Get to Know Sunchokes, a.k.a. Jerusalem Artichokes

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The first thing most people learn about the bulbous root vegetable* sometimes known as "Jerusalem artichoke" is the misleading nature of the name. The second thing people learn, if there is a second thing, is that it makes you fart. Let's be rebels and set aside those topics for just a moment, so we can focus on the vegetable itself.

* For the avoidance of doubt/harassment by horticulture buffs, it's a root vegetable, which is the term we apply to a broad category of edible underground plant parts, but it is not a root. If you find this upsetting, you should try figuring out what a "berry" is sometime.

A sunchoke is a woody-looking tuberous formation found on the rhizome (horizontally growing underground stem) of a type of sunflower. Its rough pale-brown skin makes it somewhat akin to fresh ginger in appearance, but you're more likely to see it broken up into individual pieces at the market, rather than in a single intact piece with branching fingers, like ginger. The interior of the sunchoke is creamy white instead of yellow.

Also unlike ginger, its flavor is mild, similar to that of a potato or jicama, but nuttier and sweeter. It reminds me of the slightly bark-y taste of raw, unskinned hazelnuts, which I've adored since I was a kid. Just me? It's like wood shavings, but good.

Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer of North America, compared the flavor to that of an artichoke—hence part two of the erroneous name, although it does share a botanical family with artichokes. Where the "Jerusalem" part came from is less clear, but most people think it's a corruption of girasole (pronounced "jeer-uh-SOLE-ay"), the Italian word for "sunflower." A New World plant, cultivated on the North American continent for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, it certainly has nothing to do with Jerusalem.

Sunchokes' peak season is during the fall and spring. When shopping, seek out firm 'chokes with a light-brown color, free of soft spots that indicate damage. They're more fragile than their rugged look would have you believe, so store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, wrapped in paper towels to absorb moisture, and try to use them within seven to 10 days.

Overhead shot of a pot of water with whole trimmed sunchokes in it

Scrub them well under running water before using, since all those little eyes and ridges can harbor lots of dirt. You can peel them after washing if you like, but their nubby, irregular surface makes it a thankless job, and the peel is edible.

Sunchokes work nicely in many of the same applications we typically assign to potatoes or carrots. Try cutting them into finger-sized pieces, blanching them for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, then roasting them in a 450°F (230°C) oven until they're soft and creamy inside and crisp outside. Or slice them thinly on a mandoline and fry them in 300°F (150°C) canola oil to make sweet, crunchy sunchips. Daniel uses both roasted and thinly sliced raw sunchokes alongside a rainbow of potatoes and brassicas in this bounteous fall salad.

Spoon drizzling thyme butter over sunchokes frying in cast iron pan

Thanks to their starchy texture, mashed or puréed sunchokes make a more flavorful alternative to traditional mashed potatoes. If you're into the velvety texture of a sunchoke purée, try taking it a step further by browning them in butter and blending them up with leek and sage for Kenji's Brown Butter–Sunchoke Soup. And in the attached recipe, Sho uses a cast iron skillet to squash his 'chokes until they're all over cracks and crevices, à la Kenji's smashed potatoes, then browns them in oil and thyme butter in a hot pan. They're also surprisingly great for pickling, either peeled or unpeeled.

Oh, right: the farting. There's a reason sunchokes have attracted the charming sobriquet of "fartichoke," and it's called inulin—a carbohydrate that our bodies can't digest, leaving bacteria to pick up the slack and resulting in some pretty antisocial gut activity, including abdominal cramping, gas, and diarrhea. But inulin content varies from specimen to specimen, it's found in lots of other foods as well, and some people don't notice any symptoms at all. Your best bet, especially if you're new to sunchokes, is to take it slowly, and perhaps reserve them for a solo meal—all the better, really, since you'll have them all to yourself that way.