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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Asparagus: Get it fresh, don't overcook (for 5/1/11)

April 22, 2011

When I was growing up, I hated asparagus, and I've avoided it ever since. But I was recently at a conference where they served grilled asparagus. It was delicious. Could my taste buds have changed that much?

It's certainly possible. Nearly everyone can name a food they disliked as a child that now makes their mouth water.

But it also could have something to do with how asparagus is prepared. Like any vegetable, overcooking can transform what otherwise would be a refreshing delicacy into mush. If the bright green spears turn dull, you know you've overcooked them.

If you're lucky enough to get young asparagus shoots right from the garden, you'll notice they're sweeter and juicier than what you might find at the grocery store or even the farmer's market. Asparagus simply doesn't age well. Harold McGee, the food science writer and author of "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," explains that sugar levels in the shoots decline over the season and even after harvest, with changes occurring rapidly in the first day after being plucked, especially if exposed to warmth and light.

Besides becoming less sweet, asparagus stalks can also become woody, from the bottom up. Trimming the bottoms of the spears is always recommended; some swear by an age-old method of bending the stalk and letting it "tell" you where the tough part ends and tender begins, and snapping it off there.

One way to cook asparagus properly is to stand the spears upright in a deep pan filled two-thirds with water. Boil them for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Then cover the pot, possibly using a foil tent if the spears peak above the rim of the pan, and let the tops steam for another 2 to 3 minutes. The spears will be easier to handle if you tie them together with a string.

Grilled asparagus is also a great way to prepare this treat. Just coat the spears with a bit of olive oil and, if you wish, sprinkle on your favorite herbs. Grill or broil until the spears just begin to brown, turning once. You can also try blanching or stir-frying -- again, the key is not to overdo it.

Nutrition-wise, asparagus is a good source of folate and vitamins A, C and K as well as other vitamins and minerals. A half-cup of cooked, drained asparagus also gives you about 2 grams of fiber, all for a mere 20 calories.

When choosing asparagus, avoid wilted, limp or angular stalks. The tips should be compact and pointed, and should show no signs of budding. Though you might think thin spears are better, thicker spears tend to have more meaty pulp and will be more tender when cooked.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: May is National Asparagus Month.

This column was reviewed by Julie Kennel, nutrition program manager for Ohio State University Extension in the Department of Human Nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology. 

Martha Filipic
Julie Kennel