Learn about the nutritional benefits of fiddlehead ferns, one of the spring's tastiest harbingers, as well as how to use them in cooking.

For just a few weeks during spring, farmers' markets will offer fiddlehead ferns and, if you're lucky, you may also spot them on a menu at your local farm-to-table restaurant. These flavorful, bright green delicacies are the unfurled shoots of the ostrich fern. Found mostly in the wild, they're harvested while they're still low to the ground, before the plant has a chance to unfold and mature. They get their name because they resemble the scroll of a violin, and they have just a very brief season (about three weeks) that usually starts in late April. You can typically find them at natural-foods stores or farmers' markets, although some enterprising online sellers also offer them freshly picked and vacuum-sealed, with overnight shipping.

How to choose, clean and store fiddlehead ferns

Look for fiddleheads that are bright green and still tightly coiled. Some may have brown, papery skin, which should be removed before cooking. Fiddleheads are quite perishable and it's ideal to use them within a day or two of buying them. They should be refrigerated in a plastic bag and cleaned just before cooking. (Find out The Best Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables here.)

To clean them, rinse them thoroughly in a colander before soaking them in cool water: these steps will help remove the brown outer covering.

cooked fiddlehead fern in a bowl
Credit: MmeEmil / Getty Images

How to cook fiddlehead ferns

Fiddleheads have a bit of a grassy taste. Their texture is reminiscent of string beans or asparagus, and they work well in recipes that call for those veggies. They make a great substitution for cactus or okra, too. They're also wonderful on their own as a side dish: just sauté them in a little bit of olive oil with a touch of chopped garlic and salt.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified cases of foodborne illness from eating raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads, so it's recommended to boil them first before using them in recipes that call for sautéing, stir-frying or baking. Since their consistency can be quite firm, this also helps tenderize them.

The University of Maine School of Agriculture recommends bringing a pot of lightly salted water to a steady boil, adding clean fiddleheads and cooking for 15 minutes. They also note that the water should cover the ferns, and that they shouldn't be too tightly packed (if you have a large quantity, boil them in batches). Their Facts of Fiddleheads publication offers more tips, as well as recipes for dishes like pickled fiddleheads and fiddlehead Dijon sauce.

Health benefits of fiddlehead ferns

Fiddlehead ferns are especially high in vitamin A, which helps organs like the heart and lungs function properly; it also plays a role in vision and the immune system. A 100-gram serving (about 3.5 ounces, or close to a half cup) offers a whopping 72% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults. That same serving has 30% of the RDA for vitamin C, and 4.5 grams of protein, which can help you feel fuller longer.