Are all fiddlehead ferns edible? If not, which ones can you eat and which ones should be avoided?
Ruby McGinty, Cedar Rapids, IA
Fiddlehead ferns offer fresh flavor. Look for ostrich ferns, which are the safest kind to eat.
Photo/Illustration: Jennifer Benner
Ruth Lively, senior editor of the former Kitchen Gardener magazine, replies: The term “fiddlehead” refers to a young, tightly coiled fern frond because it looks like the scroll of a violin. Throughout the world, several types of fiddleheads are eaten, though most contain toxic compounds. The most commonly eaten and most esteemed fiddlehead is that of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris, USDA Hardiness Zones 2–8), often simply called fiddlehead fern. The ostrich fern is the safest fern to eat, even though it, too, can contain toxins. The fiddleheads of cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) can also be eaten, but all are at least mildly toxic and can cause nausea, dizziness, and headache, so it’s probably best to avoid them. The safest way to eat fiddleheads is to stick to ostrich ferns and to eat them in small quantities.
Ostrich ferns grow in moist, shaded areas in most of the eastern half of the United States, across Canada, and along much of the West Coast. Search for fiddleheads in the spring, when plants are beginning to push up new leaves. Look for a tan, papery sheath that clings to the base of the stem; this is an identifying characteristic of ostrich fern. If foraging seems daunting, you can likely find fiddleheads at good produce markets.
Fiddleheads offer a fresh flavor reminiscent of asparagus and a pleasantly crunchy, tender-firm texture. As the fiddleheads enlarge and unfurl, they become tough and stringy, so harvest fiddleheads and their shoots (stems) when they are 8 to 16 inches tall, by bending the stalk until it snaps. Before eating, rinse the fiddleheads well, rubbing off any brown, papery particles that cling. Raw fiddleheads are good in salads. To cook fiddleheads, simply boil them until tender and dress with a little butter. Fiddleheads can also be blanched first until about half tender in a little salted water and then finished by being braised in stock or sautéed in butter or oil with garlic. With their bright color, interesting flavor, and toothy texture, fiddleheads are a stunning addition to pasta sauces and stir-fry dishes.