How to identify, harvest and cook fiddleheads

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

Eat the stems, too!

Now is the time to harvest fiddleheads, the young shoots of the ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris). I like to eat some each spring as a spring treat that gives my body new flavors and new combinations of healthy ingredients.

Young fiddlehead

The ostrich fern is a big, tall fern that is sometimes called the shuttlecock fern because the arrangement of the fronds is like the feathers of a badminton birdie or shuttlecock. Some other ferns are similar, but the ostrich fern has a unique feature: a ridge up the inside of each glossy frond, much like the ridge on a stalk of celery. 

Pen points to the groove in an ostrich fern frond

There are 2 other ferns, the cinnamon fern and the interrupted fern, that have fiddleheads and neither is tasty. They are bitter and unpleasant, though not lethal if eaten. Both have lots of fuzz on their fiddleheads and on the stems that support them.

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Some vendors of fiddleheads advise boiling fiddleheads to remove unnamed “toxins”. According to foraging expert Sam Thayer in his book, The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, there is no toxin in the ostrich fern. He eats them raw and cooked.

As with any new foodstuff, I believe it is good to try new foods in small quantities. One person reported to me that she got a tummy-ache from eating fiddleheads unless she boiled them first. But that turns them into mush, and I personally would not want to eat them.

Some people only eat the tightly curled tops of the fiddlehead, but you can – and should – eat the stems, too. Otherwise you are wasting good food. I like to pick them when the stems are 8 to 12 inches tall, and I eat the whole thing. And do not pick all the fronds or stems from any given plant. I pick one or two stems out of the half dozen growing.

Here is how I prepare them. I sauté them in a cast iron frying pan with olive oil, garlic and nuts. Slivered almonds are great, but recently I made a batch using raw walnuts, which were fabulous! I cook them at medium heat until the nuts and garlic brown – 3 minutes, perhaps.

Fiddleheads with walnuts and garlic

So go harvest some fiddleheads and prepare a spring treat! 

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