Every year about this time, Serious Eats' recipe content tends to go on a real asparagus kick, and this year is no exception. There's no better time to eat it than spring, when the spears are at the height of their sweetness, with a distinctly clean, grassy flavor that seems to sweep out the dregs of winter deprivation from your taste buds.
Asparagus stalks, each of which represents a stem on the plant, are famously tender at the tips and hard and woody at the ends, so nearly every recipe you'll find online starts with trimming those tough bases before cooking. A lot of sources will tell you that asparagus has a built-in natural breaking point: Hold a spear up horizontally, and break off the end where you see it start to droop—or, even simpler, bend it yourself in your hands, and it'll break precisely where you need it to. So you bend, and snap! It's almost as if that asparagus wants to be trimmed.
The problem is, this approach doesn't really work better, or faster, than the more obvious method: slicing off the ends of a bunch of spears all at once. This is something a lot of cooks, professional and non-, have cottoned on to through experience, but the shadow of bend-and-snap still looms large over conventional cooking wisdom.
While working on a more complete guide to asparagus several years back, Kenji ran some tests and demonstrated that the bend-and-snap method could produce a break at pretty much any point along the length of the stalk. His results varied wildly depending on how much pressure he applied, even when he held the stalks at the exact same spot every time, a level of scrupulousness that most of us don't want to bother with. How you flex the stalk can also influence where it breaks, rendering the bend-and-snap trick highly unreliable. More recently, Daniel carried out a similar demonstration, and got the same outcome:
As the photo makes clear, you can waste a lot of perfectly edible asparagus this way. That asparagus wants to be trimmed, all right—it just wants it a little too much.
Though it doesn't make that same satisfying snapping sound, it's far easier to simply line up the asparagus stalks and look at where they appear to start toughening up toward the ends. That generally corresponds with where most stalks' green color starts to fade to white. Then cut off those hard ends with a chef's knife—you know, just as you would when trimming other vegetables.
If bend-and-snap is what works best for you, more power to you! But if, like us, you've found that the snapping trick doesn't quite do the trick, a good old-fashioned knife-and-cutting-board combo may help get these spring beauties into the pan, and into your mouth, a bit faster.