The Science of Asparagus

Don’t snap the ends off your asparagus. Do overcook it.
By and

Published Mar. 25, 2022.

Asparagus has been revered as a vegetable since Roman times, and it actually makes an appearance in the oldest surviving book of recipes. Its large native range stretches east to west, from Spain to central China, and north to south, from Siberia all the way to Pakistan, but it has found adoptive homes across the globe. There are even decades-old debates about which town or region owns the title of “Asparagus Capital of the World.” 

Why so much fuss over this classic spring vegetable? There’s a lot about asparagus to love. Read on (and watch the full episode of What’s Eating Dan?) to learn more.

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A Rainbow of Spears 

Green asparagus is the perfect signal for the arrival of spring, but it’s not the only color out there. You’ve also likely seen purple and white asparagus. Purple asparagus, a different variety of asparagus from green, gets its color from anthocyanins, the same pigments that give us purple cabbage, purple grapes, and pretty much all other varieties of purple produce. White asparagus, on the other hand, is the result of a different growing method, called blanching. Soil is mounded around the spears as they grow in order to block sunlight. This limits photosynthesis, which keeps chlorophyll from forming, keeping the asparagus white. 

And what about thickness? An asparagus’s girth has nothing to do with how long it’s been in the ground: Rather, it’s all about the variety of asparagus and how old the plant is. If asparagus is grown in a region where it can grow throughout the year, it grows more spindly with each passing year. If it’s grown in an area with a colder climate, though, it gets a chance to rest, resulting in thicker spears. 

The Great Asparagus Debate: Should You Snap?

When preparing asparagus, many recipes instruct the cook to snap the tough bottoms of the spears off. But we at Cook’s Illustrated wondered if this was truly the best method. So we snapped a number of spears, measuring the amount that snapped off each time, and came to a conclusion: Snapping is not only wasteful, it’s completely unreliable.

Intrigued? Find out why we ditched snapping by watching the full episode of What’s Eating Dan? below.

Grilled Asparagus

Three techniques--boiling, steaming, and microwaving--are compared to determine the best and easiest method of preparing perfectly cooked asparagus.
Get the Recipe

Braised Asparagus with Lemon and Chives

This oft-overlooked technique results in silky, sweet-nutty spears.
Get the Recipe

Romaine and Watercress Salad with Asparagus and Prosciutto

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.
Get the Recipe


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