Choosing Asparagus

Do you buy asparagus and cook it only to find it is tough as old boots? In this article we take a look at this king of vegetables, what to look for when buying it and how best to serve it.


In Germany, there is a farmer’s rule that says, “Kirschen rot, Spargel tot.” This saying translates quite nicely in English to “cherries red, asparagus dead.” The rule applies to the end of asparagus season, which is traditionally June 24. The beginning, however, is April…and the choices for asparagus in Switzerland are many and varied.

Asparagus Color

The color of asparagus will say nothing about the variety – it will, however, tell you everything about how it was grown and how it tastes.

The large, ivory-white asparagus appearing fresh in the local markets originate from France, Germany and Austria. These regions began producing white asparagus in the nineteenth century by employing a method of keeping the small shoots covered in soil to prevent any occurrence of photosynthesis. This labor intensive method produces a thicker shoot with sweeter tastes that seem perfect when matched with the traditional offering of sauce Hollandaise and thin slices of ham.

Sometimes, as is the custom in parts of France, the nearly mature asparagus spears are allowed to burst through the soil and enjoy a few days of the sun’s rays. This treatment leads to a violet-colored asparagus, which is often preferred in the finer Parisian restaurants. Although violet asparagus have slightly higher levels of vitamins due to the presence of chlorophyll, they do have a slight bitterness in their taste, which some find a bit offensive.

Green asparagus, which begin showing up at the market in early April, usually come from France, Spain or Italy. They are simply allowed to naturally erupt through their sandy coverings, and continue to reach for the sun unimpeded. If left un-cut, they will eventually turn into a fern-like plant the size of a small teenager.

All asparagus are quite difficult to grow, and require a great deal of attention and patience, which is why they can be expensive. The first harvests are only realized three years after planting, and they are one of the few vegetables that do not grow well in a hot house environment.

Deciding on the color of asparagus is really just a matter of personal taste: white asparagus can be slightly sweet, violet asparagus tend to have a slight bitterness, and green asparagus tend to have a more intense flavor. Whichever color is chosen, it is important to remember that the taste of asparagus will begin to deteriorate immediately after they are harvested, which is why it is always wise to purchase products that undergo the least amount of travel between producer and consumer. After harvesting, asparagus will begin to convert its sugar into a tough, indigestible, lignified fiber, creating a rather unpleasant bitter and woody experience in the mouth. As a rule, asparagus should be consumed as quickly as possible after purchasing. If you need to store them for a couple of days, wrap them in a damp towel and keep them refrigerated.

Choosing thick or thin asparagus is a topic that has been argued by cooks for many years. Generally, thin asparagus will have a more delicate flavor, and are quite appealing in garnishes or salads. Thicker asparagus have a more robust flavor, making them more ideal to enjoy boiled, steamed or grilled. White asparagus should always be thick.

preparing asparagus…

Once you have decided on color and thickness, preparing either green or white asparagus is simple.

For green asparagus, grasp each spear with both hands and snap it. It will break at a point above which the stalk will be tender (save the trimmings to make a flavorful broth). Plunge the asparagus into well-salted simmering water and cook uncovered until the shoots are tender. The cooking time will vary depending on their thickness. To test if they are done, try one – there should be just a slight squeaking sensation in your mouth. Drain the asparagus and refresh them in cold water. They can be covered with a damp towel for a couple of hours, or gently reheated in a sauté pan or in hot water for a minute or so.

White asparagus should be peeled. Begin from the top and peel their tough outer skin with downward motions. Cut off the bottom couple of centimeters and place the shoots in a large pot. Add just enough water to cover the shoots, a half of lemon, one large spoon of sugar, and a couple of teaspoons of salt. Gently cook the white asparagus for 15 minutes, or until a knife can be easily inserted through the thickest part. Cool white asparagus in their liquid, or serve them immediately.

wine and asparagus…

Asparagus can have a slight bitterness, which often conflicts with wine. Fortunately, this slight bitterness is often overshadowed by the accompanying sauce. Asparagus is mostly served with some sort of fat-based sauce, such as sauce hollandaise, Beurre blanc, mayonnaise, or simply melted butter. In these situations, the wine you select must have a high level of acid, which will cleanse the fat from your mouth, and leave you with a fresh sensation. Perfect for wanting another bite! Wines to consider with high acids would include a young Sauvignon Blanc, a young Chablis, or French and German dry Rieslings.