The anticipation of fresh, tender spears of green asparagus at your local farmers market or grocery store is a sure sign of spring. But wait! What’s that bunch of chubby-looking white stuff? That’s white asparagus, the pale cousin of green asparagus and a sought-after European delicacy. While it’s not as common here as it is in Europe, it is popping up in specialty grocery shops more often.
Is white asparagus the same as green?
Basically, white and green asparagus are the same thing with one major exception—the way they’re grown. Just like your skin changes color when exposed to the sun, so does asparagus. When new spears pop out of the ground, reaching up toward the sun’s rays, they develop chlorophyll, which turns the spears green through the magic of photosynthesis.
White asparagus, however, is grown completely under the soil or covered with plastic so it is never exposed to sunlight. This prevents photosynthesis, keeping the spears milky white. As they grow, more dirt is mounded up around them, keeping them covered until harvest.
Is white asparagus good?
Well, that depends who you ask. Europeans, particularly Germans, are so wild for white asparagus, or spargle, as they call it, that they actually have annual Sparglefests and bus tours to asparagus farms in the spring. But white asparagus does taste a bit different. The flavor is milder and more delicate, with a slightly bitter taste, when compared to green asparagus. I tasted white asparagus when I was in Germany, and I can vouch for this.
How do I prepare white asparagus?
Start by snapping off the woody ends of the stalks. Because white asparagus spears are thicker and a bit more fibrous than green asparagus, lay them on the counter and peel the bottom two-thirds with a vegetable peeler. They can then be roasted, baked, sautéed, boiled or shaved in salads just like green asparagus. However you cook them, make sure that the white spears are cooked all the way to very tender. In Europe, white asparagus is often simmered and drizzled with melted butter or dipped into hollandaise sauce. (Here’s an easy recipe for hollandaise, by the way.)
How long does white asparagus last?
The key to keeping both white and green asparagus fresh as long as possible is moisture, but even with that, this isn’t a long-term vegetable. You can wrap a damp paper towel around the ends and place the spears in an open plastic bag in the fridge. (It needs some air circulation.) The asparagus should last up to 4 days. My favorite way to store it, however, is to stand the spears up in about 1 inch of water in a small dish (like flowers in a vase). This might garner you an extra day or two. If in doubt, give it the sniff test—you’ll know right away whether it’s still usable. You can also freeze asparagus after blanching it first. (Check out this handy how-to for blanching vegetables.)
Why is white asparagus so expensive?
Because growing white asparagus underground is much more labor intensive, that’s reflected in the price. Each stalk must be unearthed and cut by hand, a painstaking job. White asparagus can be as a much as $2 more a bunch than green.
Although green asparagus still rules in the U.S., demand for white asparagus has been increasing in recent years. Who knows, a few years from now we may be celebrating at our own Sparglefest!