How to Find, Identify and Cook Fiddleheads

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fiddleheads

Take a look around your local farmers market or health food store this time of year and you might find some strange looking, green quarter-sized, coiled vegetables known as fiddleheads.  They’re named for their resemblance to the ornamental ends of fiddles and other stringed instruments. 

But don’t blink.  Because before you can say “fiddleheads” they’re gone!   And that’s why I’m writing this blog now.  Because NOW is the time to get them!

What are fiddleheads?

Fiddleheads are ferns before they become ferns.  They are the furled up stage of a fern when they just start to shoot through the ground in spring.  As they emerge through the fertile, wet April soil, they grown and unfurl quickly, sometimes lasting just a few days in their furled up stage.

Though all ferns have a fiddlehead stage, it’s the Ostrich fern, a specific edible species, that has become synonymous with the word “fiddlehead.”  Their taste is often described somewhere between asparagus, broccoli and spinach.

Because these fiddleheads appear for such a brief period in early spring and can only be foraged by individuals, they are considered a delicacy and can be quite pricey.   I’ve heard of some specialty stores selling them for $20 a pound! 

But you can harvest them yourself for free!  You just have to know where to look. 

And that’s what makes fiddleheads so special. 

Where do I find fiddleheads?

Fiddleheads grow prolifically throughout New England and eastern parts of Canada.  But unlike many wild edibles that grow seemingly everywhere, like dandelions, fiddleheads grow in wild and wet areas.  And that’s why I love searching for them.  They’re more apt to take you a bit off the beaten path into Nature, along the edges of rivers, stream banks and swampy areas.  

Though they are not hard to find, many keep their locations secret so they will not be over harvested.  And I feel the same way!  Part of the joy is finding them yourself anyway.  There’s nothing quite like stumbling across a patch that no one else knows about.  If need be jot it down so you won’t forget for the future. I have a notebook with about six locations I’ve found in the past few years.

How do I recognize fiddleheads?

I would recommend an experienced guide the first time to be on the safe side.  Some fiddleheads look like the Ostrich fern varieties and are not only not edible but can be toxic.   I did a few wild edible walks with some experienced herbalists a few years ago and they were very helpful. 

Once you see them for the first time, fiddleheads become very easy to recognize.   They are bright green and can easily be seen amidst the dark soil, twigs, and leaves from which they emerge.  They grow in clumps of about about six.  Here’s some pics of some clumps just starting to peek through the earth:

Young fiddlehead

Young fiddlehead

These are probably a little too early to pick.  But aren’t they beautiful?  I think they look like tiny green sleeping dragons.  But once they peek through, they start growing fast!  Here’s a few that are primed and ready for harvesting:

Fiddleheads

IMG_4921

They will remain tightly coiled until they reach a height of about four to six inches.  When you come across a good patch there will be hundreds if not thousands of them growing together and some will grow quicker than others.  All the pics in this blog were take from the same patch on the same day.  But after a few weeks they’ll all unfurl.  Here’s a pic of a clump that is just beyond being harvestable:

Unfurled fiddleheads

As they grow a few inches from the earth, they have three defining features.  The first is the bright green stem which we’ve already seen.   The second is the feathery-brown, paper-like material that covers the sides of the coils.  Like so:

Fiddlehead with brown papery covering

That material either falls off on its own or you can pick it off yourself.  

And the third defining feature is the deep groove on the inside of the stem.  Like so:

Fiddlehead groove

How do I pick fiddleheads?

Pick them before they unfurl, when they’re about one to four inches in height.  You can simply pinch and snap the stem about a half inch to an inch from the coiled head.   Look for the more tightly wound fiddleheads and don’t be afraid to brush away leaves, twigs and logs.  Sometimes you’ll find the bigger ones in more hidden, cool areas.  Never pick a clump clean.  Leave at least a few unpicked fiddleheads.  Otherwise, the fern will die. 

You can easily blow or brush off the papery brown material as you pick them or just wait and rinse it off when you get home.

How do I cook fiddleheads?

First, make sure you do cook them!  You can get sick if you eat them raw or don’t cook them long enough.

Rinse the fiddleheads.  Make sure you cook them well but don’t overcook them.  Boil in water for about five to seven minutes or steam for ten to twelve minutes. Then sautee lightly in butter.  Voila!

You can use fiddleheads like you use any vegetable.  They work beautifully with egg dishes like omelettes and frittatas, go great with pasta dishes, soups and stir fries but also work alone as a side dish to accompany meats and fish.  I had them the other night with lamb and mash potatoes. 

They are best to use soon after picking but they will last in your fridge for at least a week.  You can even have fiddleheads in the middle of winter as they can be frozen for up to a year.  

Have you ever foraged for fiddleheads?  Share your experiences in the comments!

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Find, Identify, and Cook Fiddleheads


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Comments

  1. Great pictures! I was going to post on these soon, but you saved me the work :) We’re having freshly harvested fiddleheads today with smoked pastured pork chops- yum! Thanks for this post!

  2. We always pickled out fiddleheads. I remember hiding jars of them in funny spots in the pantry so I could have more to myself! Great post Craig

  3. How neat! I’ve never heard of this! Great pictures!

  4. Sally Bratten says:

    Fun, fun!! I have always wanted to try this, as I love to harvest food from the woods. Thanks for the informative post, Craig. I am going hunting with the kids tomorrow!

  5. Barbara Marczyk says:

    I love fiddleheads.
    I’m going out this weekend to see if I can find some.
    Thanks for the info.

  6. Susan Roth says:

    Great article on identifying and cooking the fiddleheads. Would have liked to have seen the rules of wildcrafting discussed- having my private land and at risk plants pilfered, I think it is important for people to know HOW to sustain the plants they are harvesting. First, it is against the law to pick anything in most state and national parks and forests.Also, just because land “looks” wild, doesn’t mean it is yours to use. Always find the property owner and ASK permission. Secondly, Never pick more than you need and never pick more than a 1/4 of one patch, less if the plant is in particular danger. While fiddleheads are not on the endangered list, watch for over harvesting any patch. I have eaten wild foods for over 40 years now, there are some that we can consume in quantity- like plantain and dandelion. Thanks again for great photos and recipes. I hope that you will continue wildcrafting for food and medicines, but please, ask your readers and clients to remember these simple rules- so our grandchildren can know the pleasure of wild foods. Peace, Susan

  7. We eat them on a regular basis in Hawaii and in Japan, called warabi (Japanese) or pohole (Hawaiian). Hawaiians eat it parboiled, then served with fresh chopped tomatoes, onion, and smoked salmon. Japanese prepare it as they would any other “mountain greens.”

  8. I live in Alaska,. We still have a large amount of snow on the ground and our fiddleheads won’t be ready for another month or so. I have blanched and froze them for soups and stews, they hold up well. Thanks for the great ideas.

  9. Ditto what Susan said. If you’re going to write an article encouraging more people to forage, please share the basic ethical rules of wild harvesting. It’s standard for foragers to never take more than a very small percent of the plants in one area, among other rules to keep our wild foods flourishing, but people new to this who read your article won’t know that.

    Thanks for listening.

  10. Alan Latulippe says:

    We have many ferns in northern Ontario but how do you know if they’re edible? They look like the ones you show!

  11. Greetings! I know this is kinda off topic but I’d figured I’d ask.
    Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring
    a blog article or vice-versa? My website covers a lot of the same subjects as yours and I believe we could greatly
    benefit from each other. If you’re interested feel free to shoot me an email. I look forward to hearing from you! Awesome blog by the way!

  12. Anybody know where to pick fiddleheads near Augusta, Maine?

  13. Instead of harvesting them in the wild why not simply plant the ostrich fern in your own yard, or even in a window box. They are not that hard to grow and maintain and then you are assured of a harvest each year.

  14. Lynn Thomas says:

    So I live in the North West and have not found any fiddleheads and yesterday my son and I might have found some. I would like to email you pictures of them to see if you know if they are edible or not. Because I haven’t had any in a long time and would like to treat some others as well, but I don’t want to make us sick either. Thank you for your response.

    • Hi Lynn. Though I can confidently identify them in my area, I’m not a foraging expert. There may be some subtle differences between those in the NE and those in the NW. I would really hate to say that the fiddleheads were definitely fiddleheads only for you to get sick! It’s always best to find local guides and experts when it comes to wild edibles.

  15. Do only ostrich ferns have the groove down the stalk of the plant or do other ferns also have this trait?

    • Hi Laurie, sorry for the slow reply. I have a hard time keeping up with all the comments sometimes. So as far as I’m aware, at least here in the northeast, the ostrich ferns are the only ones that have that very distinctive groove. Others also have a groove but it’s not as deep. However, I want to emphasize that I’m not an expert on this so please don’t take my word for it. It’s always best to ask an experienced guide before foraging for things for the first time.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] here’s a new one for me: How to Find Fiddleheads.  What!  You never heard of fiddleheads?  To tell the truth, neither did I but after reading [...]

  2. [...] are super good for you and considered a delicacy, but you can forage for them for free! Find out how to find fiddleheads and what to do with [...]

  3. [...] is an excellent article that explains how to identify, find and cook fiddleheads, What are fiddleheads? They are a fern [...]

  4. [...] How to Identify, Find and Cook Fiddleheads [...]

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