Long admired as a vegetable delicacy, asparagus remains widely popular for cooks and gardeners alike. What asparagus tastes like, however, is a little more complex. Three main factors affect the taste of asparagus, including the (1) variety, (2) cooking method , and (3) age.
Oh, asparagus. A vegetable that is delicious, but can be quite a character – from its unique shape to its chemical reactions with our bodies post-consumption (wink, wink). With a price tag that makes asparagus more expensive than its vegetable counterparts, it remains a delicacy for most of us. Cooked perfectly, asparagus has a tender, yet snappy crunch that makes it versatile in the kitchen. As far as its taste, however, we must review the relationship between both flavor and aromas...even texture...since these are all intertwined.
Three primary factors affect what asparagus tastes like when eaten: (1) variety, (2) cooking method, and (3) age. First, the asparagus variety will offer subtle differences in flavor ranging from grassy “green leaf” notes and faint bitterness to a more nutty, buttery sweetness. As a general rule, all asparagus varieties are prized for a tender buttery sweet flavor with a hint of earthy bitterness.
Second, the cooking method can either accentuate the natural, raw flavors of the asparagus stalk, or allow other ingredients to help the asparagus taste savory. For example, boiling and blanching asparagus stalks will make the "green leaf" flavor more subtle, while sautéing or roasting (especially in butter) with more prolonged heat will draw out additional complexity – sweetness complemented by savory earthy flavors. After all, the actual taste of asparagus and any food is comprised of some taste, but mostly smell.
Finally, the age of the asparagus stalks will play a role in your taste experience. Fresh from the ground, asparagus trends juicier and sweeter. Over time, the stalks will loose their sweetness and trend towards a more rigid texture and less flavorful taste.
Regardless of these factors, asparagus is generally regarded as offering a subtle earthiness characteristic of most vegetables that pairs with a delicate sweetness. This balance between the sweeter sugars and earthy grass tones makes asparagus delicious cooked in just a hint of olive oil, or enhanced with a rich sauce. Consider asparagus flavor – as a whole – similar to green beans and the non-cruciferous portion of broccoli.
Let's take a closer look at the role these factors play in the development of asparagus flavor.
Asparagus Taste Factors
When working with different varieties of asparagus, it is important to note that the flavor can change with the specific color and particular variety. The below varieties are considered the main "categories" of asparagus. Additional varieties exist and are ripe for exploring!
Green asparagus. The most common of the asparagus varieties, this is the version with which you are probably most familiar. Therefore, this is the asparagus that sets the flavor benchmark for us to compare the remaining varieties. Green asparagus tends to have a mild earthy, "green leaf" taste with a hint of sweetness.
White asparagus. Some notice a taste difference between white asparagus and green, while others do not. Most popular in Europe, white asparagus is pale thanks to the effort farmers make to keep the spears covered with mounds of dirt until time to harvest. This creates a different texture, making white asparagus thicker and tougher. The texture is great for grilling, but does need to be trimmed if incorporating into a more delicate dish. If you are able to notice a flavor difference, you will likely note that the white asparagus is sweeter - but only after you avoid the woody part of the spears.
Purple asparagus. The purple variety definitely has a sweeter flavor and carries increased nutrients thanks to the anthocyanins present in the deeper color. Despite its sweetness, characteristic earthy notes are more subtle, but still present. Some may note that it shares mild flavors with almonds, or nuts in general.
Wild asparagus. Wild asparagus is unique in that they will never get as fibrous and tough as older versions of their traditional cousins, making their flavor a little more tender than many might expect. Generally, the wild varieties are a little more earthy and nutty, offering a more concentrated flavor.
Do you have fresh asparagus on hand? Let's see what cooking methods will offer you the asparagus taste you desire.
Steaming or boiling and blanching asparagus spears will keep the flavor closer to its raw form. Of course, any heat application will alter the taste somewhat - usually, making the flavor more mild. If you seek more grassy and nutty flavors in your dish, consider a very simple cooking method to highlight a raw asparagus flavor.
Roasting, sautéing, or grilling the asparagus spears will change the taste even more. Higher heat applications, and added seasonings, provide opportunity to incorporate a more complex flavor profile. Specifically, these cooking methods tend to create some caramelization with the asparagus spears that can add more umami and savory flavors, while decreasing the natural bitterness or grassy undertones in its raw form.
Much of the flavor profile relies upon timing, since much depends upon when the asparagus was actually harvested from the ground. Unlike fruit that ripens and develops increased depth of sweetness, asparagus that is harvested early tend to have a juicier consistency and sweeter taste. According to Harold McGee, early-harvested asparagus can contain as much as 4% sugar. If the asparagus has started to flower, it is probably a little too old for the tender, delicate flavor you seek.
The clock really works against asparagus maintaining its earthy-sweet flavor, even before harvest. The longer the growing season progresses, the more the asparagus stalks lose their sugar thanks to energy depletion. So, once removed from the ground, this process accelerates. What is particularly interesting about the flavor and texture decline of the asparagus is that the speed in which this occurs is faster than most other vegetables.
Sugar depletion within asparagus means the overall flavor becomes much more plain, rather than the burst of flavor you can experience earlier in the season.
The lower portion of the stalk hardens first, moving up each piece of asparagus until it reaches the top. Some of this flavor and texture loss can be mitigated by soaking asparagus stalks in very diluted sugar water, or by removing the toughest ends and peeling the outer asparagus layer if the toughening has started spreading up the stalk.
Ready to make your own? Let's see what flavor pairings complement the delicious taste of asparagus.
Vegan Flavor Pairings to Complement Asparagus Taste
Lemon or citrus. Fresh citrus juice and zest adds a fresh flavor to the asparagus, creating a very simple dish that can be paired with a variety of main courses. This is especially wonderful during the spring and summer months, when lemon is at its most popular. Orange citrus notes would be a fun addition to the fall or winter table.
Vegan cheese. Sprinkle a little vegan Parmesan cheese over the top of cooked asparagus. With a little melting over the warm asparagus, the vegan cheese offers a salty umami with nutty undertones to complement the subtle bitter earthy asparagus.
Vinegars, particularly balsamic vinegar. If you enjoy adding just one vinegar to the flavor profile, balsamic carries the most potency and highlights the sweet and sour flavors in both the vinegar itself and the asparagus it’s dressing. For those considering a more delicate vinegar, like champagne vinegar, be prepared to incorporate some additional herbs or citrus.
Rice. The nutty starch flavors of cooked rice are a great companion for the tender, cooked asparagus. As an added bonus, the rice will gladly accept any additional seasonings used with the asparagus, making it a wonderful flavor companion.
Garlic. Freshly-minced garlic is ideal for sautéing with the asparagus, while garlic powder can be used to season asparagus heading for the oven or air fryer.
Neutral-flavored oil, like olive oil. You’ll likely use a cooking oil to prepare your asparagus, unless boiling in salted water. The oil will add it’s own unique flavor profile to the asparagus, but a good extra virgin olive oil lends a unique fruity, nutty taste that is both subtle and delicious.
A variety of herbs, including thyme or tarragon. Experiment with the herbs you prefer, but those that are more delicate tend to work better with asparagus. Consider thymes, chives, or French tarragon. I would suggest avoiding more pungent herbs like dried oregano.
Common Asparagus Misconceptions
Speaking of preparing a delicious asparagus dish, review these common misconceptions to make your preparation the best yet!
Fat asparagus is less flavorful than thin asparagus stalks.
Not true! The width of the stalks doesn’t have an impact on flavor, despite this tendency with vegetables. In fact, some would say that the larger asparagus stalks are actually more tender than the thin varieties. The difference is most prevalent in the texture, since the larger stalks are more woody.
You need to snap the asparagus stalks to remove the bottoms.
Don’t waste those delicious asparagus treats! Just cut a small piece off the bottom and (if needed) gently peel the stalk, being careful not to peel the very delicate top. If you insist upon following the 500-year tradition of snapping your asparagus, at least keep the bottoms, slice them, and cook for a snack or make a delicious stock for asparagus soup in the future.
You need a special steamer to cook asparagus.
This is completely false. While you can steam asparagus in a special contraption, the reality is that asparagus is delicious prepared in a number of different manners, as we discussed earlier.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you make asparagus taste better?
If you're not a fan of asparagus in its raw form, you will need to make it taste better by cooking and seasoning to suit your preference. Heat does make the bitter taste more subtle and can give you a more complex, caramelized flavor. I suggest sautéing in some olive oil and garlic, or roast in the oven and drizzle the finished product with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice and zest for a simple, tasty recipe.
Is asparagus supposed to be bitter?
Yes, asparagus is prized for its balance between earthy bitterness and subtle sweet taste. The older an asparagus spear gets, however, it will taste less sweet and flavorful as a whole. Some may find this flavor profile to be more bitter than if you ate the asparagus right after harvest.
Can you eat the entire asparagus?
The best part of the asparagus spear to eat is the top three-quarters, away from the more tough and fibrous bottom. For those feeling adventurous, though, consider popping the cit bottoms into an air fryer to create seasoned asparagus crisps that are tasty and less wasteful. These bottoms might not win a prize at the state fair, but they are quite tasty for those who enjoy all aspects of this prized vegetable.
I certainly hope you decide to jot down your own thoughts about what asparagus tastes like the next time you prepare this delicious vegetable. Interested to learn more about asparagus? Check out these great resources:
Or, try a roasted vegetable recipe just as delicious as any asparagus variety - Chili Lime Roasted Chickpeas.
Happy cooking, friends!