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What the Heck Are Fiddleheads?

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What the Heck Are Fiddleheads?

Fiddleheads, also known as fiddlehead ferns, are a springtime delicacy consisting of the tightly coiled fronds of a new fern, named because of their resemblance to the curled decoration at the end of a stringed instrument.

The most common type of fern eaten in North America is the ostrich fern, which grows primarily in the northern latitudes, from New England through Canada and Alaska, during April and May. Other types of ferns are enjoyed in other regions, including Northern Europe, East Asia, and Australia. Besides the ostrich fern, the types most often harvested as fiddleheads in North America are the cinnamon fern, and the royal fern. Bracken fern is also commonly eaten throughout the world, though it contains a suspected carcinogen, and should be avoided, or eaten only in strict moderation (a few times per year, at most).

Fiddleheads are usually picked wild in forests and along rivers, though they can sometimes be bought at farmers’ markets or along the roadside. If you plan to pick some yourself, be sure you have permission from the landowner and know for certain what you are picking.

The flavor of fiddleheads resembles fresh asparagus, or a milder version of broccoli. Most people enjoy them boiled or steamed, then sautéed in butter and garlic or tossed with vinegar. They can also be substituted for other greens in all sorts of recipes. Because the window for fresh fiddleheads is so short, many aficionados freeze or can them to enjoy throughout the year.

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Fiddleheads are rich in antioxidants, Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, potassium, vitamin A, iron, and dietary fiber.

To cook fiddleheads, remove the papery brown skin, and boil the sprouts twice for five minutes each time, changing the water in between boilings. This will reduce the bitterness from the tannins in the plant. Ferns should not be eaten once they pass the tightly coiled fiddlehead stage, as many species become toxic when they mature.

Pickled Fiddleheads
4 oz. fiddleheads
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1/8 tsp. mustard seeds
1/8 tsp. whole allspice
1/8 tsp. black peppercorns

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Pack fiddleheads into a pint-size jar. Pour vinegar into a small saucepan. Add sugar, mustard seeds, allspice, and pepper to vinegar and bring to a boil. Pour vinegar mixture over fiddleheads. Seal jar and process in boiling water for 10 minutes. Let jar sit until cool. Store in a dark place at least 2 weeks.

Sautéed Fiddleheads
1 tablespoon salt
1 pound fiddleheads
2 teaspoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Salt, to taste
Red pepper flakes (optional)

Rinse fiddleheads. In a large pot bring two quarts of water to a boil. Add salt and fiddleheads. Cook 1 minute. Drain and rinse with cold water. In a large frying pan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add fiddleheads. Cook, stirring, until they start to brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes, if you like, and cook, stirring, until garlic is fragrant and just starting to color, about 1 minute. Salt to taste.

Fiddlehead Salad
2 cups fiddleheads, cleaned, cooked, and cooled
1/2 cup roasted red pepper strips
1/2 cup fresh tomatoes, sliced
5 oz. fresh chevre
1/2 cup red onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup balsamic vinaigrette

Combine all ingredients in a large salad bowl and toss together.

Fiddlehead Soup
1 cup fiddleheads
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
3/4 cup sliced leeks
1/4 cup sliced green onions
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups milk
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon lemon juice

In a large saucepan, cook the fiddleheads, mushrooms, leeks, and onions in butter until the onions are tender, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat; stir in the flour, salt and cayenne. Gradually add the milk and broth, stirring until blended. Bring to a gentle boil; cook and stir for 10 minutes. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes or until heated through. Stir in lemon juice.

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1 Lanie { 03.27.14 at 8:45 pm }

I am from philippines and i recognized only local fiddlehead ferns that we eat all year long. I live in WA state now. There’s a lot of ferns here, but how would you know that it’s edible? Every ferns looks the same. If ever you eat the wrong one, will it be fatal?

2 carolyn { 06.07.12 at 1:10 pm }

the article said -Ferns should not be eaten once they pass the tightly coiled fiddlehead stage, as many species become toxic when they mature.
i would love to try this next year but this statement concerns me. I love in Florida so i will have to inquire about ferns here

3 Jaime McLeod { 06.30.11 at 8:42 am }

Hi Joy,
I’m not sure what you mean by “desirable.” Desirable for what? For eating? For ornamentation? “Fiddlehead” simply refers to the young stage of any fern, when it is coiled into a tight little spiral. Bracken is a type of fern. It looks like the head of a fiddle when it first comes out of the ground, just like every other type of fern. Some types of ferns are edible when they are in the fiddlehead stage. The most commonly eaten is the ostrich fern. Some people do eat bracken fiddleheads, though they are believed to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in large quantitites, so it not recommended. All ferns can be lovely for ornamentation, though they are no longer fiddleheads when they’ve reached their adult stage. I hope that helps. If not, feel free to follow up, as I’m not really clear on what you are asking.

4 Joy Internicola { 06.29.11 at 6:38 pm }

I asked about Bracken and got fiddleheads. Are they the same? it appears that fiddleheads are desirable in one’s garden. If Bracken is not the same as fiddleheads, then is bracken also desirable ?

5 Jaime McLeod { 05.05.11 at 8:45 am }

Hi Sue,
Good question. Each fern root produces seven fronds. Recommended fiddlehead etiquette is to pick three fiddleheads from each plant, leaving four behind. This will ensure that the plant will survive, and produce more fiddleheads for years to come.

6 Sue { 05.04.11 at 2:11 pm }

Will picking the fiddleheads kill the fern? Sounds interesting but I’d hate to kill the ferns I worked so hard to get growing!

7 Adrienne { 04.27.11 at 1:34 pm }

We live in northern New Brunswick , where every year it’s a festival for this plant , we pick we eat till there not tomorrow , we freeze for the winter , then come spring it’s starts all over again , but around here we eat it as a side dish to meat and potatoes with just butter and a bite of salt and pepper but will try other recipes this year , also here fiddlehead season start in the last two weeks of May and only last about a week or two 🙂

8 brian marble { 04.27.11 at 1:25 pm }

there is a business located in Wilton,Maine by the name of Belle of Maine Cannery,it sells fresh fiddleheads all over the United States.this cannery also cans and pickles fiddleheads and buys fiddleheads from local pickers.they follow the season from new hamshire to northern maine and the season lasts about 5 can be found under strange maine sub category dandelions which they used to can also..

9 chellemac333 { 04.27.11 at 11:04 am }

Liked this article alot only wish I would have know about fiddleheads when I
lived in Western WA State. Ferns were abundant!

10 Denman & Robin Bigelow { 04.27.11 at 9:20 am }

My Mother-in-law was a dietician and came up with the following recipe and we honor her every year by eating them this way.
Cynthia’s Fiddleheads:
2 lbs cleaned fiddleheads
1 cup water
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoon oregano
Place cleaned fiddleheads in a pan (we use a fry pan) add water, soy sauce, & oregano, cover, bring to a boil & turn heat down and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until tender. Enjoy

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