How to Buy and Prep Asparagus

Organic Asparagus

Welcome to asparagus season! Are you as excited as I am?

Asparagus is a lovely vegetable, but much like brussels sprouts, it is a vegetable much abused. And also like sprouts, you can start off on the wrong foot even before you get then back to your kitchen.

We all look for ripe berries, unbruised apples, and juicy tomatoes. So don’t buy just any bunch of asparagus you see at the store. You want to look for a few key qualities:

1. Very thin to fairly thin in diameter
2. Tight, compact heads
3. Firm, unwrinkled stalks

Any time a bunch of asparagus fails to meet one of these requirements, it’s a sign that the asparagus is old in one way or another. If you find thick asparagus, it was harvested too late and will be bitter, stringy, and even woody. If the head is loose and spindly – same deal. If the stalks are wrinkly and collapsing, they’ve been on the shelf too long and are starting to decompose. Run away! Run very far away. I hear string beans are nice!

I bet you’re wondering how thick is too thick. My ideal asparagus is the same thickness as a pencil, but these aren’t always available. The same thickness as a regualr Sharpie marker is definitely acceptable. Once you get into magic marker range, or the diameter of an American dime, you’ve gone too far. Pencils and Sharpies. That’s what you’re shooting for. I have a contingency plan for maybe-too-thick asparagus, but more on that later.

Storing AsparagusUnless you’re going to eat them immediately after you get home, you’re going to need to store your asparagus. You should treat your asparagus like a bouquet of flowers. Chop 1/2 inch off the ends and place the entire bunch in a glass with a little water in the bottom. Take a quart-sized ziplock and invert it over the top and store in the fridge. Your asparagus will stay fresher longer.

When you’re ready to use the asparagus, you need to go through at least one more step, but it’s fun because it involves mystical asparagus magic. The head of the asparagus is the most tender, and as the stalk gets thicker, it gets tougher. There is a magic point somewhere between the tip and the end of the asparagus that separates tasty-tender from icky-tough. You may not know where this point is, but your asparagus does. Observe:

Trimming Asparagus

Hold your asparagus with both hands, about two inches from the tip and the end. You can chant softly if you want. Gently bend the asparagus…

Trimming Asparagus

…until it snaps. You have reached asparagus enlightenment. You see, it will naturally break at a point of resistance, and that point is where the stem is too tough to be enjoyable. Do this for all your asparagus.

Peeled AsparagusIf you bought asparagus that may be a little too thick, or you feel like being super fancy, you can peel your asparagus. It’ll take some of the stringy-ness away, but I’ve seen fancy restaurants do this even with perfectly thin asparagus. Use a vegetable peeler and peel from tip to stem, being careful not to pass over the same spot twice. You can end up with pretty sad looking asparagus if you peel them too much.

Now you’re ready to cook. How? There are a bunch of ways. You can grill, saute, roast, boil, or steam, to name a few. Steaming is one of the more popular ways, but I prefer to boil mine in a shallow pan of water. Asparagus can go from DONE! to WHOA! OVERDONE! fairly quickly, so I like to be able to see it and poke it as much as I want when I’m cooking it – it’s harder to do that in my all-metal steamer. And to be fair, my mother also cooked asparagus in a pan of shallow water, so I’m not surprised that it’s my default method. Experiment and see what works for you.

Below is a simple recipe for asparagus, but there are really so many tasty ways to enjoy this vegetable. If you need a place to start, this is a good one, but definitely explore other ways of cooking it. Roasting and grilling especially. Yum.

Simple Balsamic Asparagus
Makes four small side servings

1 Bunch (1 lb) Asparagus, prepped (detailed above)
1 pinch salt
1 Tbs Earth Balance or Olive Oil
1/2 tsp Balsamic Vinegar

Heat 1/2 inch of water in a large skillet. When it starts to simmer, add asparagus.
Asparagus in Simmering Water

Asparagus, green

When the asparagus turns bright green (see second photo of the two above), drain off all the water, keeping asparagus in the pan. Add earth balance and pinch of salt. Toss to coat. Add vinegar and toss to coat. Serve immediately with a generous amount of black pepper. Asparagus should be tender but still slightly crunchy.

Simple Asparagus


  1. andrea!

    My favourite way to cook asparagus is steamed with just a couple of drops of sesame oil, and then sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. SO GOOD.

    I am really loving this blog! And I didn’t even know it existed until it had an LJ feed!

  2. Hannah

    Oh this looks good I’m going to try it. My favorite way to steam asparagus (and many other veggies) is to put them in a shallow dish with a little bit of water with lemon slices, salt the veggies (so they stay nice and green), cover the dish with saran wrap and poke a small hole in the top (to let out too much steam). Then I put it in the microwave for about 3 or 4 minutes. Perfection!

  3. Sandy

    I have to confess that my favorite asparagus recipe is (cough) from Rachael Ray–roasted with shallots and tarragon.

  4. Joanna

    I read somewhere that most of the compounds in asparagus that provide its flavor are water-soluble, so if you cook it in water, you lose a lot of the asparagusy goodness. My favorite way to prepare it is roasting it in a foil packet, with olive oil and salt and pepper. Or if I want it in pieces to add it to something else, I’ll chop it into 1″ pieces and pan-fry it. I never heard that you should soak the ends in water like flowers, though, so thanks for that tip!!

    (Also, is it blasphemous for me to comment here, being a non-vegan and all? I came across this site a week ago and have kind of been stalking you ever since, your pictures are so wonderful!)

  5. Lolo

    Andrea! Hi! Nice to see you over here. Ooh, sesame asparagus sounds amazing! I need to try that I think! PS, your cats are freakin’ adorable! I’m so glad you have a camera now!

    Hannah – Thanks for the tip! Asparagus and lemon is always good. Yum!

    Sandy! Hey, as long as you don’t repeatedly say Yum-O! — or insist on calling olive oil EVOO, use whatever Rachel recipes you want. You should make them for me sometime.

    Joanna! Hi! Your other comment got marked as spam, so sorry I didn’t respond to it! That’s interesting about water-soluble compounds. When I cook asparagus this way, it’s only in the water for 60 to 90 seconds, so maybe that’s why they still taste asparagusy and not “watered down.” I wonder! I think you can certainly boil any vegetable to death if you try hard enough. :)

    And haha, no, it’s awesome you comment here! I get excited when I learn that even non-vegans want to read my vegan blog. It’s good to hear from you! We should do coffee again sometime!

  6. Jody

    I’ve always loved asparagus. My pet cat when I was little was name Asparagus, but we called him Gus (a la TS Elliot). Oh yeah, and my moms favorite story to tell about my dad. She sent him to plant asparagus in the backyard and he planted it upside down.

    Anyway, that balsamic asparagus looks great. I have two favorite ways to prepare. Quickly water saute it with and then server with lemon juice and rosemary. Also, I love roasted asparagus.

    That breaking tip is key. I didn’t know that until a few months ago.

    As far as the rice pasta… I didn’t find the tinkyada sticky at all. Perhaps cooking with the cover on prevented that. The only reason I can come up with for that is, maybe it cooks at a lower temperature. Give it a try and let me know if that works for you.

  7. jill

    i love your site, your recipes, and your “how-to”s.
    i love asparagus, but i usually just order it at restaurants. i’ve always been afraid to buy it and cook it myself. thanks so much for all the advice!

  8. Amey

    Yes, asaragus season is wonderful.

    I love the idea of chanting to your asparagus! What a fun thought. I will have to think of an appropriate yogic chant to use.

    Also, our cat Yummers LOVES aspargus. We cannot eat it without sharing with him. It’s very cute. He especially likes the tips

  9. Amanda McGowan

    I never knew the proper way to store my asparagus until now! Thank you for the awesome how-to-make-asparagus blog entry!

  10. vincent

    Asparagus is one of my favourite vegetables. It’s so easy to prep and so yummy. I usually grill mine and then wrap it in grilled eggplant or a little veggie bacon for an involtini . Asparagus makes great soup, too!

  11. tiffany

    Thank you. I am the asparagus queen and all the tips I can get, are greatly appreciated. The large magic marker size are disgusting and love the pencil to sharpie metaphor. And always the most magical is the snapping (saves on cutting, too!)

    Treat them like flowers…And I will, thanks to you.

  12. jess

    I never peel mine, and am a fan of both the skinny and the larger ones I see a lot in OR, but mostly the skinny. I am sooo looking forward to asparagus season! I am seriously that excited about it. I dig liking a grown up veggie.

  13. Marleigh

    You have some sort of strange psychic link to me. Last week I had broccoli and a bell pepper to use and—magically—you posted your soup recipe.

    This week, I was planning on eating the asparagus in my fridge alongside some polenta and mushrooms, so I was thinking “Maybe a little balsamic vinegar would go nicely on the asparagus!”

    Where did you hide the camera?!

  14. Lolo

    Jody – Asparagus is the cutest name for a cat, ever. I’m definitely going to try the pasta tip. I hope it woks!

    Jill – Thank you so much! I hope you get the most out of asparagus season!

    Amey – I’ve heard of cats liking asparagus, but my kitties don’t seem to want any. Our older cat Dory will eat anything with earth balance in it, so I guess she takes after me! Also, Yummers ties for the cutest kitty name. SO CUTE.

    Amanda – Thanks! I can’t remember where I learned that tip, but it has served me well. They’ll turn into flowers if you let them grow anyway, so why not treat them like flowers!

    Vincent – I know, asparagus is SO versatile! It’s great with many cuisines and many different preparations. I should try asparagus soup!

    Tiffany – I was running around the house looking for objects to compare asparagus to, so I’m glad you found it useful (and not crazy. hehe).

    Jess – Yay for equal opportunity asparagus love! I can’t wait to see what you do with yours this season!

    Mikaela – Thank you!

    Kate – No problem! I need to make grilled asparagus ASAP! So good!

    Marleigh – That’s so bizarre! I wonder if it’ll happen again, you must let me know if it does! :)

  15. Carole

    I stumbled on your blog through Boing Boing and absolutely love it. I am not vegan, but your “how-to” section along with all the neat ideas are wonderful. Thank you for sharing.


  16. Maria

    Thank you! I love asparagus, but have never had any luck when it came time to cook it myself. I knew it was easy, but wow! Thanks for recipe.


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