—is caused by S-methyl thioacrylate and S-methyl 3-(methylthio)thiopropionate, chemicals identified in 1975 at the University of California at San Diego. It's not known exactly why some people seem unable to digest it, but it is known that the degree of Post-Asparagus Stinky-Urine Disorder (PASUD) is related to your genealogy. Fewer than half of Britons suffer from it, while almost 100% of the French do.

I know which country I'd rather be in for sporting matches during asparagus season.

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