With its crisp snap and vibrant hue, asparagus has long been considered a produce delicacy. Following are answers to the most frequently asked questions and will make sure you get the very best out of this seasonal standout!
Let’s start with some fun facts!
When I began dating my now husband, his parents had a big asparagus patch in their yard. My family didn’t eat a lot of asparagus when I was growing up, so I was mildly intrigued by several qualities of what has since become a seasonal favorite.
For example, did you know that it takes three years from when asparagus seeds are planted until the tender spears are ready to be harvested?
The fun fact that really amused me at the time (and please excuse the potty talk) was that eating asparagus makes people’s urine smell funny. My husband’s family thought it was equally funny that I never noticed this! Subsequently, I learned that, thanks to a genetic variant, not everyone can detect the odor.
On the more practical side, what’s the best way to store and extend the life of asparagus? And do thin asparagus spears taste better than thick ones? Why is some asparagus purple? Or white?
Answers to these and other frequently asked questions follow and will ensure that you get the very best out of this seasonal standout.
For those who enjoy the trivia, I’ve sprinkled a few other fun facts amidst the questions and answers that follow!
When buying, how can I tell if asparagus is fresh?
Beyond looking for a vibrant green color, firm stalks, and tips that are closed and compact, my best tip came from a local farmer years ago: look at the cut ends. ⇧⇧
The greener and more freshly cut they look, the better. As the days go by, the ends will whiten and begin to look dry. (This tip can be applied to Brussels sprouts, artichokes, kale, and a variety of other produce as well.)
How much is in a bunch of asparagus?
As a recipe developer, the fact that there is no firm standard for this bothers me! (Sort of like recipes that call for the juice of 1 lemon, which can vary a lot depending how you juice it.)
A bunch of asparagus typically weighs between ½ and 1 pound. In my experience, most grocery store bunches weigh ¾ pound. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, you can estimate the weight based on the size of the spears.
Per pound of untrimmed asparagus, expect 30 to 40 thin, 20 to 30 standard, or 12 to 18 large spears. Interestingly, a 2016 Cooks Illustrated study revealed that, when the ends are snapped off, asparagus will lose up to half its original weight, with the difference being more pronounced with thick stalks. More on that under What’s the best way to store asparagus?, below.
When chopped, expect about 6 ounces per cup of asparagus.
What’s the best way to store asparagus?
Remove the rubber bands and rinse the asparagus. Generally speaking, I find that produce usually keeps better when the tight rubber bands are removed.
Next, line up the asparagus stalks and look at where they appear to start turning tough and woody toward the cut ends. This usually corresponds with where the stalks’ green color begins to fade to white, or about an inch. Cut off and discard those woody ends.
Tip: you may snap the stalks where the natural break point occurs, but this sometimes occurs higher up and allows for perfectly tender asparagus to be discarded. For thick stalks, you may find that trimming 1 inch from the stem end and then peeling the woody exterior results in a tender spear with less overall loss.
Once trimmed, find a wide-mouthed glass, jar, or a 2-cup Pyrex measure—anything with a circumference that is slightly wider than your asparagus bunch—and add an inch or two of cool water. Stand the asparagus up in the glass, cut ends down, and then loosely cover the asparagus with a plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator.
Tip: You could trim the asparagus prior to cooking, but there are two advantages to rinsing and trimming now. First, as with fresh flowers, freshly cut asparagus stems allow the spears to better hydrate and maintain freshness. Second, when you’re ready to cook, all you have to do it pat the ends dry and proceed with your recipe.
How long will asparagus keep?
Stored this way, fresh asparagus will maintain its crisp appeal for a week to 10 days. If the water looks cloudy, simply rinse the glass and add fresh water.
Helpful hint: Because asparagus will roast, grill, and sauté better when dry, I like to wash the asparagus before I store it in the water. That way, the inch or two of the stalks that are touching the water can be easily toweled off, and the remaining area is fully dry and ready for a light coating of olive oil and seasoning.
What is the difference between thick and thin asparagus?
For years, I thought that pencil-thin asparagus was delicate, special, and preferable to thicker stalks. And then somewhere along the way, I decided that meatier spears offered a little more oomph and, therefore, tasted better.
The truth is, they are both great and the difference in taste and tenderness is negligible. The key to a stellar outcome is to adjust the cooking time and method to correspond to the thickness of the stalks.
Interestingly, the circumference of an asparagus spear has nothing to do with its age. In other words, a thin spear will not mature into a thick spear.
So, what determines the diameter? It’s determined by two factors: the age of the entire plant (younger plants yield more slender stalks) and the plant’s variety.
Is there a preferred cooking method for thin/thick asparagus?
Beyond the obvious time adjustment—thin stalks may roast in as few as four minutes while thick stalks can take 10-15 minutes—certain cooking methods are preferable based on the given thickness.
Thick stalks are well suited to broiling and roasting, as they will stand up better to the intense, dry heat that can shrivel skinny spears. Quick-cooking thin spears are good candidates for stir-frying and steaming. On a grill, thick spears tend to be easier to manipulate, although a quick stint in a grill basket works well for thin asparagus.
More on specific cooking details further down.
What is the difference between green, white, and purple asparagus?
Green asparagus is the most widely available of all asparagus and is somewhat grassy in flavor. There are several varieties of green asparagus, and sometimes the tips look slightly purple, but this shouldn’t be confused with true purple asparagus.
Purple asparagus is said to be a bit nuttier and sweeter than green asparagus because it has about 20 percent more sugar in its stalks. However, some people will say that the difference is hard to detect. And while the stalks are purple on the outside, the interior of the asparagus is the same as a green spear. Additionally, when cooked, the purple fades because the pigment is sensitive to heat.
White asparagus tastes mild, slightly bitter, and the stalks are often thicker than that of green asparagus. The exterior can be more fibrous, too, so peeling the bottom two inches with a vegetable peeler is often recommended. This variety of asparagus is white because it is grown without sunlight, usually under a layer of soil with black plastic on top. The absence of sunlight prevents chlorophyll, the pigment which makes plants green, from forming. White asparagus is especially popular in Germany.
When is asparagus in season?
Though asparagus is generally available year-round these days, there’s nothing like fresh, local asparagus. In the world of vegetable farming, asparagus is often considered a harbinger of spring and tends to align with those months, with April and May being thought of as prime time to enjoy.
How can you tell if asparagus is bad?
The tips, which are arguably the best part of the asparagus, will be the first part to go bad. If the tips turn a very dark green (or black) and feel mushy to the touch, the spears have likely passed their prime.
Similarly, if the spears are slimy, smelly, or otherwise shriveled and wrinkly, they are likely ready for the compost pile. That said, if you get seemingly fresh stalks home from the store and they seem prematurely limp or bendy, they can likely be rejuvenated by cutting or snapping off the ends and standing the spears upright in water, as described above.
Can I freeze asparagus?
Yes, but asparagus will lose its crispness in the freezer. So if you choose to freeze, use it in a dish where you won’t mind the softer spears, like a soup, sauce, or risotto.
If freezing, blanch the spears in boiling water just until bright green, and then remove to an ice bath to cool quickly. Dry very well before freezing in a single layer in a zip-top bag from which the excess air has been removed. (The single layer will make the asparagus freeze more quickly, which lessens the amount of ice crystals that develop.)
I also recommend cutting the asparagus into 1½- to 2-inch pieces before freezing－on the diagonal if you want to get fancy! This will alleviate some of the stringiness that can be apparent with frozen or overcooked asparagus.
Frozen asparagus need not be thawed before cooking.
An excellent source of anti-oxidants and fiber (both soluble and insoluble), asparagus is also rich in folic acid, iron, copper, calcium and vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6.
Asparagus also contains prebiotics, which are carbohydrates that can’t be digested and, in turn, encourage a healthy balance of good bacteria (otherwise known as probiotics) in your digestive tract.
Additionally, asparagus contains an amino acid called asparagine, a natural diuretic that is thought to help flush excess fluid and salt from the body. For this reason asparagus has been linked with the possible prevention of urinary tract infections.
What are the best ways to cook asparagus?
There are several worthy options when it comes to cooking asparagus. For any of them, I very lightly coat the dry spears with olive or avocado oil and season with salt and pepper. Because a light coating of oil is preferable－to avoid a soggy outcome, you want just enough for the seasoning to stick－olive or avocado oil spray works especially well for this.
- Oven method: roast in a 425℉ until tender. Depending on oven, this may take 4 minutes for pencil thin asparagus or up to 12-13 minutes for thicker spears; check doneness earlier than you think you should with the tip of a sharp knife. Also, there’s no need to oil that pan.
- Stovetop: alternatively, you can sear/sauté the asparagus in a lightly oiled skillet over medium-high heat until tender, 3-5 minutes, give or take, depending on thickness.
- Grill: cook over medium-high heat until tender. Total time will vary based on thickness, but again, it won’t take long.
- Air fryer: cook at 400℉ for 7 minutes, give or take a few depending on thickness of spears. Again, with any of these methods, precise time will vary based on thickness of asparagus and desired level of doneness.
- Broiler: I had never broiled asparagus, so I did so recently and the results were terrific. My spears took about 3 minutes. If you try, simply keep an eye and check for doneness with the tip of a sharp knife. Precise cooking time will vary based on thickness of spears, preferred level of doneness, and how close the spears are to the element. Thick spears may benefit from turning once or may be placed on a lower rack if starting to char before cooked to your liking.
*For an extra flavor boost, I like to grate some Parmesan or Asiago cheese over the asparagus when it is still slightly undercooked and then broil for a minute or two to melt and ever-so-lightly brown the cheese. Serve with lemon wedges for optional squeezing, as a small amount of the fresh juice adds a welcome hint of acidity and bright flavor.
Now to eating asparagus…
While you can never go wrong with asparagus that has been lightly seasoned and simply cooked, the tender spears will add vibrant color, fresh flavor, and seasonal appeal to a wide variety of recipes. Following are some longtime favorites:
- One-Pan Pesto Chicken and Veggies
- Sautéed Shrimp & Asparagus with Crispy Prosciutto & Parmesan
- Asparagus Cobb Salad
- Asparagus & Chicken Salad With Sesame Ginger Dressing
- Roasted Asparagus with Egg and Prosciutto
- Roasted Asparagus with Panko (Gluten-Free Option)
- Seared Asparagus Ribbons with Butter and Soy
- Sautéed Asparagus with Crispy Prosciutto and Parmesan
- Asiago Asparagus
- Prosciutto-Wrapped Roasted Asparagus
- Favorite Strawberry Salad (I have several strawberry salads on the site and cooked asparagus is a delightful addition to any of them!)