Sautéed Asparagus With Lemon: A Basic Technique

Sauteed asparagus with lemon
Poppy Barach / Getty Images
  • 30 mins
  • Prep: 15 mins,
  • Cook: 15 mins
  • Yield: Serves 4

You could call this a recipe, or you could think of it as a cooking technique: a quick and easy way to cook asparagus without a lot of fuss and using extremely basic ingredients that you probably have on hand, or are easy to get: onion, lemon, butter, and so on.

A recipe is something you have to keep looking up. But a cooking technique is something you internalize and make your own. You don't have to look it up. It becomes habit. Part of your culinary arsenal. Sautéed asparagus is definitely one of those.

Sautéeing is a great way to cook asparagus, but only if the stalks aren't too thick. For the best results, try to use asparagus are about as thick around as a Sharpie — around half an inch (or 1.25 cm). That's because sautéeing is a high-heat cooking method, which means you want it to be quick. If the stalks are too thick, they'll end up burnt on the outside and still raw in the middle.

How you prepare them depends on how you want to serve them. If you leave them whole, you can drape them across a steak very dramatically. You could also cut the stalks into pieces (not too small, but whatever seems like a comfortable bite-size to you and yours) and then sauté them. Make sure to cut on the bias, meaning that rather than cutting straight across the stalks, do it at about a 45-degree angle.

Obviously, look for fresh asparagus, and check to see that their tips haven't withered, which is something that can happen with supermarket asparagus. If you can get to a farmer's market, great — and the month of April is the best time for asparagus. But asparagus is in season from late February through June (in the Northern Hemisphere). You can get it at other times of the year, of course, but it'll have to travel further to get to you.

If you want the freshest asparagus on the planet, try planting some. Even if you don't have space for a garden, asparagus can grow in outside containers across a fairly wide swath of the continental United States.

And by the way, the thicker ones aren't a different variety, they're just more mature. The earlier you harvest them, the thinner they'll be. 

If your asparagus are about half an inch thick, you shouldn't have to peel them. The skin is tougher on thicker asparagus, but with yours, all you'll need or want to do is to give the cut ends at the very bottoms of the stalks a trim.

What You'll Need

  • 1 bunch fresh asparagus
  • ½ large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, stripped from their stems
  • 2 Tbsp high-heat vegetable oil (e.g. safflower, sunflower, peanut)
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp dry white wine
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

How to Make It

  1. Squeeze the juice of the lemon and set it aside. Either cut the stalks into pieces or leave them whole, as you prefer. 
  2. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for 2–3 minutes or until it turns slightly translucent. Add the asparagus and sauté for 3–4 minutes or until it's bright green and tender but firm to the bite. Remove the asparagus and set it aside someplace warm, but leave the onions in the pan.
  1. Add the wine and bring it to a boil, then lower to a simmer and let it reduce by about half. Add the thyme and half the lemon juice and simmer for another minute.
  2. Finally, swirl in the butter, season the sauce with Kosher salt, and add more lemon juice if needed, pour over the cooked asparagus. Top with freshly ground black pepper to taste, and serve right away.