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What Are Fiddleheads?

If spring has sprung, the fiddleheads have, too.

Published Apr. 26, 2022.

Tubs of vivid green spirals have begun popping up at my local farmers’ market. As a New England newbie, I was unfamiliar with these tiny coiled treasures. But now that I’ve tasted them, I can’t get enough. They require a bit of special treatment, but once you get a taste of that unique, earthy freshness, you may be on the hunt for fiddleheads, too.

What are fiddleheads?

Fiddleheads are the unfurled fronds of young ostrich ferns (or sometimes lady ferns in the Pacific Northwest); if you look closely you’ll see tiny leaves trapped in the coils. They get their name from their resemblance to the scroll of a violin. You can tell the freshness of a fiddlehead by its tight curl—look for fiddleheads that are tightly coiled and bright green with no browning and that have bits of their brown, papery sheath clinging to them. They’re a specialty wild food and available only for a short time. Get them when you see them!

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When are fiddleheads in season?

Fiddleheads are a spring delicacy found between April and May, depending on how cold your climate is. They have a very short harvest season: just two to three weeks in any given area. Due to their short season, fiddleheads typically aren’t mass cultivated, so they can be pricey. Die-hard fans forage for fiddleheads themselves, but like foraging for anything, make sure that you do your research first. (I talked to Tyler Akabane, owner and operator of The Mushroom Shop in Somerville, Massachusetts, who said fiddlehead seekers often mistakenly pick cinnamon ferns because their coiled leaves look similar.)

If you’re not up for an adventure, you can usually find fiddleheads at your local farmers' market or in some grocery stores with seasonal or wild produce sections. 

How do you store fiddleheads?

Fiddleheads are best eaten as fresh as possible. If you can’t cook them right away, they will last a few days tightly wrapped in plastic in the fridge. Plastic produce bags will also work, but the longer the fiddleheads sit in them, the less crisp they’ll be.

How do you prepare fiddleheads to eat?

You should never eat fiddleheads raw. Before using them in your recipe, give them a good rinse and then boil or steam them (even if you’re going to be sautéing them in your recipe). Be sure to have an ice bath ready so that they don’t overcook and they retain their vibrant green color.

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Why do you have to boil or steam fiddleheads?

Boiling or steaming fiddleheads before any further preparation ensures that they are completely cooked and fully clean. (Those tight spirals can be full of dirt and other . . . debris). A quick boil or steam also helps the young fronds stay bright and springy and tames excessive bitterness.

What should you make with fiddleheads?

While fiddleheads are often sautéed or pickled, our tasters agreed that simply dressing blanched fiddleheads with a vinaigrette and tossing them with garlicky croutons and tomatoes, as in our Fiddlehead Panzanella, yielded the best results. If you’d like to get even more outside the box, consider Fried Fiddleheads with Lemon-Chive Dipping Sauce. The light coating of cornmeal and cornstarch yields crispy, crunchy results that showcase the fiddleheads’ signature shape and amp up their delicate sweetness.

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