Asparagus Tips – For Choosing, Storing, Preparing (and Growing)

Home grown asparagus can vary quite a bit in thickness, especially as the patch ages. Our patch (the source of these representative stalks) is 19 years old and about due for renewal.

Asparagus is not the first vegetable of spring. Dandelions are the first vegetable of spring (and ramps come next). But asparagus is in a class apart.


If the spears are bundled, all stalks should be smooth and firm. Just a couple with wrinkles are canaries in the aspargus mine.

Cut ends are likely to be dry but should not be withered. Inedible material at the base adds to cost per pound, but spears with substantial bases stay fresh longer.

Tips should be tightly closed and show none of the dark/wet spots that signal incipient rot.

For even cooking, stalks should all be about the same thickness, but exactly how thick doesn’t matter unless it affects the recipe (thin asparagus roasted hot can dry to a caramelized crisp in places, which may or may not be a good thing).

Thickness vs. Tenderness

Is a false opposition. Tenderness is a function of the age of the spear when picked. Thickness is determined at birth, mostly by the following factors:

* Plant health: Vigorous, well-established plants make thicker spears than young plants or plants under stress.

* Variety: Some varieties, like Jersey Giant and Purple Passion, are just naturally on the fat side. Others, like old fashioned Martha Washington, are comparatively svelte.

* Spacing: Other things being equal, plants spaced farther apart than the usual 12 inches or so will produce fewer but fatter spears. Closely spaced plants yield more spears and more total weight per acre, so commercial growers often choose what might be called the slender option.

* Timing: In any given season, the first spears the plant produces are the fattest, because growth starts from the strongest buds. As those spears are cut, the plant calls on subsidiary buds, moving gradually toward the weakest. That’s why thin spears are a better sign to stop cutting than any arbitrary rule concerning age of the patch or time of year.


Even when refrigerated, asparagus rapidly loses flavor as it uses up stored sugars. If you must keep it overnight or longer (as we often do when the patch is cranking), it helps to store it upright, with the bases moist. Put a crumple of paper towel in the bottom of a narrow container and add about ½ inch of water. Cut the bases straight across, stand the spears on the toweling and put a plastic bag loosely over them, leaving it open at the bottom.

We usually use yogurt tubs, but this is prettier and more transparent

(The glass was found on our recent morel hunting expedition. It’s purple because it contains manganese, which turns purple when exposed to  sunlight. That dates it to sometime between 1909, the patent date embossed on the bottom, and the First World War, when German blockades stopped the manganese trade.)


Standard advice is to break the spears by bending them. They give right where the tough part meets the tender one.

Except that they don’t. They break where the skin is no longer fibrous enough to resist breakage, often an inch or more above the spot where the interior becomes tender.

If you use a paring knife to cut  as low as cutting is easy, then remove the tough section of skin with a carrot peeler, you get an extra chunk of toothsome, sweet asparagus. I don’t bother with thin stalks – or with fat ones when we’re cutting them by the pound – but most of the time the stalks we cook look like the one on the left.

asparagus stalks of similar length and thickness, cut and peeled vs. broken.

About the asparagus ends

“It never fails. You read a recipe for asparagus and no matter what kind of recipe it is: steamed, grilled, stir-fried, whatever, you will be instructed to break off the tough ends and ‘save them for soup.’

End of story. Nobody ever tells you how to make this kind of asparagus soup. And you know if you’ve ever tried it that soups that are not asparagus soup are not improved by having a few asparagus ends thrown in…”

Those observations come from an earlier post, as prelude to the recipe for frugal Asparagus Soup .

In the garden

A little advice (from me) on growing asparagus is here. And if that convinces you, a lot of advice (from Ohio State University) is here.

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