How to Cook Asparagus

Grilled asparagus
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Asparagus is one of my favorite vegetables. It's so flavorful and versatile, and generally easy to prepare. But you'll want to make sure you cook it properly so that it retains its color and texture. Basically, you want to avoid overcooking it.

To my mind, there are two types of asparagus: skinny, and fat. Both are good, but it depends on what you're using them for.

By skinny, I mean about the thickness of your pinky finger.

I wouldn't mess with asparagus that's thinner than that. Skinny asparagus are great for boiling, steaming or sautéeing.

Fat asparagus would be anything around the thickness of your thumb, or thicker. Fat asparagus are good for roasting, deep-frying or puréeing for making asparagus soup.

Selecting Asparagus

When you purchase asparagus, make sure the tips are firm and tight, not withered. And beware of those annoying rubber bands they wrap the bundles in. I'll snip them off rather than try to pull them off over the tops, since they can damage the tips. Major pet peeve.

Beware of cooking asparagus in an acidic liquid such as tomato sauce, wine or lemon juice, since acid will cause the asparagus to turn a drab olive green rather than the bright green you want it to be.

If you're serving asparagus with an acidic sauce or accompaniment (as you well might, since asparagus pairs really well with lemon), just be sure to cook the asparagus first and combine it with the acidic element right before serving.

Other great flavor combinations for asparagus include mustard, parmesan cheese and of course butter. Shallots pair very nicely with asparagus, too, so a pat of shallot butter makes a wonderful topping for simple grilled asparagus. Eggs (especially poached or hard-boiled) are also an excellent combo.

Prepping Asparagus

In classical French cuisine, anything that can be peeled will be peeled, and asparagus is a prime example. Asparagus peels can be tough, especially toward the bottom of the stalk. There are two main reasons for peeling:

  1. Peels are tough to chew.
  2. Cooking until the peels are tender will cause the flesh inside to be overcooked and mushy.

Additionally, the ends of the asparagus stalks can be tough and woody. You can snap off the bottoms of the stalks by hand and then trim the bottoms so they're even. Or you can just use your knife to trim the ends about an inch and a half from the bottom. Be sure to cut them so that they're all the same length, both for the sake of appearance and for even cooking.

There's no point peeling the ends if you're going to trim them off anyway, so trim first, then peel.

You can peel from about two inches below the tips all the way down to the ends.

The key to cooking asparagus is cooking it as quickly as possible. That means not overcooking it. Properly cooked asparagus should have a crisp texture with a bright green color. If it's overcooked, it'll be limp, drab green, and possibly squishy.

Here are some of my favorite ways of cooking asparagus:

Roasted Asparagus

The fatter stalks are good for roasting. To roast asparagus, all you have to do is drizzle it with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and roast in a single layer in a 450° oven for about 10 minutes.

Here's a tip: Let your roasting pan get hot in the oven while you preheat, then spread your prepped asparagus on the hot pan in a single layer and transfer to the oven.

Season with salt and pepper and serve with Hollandaise sauce or just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Sautéed Asparagus

You can sauté the whole stalks or slice them into inch-long pieces first. I like to slice them on the bias, which means making diagonal cuts across the stalk rather than cutting straight through. It's just for presentation, but I think the cooked asparagus looks much nicer that way.

Sauté in hot oil or butter for about 5 to 6 minutes.

Season with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, grate some fresh parmesan cheese over the top and serve.

[Also see: Sautéed Asparagus with Lemon]

If I'm making an asparagus omelet, I'll saute the asparagus first this way and then add it to the omelet.

Grilled Asparagus

I love grilling asparagus. Just heat up your grill, coat the asparagus with olive oil and grill for aboout five minutes. I like to sort of roll the spears around the grill so that they cook evenly. I love the caramelized flavor you get from grilling and the beautiful grill marks on the edges of the asparagus. Serve with salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Deep-Fried Asparagus

You can deep-fry asparagus in a batter or breading, but it's a good idea to blanch it first. To blanch it, just just drop it into a large pot of boiling water for 60 seconds, then remove, shock in a bowl of ice water and drain it thoroughly and dry it completely.

Then coat in batter or breading and fry in oil between 325° and 350°F until golden brown. You'll want to serve it right away. Serve with a simple mustard sauce.

Boiled Asparagus

Cook uncovered, in a large pot. The more water you use, the better. Two reasons:

  1. A larger quantity of water will stay hot when you add the asparagus. And that's important because you want to cook asparagus as quickly as possible. And if the water cools off too much, it slows down cooking.
  2. A larger amount of water helps the asparagus stay green.

I'll usually boil asparagus for about two minutes, maybe a little longer depending on how thick the stalks are, then drain it and serve it right away. What that means is you'll want to wait until the very last minute to cook your asparagus.

Again, salt and pepper, lemon juice, grated parmesan or Hollandaise sauce are perfect. Or, serve cooked asparagus topped with olive oil, salt and pepper, capers and grated hard-boiled egg.

Also see: Asparagus Risotto Recipe