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What Are Fiddleheads? How to Use These Edible Fern Shoots

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Fiddleheads - Dr. Axe

When May rolls around, it’s that time of year again. Those coiled tips of the ostrich fern, called fiddleheads, are finally available and ready to be consumed for their earthy, nutty flavor.

Ferns and monilophytes (also called fern allies) are an ancient group of plants that date back 380 million years. Today, there are over 11,000 species, and most of them cannot be consumed safely.

The ostrich fern, however, gives off young, coiled shoots that can be lightly cooked and consumed.

In fact, cooking fiddleheads is quite popular because of their unique taste and impressive nutrient content. If you could get your hands on some, you’ll enjoy adding them to veggie dishes or creating a new side dish.

What Are Fiddleheads?

Fiddleheads are the young shoots of the ostrich fern, or Matteuccia struthiopteris. They are bright green and have tightly coiled tips that are about one to two inches long.

The shoots can be foraged during a very short window in springtime.

Maybe you’ve never heard of fiddlehead fern, but there’s a devoted crowd that awaits its availability throughout the year and forages the plant shoots along the East Coast of the U.S. and throughout Canada. They are only available for a short period of time, from about mid-April to early May, but if you aren’t the foraging type, fiddleheads can also be found in some specialty food markets.

So what’s the fuss all about? For starters, these are hard to come by because of their short harvesting season.

They have sweet and snappy flavors and can be prepared very easily, as they’re edible raw.

The nutrient content of fiddleheads is also quite impressive. They are rich in antioxidants, omega-3s and other important nutrients.

Fiddleheads Nutrition

The U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that one ounce (28 grams) of raw fiddleheads contain approximately:

  • 9.5 calories
  • 1.6 grams carbohydrates
  • 1.3 grams protein
  • 0.1 gram fat
  • 1,013 international units vitamin A (20 percent DV)
  • 7.4 milligrams vitamin C (12 percent DV)
  • 1.4 milligrams niacin (7 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligrams manganese (7 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligram copper (4 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligram riboflavin (3 percent DV)
  • 104 milligrams potassium (3 percent DV)
  • 28 milligrams phosphorus (3 percent DV)
  • 0.4 milligrams iron (2 percent DV)
  • 9.5 milligrams magnesium (2 percent DV)
  • 0.2 milligrams zinc (2 percent DV)

Benefits/Uses

1. Rich in Vitamin A

Vitamin A acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body, and it plays a critical role in maintaining healthy skin, vision and immunity. Research suggests that the carotenoids in vitamin A foods work to decrease free radicals that cause DNA damage.

The nutrient also works to reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol and support bone health.

Just an ounce of fiddleheads contains over 20 percent of your daily recommended value of vitamin A, so it’s a great way to supply your body with disease-fighting, anti-aging antioxidants.

2. Supplies Vitamin C

Consuming vitamin C foods is an excellent way to promote healthy aging, boost immunity, neutralize free radicals and reduce the risk of inflammation. The vitamin has powerful antioxidant properties that play a central role in health and disease.

This explains why studies show that a higher intake of vitamin C foods may be linked to a reduced risk of many chronic conditions.

3. Good Source of Niacin

The niacin in fiddleheads plays an important role in health. It’s needed by the body to convert food into energy and boosts brain, skin and heart health.

Research shows that the vitamin also plays an important preventative role in neurodegenerative diseases.

4. Low in Calories

Lightly cooked fiddleheads make for a nutrient-dense, low-calorie snack or side dish. At just 9.5 calories for one ounce of shoots, they work to fill you up without increasing your calorie intake by much at all.

Incorporating low-calorie foods into every meal is an excellent way to lose or maintain weight. Plus, the nutrients available in the fern leaf help boost energy and reduce inflammation, which contribute to your overall health.

5. Makes for a Healthy Side Dish

With their antioxidant content, anti-inflammatory effects, low-calorie count and micronutrients, it’s safe to say that eating these young fern shoots is a healthy choice. They make for a nutrient-rich side dish or addition to soups, salads and more.

Plus, they are unique and offer a flavor that you don’t get to experience year-round.

How to Cook Fiddleheads

As mentioned, foraging for the young shoots is popular, but you can also find them in stores with a wild produce section. Purchasing them from farmers markets and individual foragers may also be an option.

You’ll likely find fresh fiddleheads for purchase while they’re in season and frozen shoots out of season.

It’s really easy to prepare fiddleheads for eating:

  1. First, be sure to rinse them thoroughly to remove dirt or grit buildup.
  2. They should be lightly cooked, which you can do by sautéing, steaming or boiling the shoots.
  3. Be sure not to overcook the shoots, so if you’re boiling them, do it for only 6–8 minutes or so.

They have a slightly sweet, nutty and grassy flavor, so they taste great when cooked with butter, olive oil or lemon. They can be added to salads, pasta dishes, soups, stir-fries, egg salad and sautéed veggie dishes.

They are also very popular as a side to any dish.

Recipes

Here’s a super fiddlehead recipe that can be used as a side dish or to be added to a stir-fry:

You need about two to three cups of washed and trimmed fiddlehead ferns.

To clean the sprouts, soak them in water, rub off the papery brown film that may be present and scrub off any dirt or grit. Then trim off any brown parts on the ends.

Now they are ready to be cooked and eaten. Here’s what you should do:

  • Add 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil to a medium-large skillet.
  • Add one clove of minced garlic.
  • Sprinkle in ½ teaspoon of salt and pepper.
  • Add in fiddleheads and let them sauté for about 7–10 minutes on low heat.
  • Remove from heat and cover ferns with lemon juice.

You can blanch the shoots beforehand in boiling water for about a minute. This isn’t necessary, but it reduces the bitterness of the fiddleheads.

Risks and Side Effects

Keep in mind that many ferns can be toxic, so don’t go foraging fiddleheads without an experienced guide.

You may have heard of poisonous fiddleheads. Eating the shoots raw can be toxic, and eating the shoots from a poisonous fern would be problematic too, of course. This is why shoots from only the ostrich fern should be cooked lightly and consumed.

Eating the shoots raw is not recommended because of potential bacteria and toxic effects. Plus, consuming too much of them can cause a stomachache.

Conclusion

  • Fiddleheads are young, coiled shoots from the ostrich fern plant. They are foraged in the spring and consumed for their unique taste and nutrient content.
  • Wondering how to cook fiddleheads? It’s easy — the shoots are safe to eat but should be cooked lightly. You can do this by sautéing, steaming or boiling the trimmed coils.
  • Fiddlehead ferns are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin and other important micronutrients. They can help boost immunity, fight free radicals, promote healthy aging and boost energy levels.
Josh Axe

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