Nothing tastes like spring quite like a forkful of asparagus.
This tender veggie, with its hard-to-describe grassy, sweet and slightly bitter flavor, is simple to cook—and delivers powerful nutrition benefits.
Traditionally, it begins to appear in stores in late February. It’s plentiful all throughout spring.
But the world’s asparagus market has been changing and fewer Americans are farming this labor-intensive crop.
The good news? Globally sourced asparagus means many people can buy fresh asparagus almost all year long.
And the more asparagus, the better.
The vegetable offers a plentiful source of iron, fiber, zinc and vitamins A, E and C, said Rebecca Mason, RDN, medical nutrition therapy supervisor at Spectrum Health.
“It’s also got up to 51% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin K,” Mason said. “And that works synergistically with vitamin D and calcium to make strong bones, and also helps with blood clotting.”
Additionally, it’s a rich source of folate, a nutrient essential for pregnant women to prevent neural tube defects. In fact, it’s a vital nutrient for everyone.
“Folate is great for basic cell function and cell turnover in your body, especially red blood cells,” Mason said. “It helps keep us healthy.”
Because asparagus is packed with fiber—about 2 grams per cup–it helps with digestion.
“Fiber also helps with satiety, too,” Mason said. “So when you have asparagus with a good lean protein source, you’ll feel more satisfied and less hungry.”
She likes to get the pee jokes out of the way early on. “Yes, asparagus makes your pee smell funny,” Mason said.
The cause is asparagusic acid, which gets broken down into sulfur-containing byproducts. Besides, asparagus is also slightly diuretic, which means it makes you pee more.
If it makes you feel any better, it’s worth knowing that the ability to smell those byproducts in urine is a genetic gift. Only about 40% of the population can detect the odor, which means 60% of the population (and 62% of women) are relatively nose blind to it.
How to spot freshness
Look for asparagus that is firm, not rubbery. And while there’s been a trend toward harvesting thinner spears—part of the whole “baby vegetables are more tender” movement—thicker spears (more than 1/2 inch) are actually more tender.
Researchers say that’s because when the plants are young, they put more energy into crude fiber so they can grow upright. As they mature, that switches, and the plants begin to fill the interior of the stalk with more soluble fiber and nutrients.
Take a close look at the beautiful buds on top of the spear, which should be tightly closed and not expanding. And the color should be a fresh green, fading to white toward the base.
A wrinkled stem or dull color indicates the bunch has lost freshness and will likely taste woody.
While you’re inspecting, pay attention to how pretty asparagus is. Part of the lily family, it comes in many varieties showcasing its many shades of green, purple and even white.
Prep it right
Mason likes her asparagus simple.
She preps it first, washing it and breaking off the woody ends. (Her husband, a chef, uses them in his vegetable stock.)
“Then I just drizzle it with a tiny bit of olive oil, salt and pepper,” she said. “I like to grill it or cook it in a pan, making sure it’s still crisp.”
Overcooked, soggy asparagus is still healthy but takes on a texture that turns many people off. If that happens, don’t be afraid to puree it—it makes a nice addition to soups.
Mason is also a fan of roasted asparagus. “Most vegetables contain at least a little sugar, which is released during roasting and makes them delicious,” she said. “Kids are especially fond of this technique.”
And don’t be timid about spicing it up, either. Try it with dill, chili, cayenne or garlic. Mint and fennel work well, too.
You don’t even have to cook it, she said. Look for raw asparagus salads, which usually suggest shaving the stalks using a vegetable peeler. Just toss with a lemony vinaigrette and enjoy.