Every thing about the artichoke—the edible flower bud of a plant in the thistle family—suggests that it doesn't want to be eaten. How else to explain the armor-like petals,* prickly thorns, and throat-clogging choke? It's enough to scare off even the most intrepid cook.
* Technically, they're bracts, not petals.
But the reality is that preparing artichokes is easy as long as you know how to go about it. Like a lion tamer, with the right tools and approach, you will prevail (and if you don't, you'll make a damned fine viral news story).
Here are three ways to go about prepping artichokes: one involves cleaning down to the hearts, one is the trimming you'd do before steaming and serving whole, and the third is what's needed for flower-like Roman-Jewish fried artichokes (carciofi alla giudia).
Note that in all cases, I recommend wearing latex gloves if you have them. While not essential, the gloves keep your skin free of the artichoke's bitter raw fluids, which have a way of tainting any other food you touch after handling the artichokes.
Before you start, fill a large bowl with cold water. Squeeze a couple lemons into it and drop the lemon halves into the water; I keep one half of a lemon off to the side in case I need it for rubbing on the cut sides of the artichoke (the citric acid can sometimes help slow browning due to oxidation).
Cleaning Down to the Hearts
Some artichoke recipes call for just the tender hearts and stems, which means trimming the artichoke of every tough, inedible part. If your plan is to steam your artichokes and nibble on each leaf before getting to the heart, this is not the method for you: Scroll on down to the steps for minimally trimming artichokes for basic steaming. But if you want the tender hearts and stems only, follow along here.
Start by pulling off the outermost leaves (again, technically, they're bracts) until you get down to the lighter yellow leaves.
Then, using a serrated knife, cut off the top third or so of the artichoke.
With the same serrated knife (or a paring knife), trim the very bottom of the stem.
With a paring knife, carefully trim the top and sides of the artichoke: Your goal is to cut in towards the heart, but you want to go slowly so that you don't accidentally gouge the heart itself. There's not a clear demarcation between leaves and heart—the leaves sort of just merge and become the heart. As soon as you don't see spaces between the leaves anymore, you're there.
Next up, use the knife to trim the tough outer portion of the stem by cutting away the fibrous green exterior to reveal the light, tender center. Be careful here, since the curved portion where the stem transitions into the heart is difficult to navigate with a knife, making it easy to accidentally cut too deep. If it takes you a while, feel free to rub any cut surfaces of the heart with the lemon half to slow browning.
The final step is to remove the choke itself: That's the furry stuff in the center of the heart that would have eventually bloomed into a flower had the artichoke not been picked while still a bud.
To do it, take a spoon and scrape away at the choke until you've scooped it out. You may need to pick up your paring knife again to clean up the last bits. What's left is the cleaned artichoke heart and stem, all totally edible and ready for cooking.
Drop your prepared heart into the lemon water and cover it with a clean dish towel soaked in water (the towel helps keep the buoyant artichoke hearts under the water level and away from the air that causes browning).
Repeat with your remaining artichokes and then cook the hearts as desired.
The Y-Peeler Trick
Do you own a y-peeler? If you don't, you should—in fact, I've already made a case for why, which you can read here.
If you've got one, use it to make the artichoke cleaning process even easier: Instead of using a paring knife, trim the heart (after pulling off the outermost leaves and cutting off the top and bottom with a serrated knife) with the y-peeler. One of the benefits of the peeler is that there's no risk of accidentally gouging the heart or stem with a too-deep knife cut. And because there's no worry of gouging, you can trim the whole thing a lot faster. And because the blade swivels, it can navigate the curved parts with ease. Unfortunately, other vegetable peelers will be more difficult to use here.
Trimming for Steaming
I'll be frank, when I steam an artichoke, I don't go through all of this trouble. I just cut off the top, then steam the thing and eat it. But some folks prefer a little more polished presentation, including removing the thorns from the leaf ends and giving it an overall trim. If that sounds appealing to you, here's how.
Start as above, by using a serrated knife to cut off the top third of the artichoke. Then, with a pair of good kitchen shears, cut off the top portion of each leaf to remove the thorny part.
If you want the artichoke to sit flat, cut off the stem right at the base of the artichoke. I don't like wasting the stem, so I just trim it with a serrated or paring knife, then peel it with a paring knife or y-peeler, as you can see in the photo above. It won't sit flat, but it still steams well and tastes just as good.
Now the artichoke is ready for steaming.
Trimming for Roman-Jewish Fried Artichokes
This is the least common of the preparation methods shown here, but it's handy to see it in case you ever want to prepare the classic Roman dish known as carciofi all giudia (Jewish-style artichokes).
The method is something of a cross between the two others above: the artichokes aren't trimmed all the way down to the heart, but the toughest portions are removed so that what's left is entirely edible.
In these photos I'm using a baby artichoke, but you can also do this with full-size ones.
Start by pulling off the outermost dark green leaves to expose the more tender, lighter ones within.
Then, with a paring knife, slice through each leaf to cut off the top, turning the artichoke in your hand as you go. Your goal is to leave the tender edible lower portions of each leaf attached while removing their tough, thorn-tipped tops. With a little practice you can quickly turn the artichoke, almost as if it's on a lathe, while the knife just holds steady, slicing through each leaf as they come around.
Once you've gotten most of the leaves trimmed like this, you can slice through the top portion of the remaining center leaves.
It should look something like a closed rosebud.
Trim the stem, using either a paring knife or a y-peeler to remove all the tough green exterior.
If you're using baby artichokes or the thorn-free variety used in Rome called "cimaroli," it's ready at this point to be cooked and eaten. If you have large thorny artichokes with a full choke in the center, you'll want to remove that too by scooping it out with a spoon, which is easiest after the first frying stage when the leaves have softened and are ready to be spread open like a flower.
Once again, you can rub these with lemon if you need to. As each artichoke is done, drop it in your bowl of cold lemon water and cover with a clean, wet kitchen towel to keep them submerged.
If you have a big artichoke already floating in that water, as I did after prepping these for the photos, it'll look like a mama artichoke with her little brood of baby artichoke-lings. So cute!