How to Find, Identify and Cook Fiddleheads

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Fiddleheads fern

Take a look around your local farmers market or health food store in early spring and you might find some strange-looking, green quarter-sized, coiled vegetables known as fiddleheads (also known as an Ostrich fern). 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! 

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 grow 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 fern species, that has become synonymous with the word “fiddlehead.”  Their taste is often described somewhere between asparagus, broccoli, and spinach.

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Because edible 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 Ostrich fern fifiddleheads so special. 

Where Do Fiddleheads Grow?

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 Identify 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. 

There are also some good guidebooks that will help you identify fiddleheads and other wild edibles. Here are a few I recommend:

The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer

A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson

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 six. Here are some pics of some clumps just starting to peek through the earth:

emerging fiddlehead fern
emerging ostrich fern

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 are a few that are primed and ready for harvesting:

maturing fiddlehead fern
ripe Ostrich fern

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 taken 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:

overgrown inedible fiddlehead plant

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:

fiddleheads with papery material

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:

a deep groove in the stalk

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 entire Ostrich 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 saute lightly in butter or olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Voila!

For a great book with 75 recipes for fiddleheads, check out Fiddleheads and Fairies by Nannette Sawtelle Richford.

Fiddleheads and Fairies

You can use fiddleheads like you use any vegetable. They work beautifully with egg dishes like omelets 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 cooked them the other night with lamb and mashed 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.  

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How to Find, Identify and Cook Fiddleheads

About the Author

Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.

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