‘Tis the season for asparagus. And whether we get it from the grocer or our garden, it would be hard not to notice the size difference in asparagus stalks. So which is better, thick or thin?
For a while “thin was in.” Skinny stalks were thought to be more tender and were even marketed as “gourmet.” Thicker stalks were passed over at the market because they were thought of as woody and tough. (Admit it. You assumed this, too.)
But larger doesn’t actually mean tougher, and our association of “young” and “tender,” when it comes to asparagus, is incorrect. In fact, according to Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, young asparagus puts a lot of energy into producing spears that can stand upright, so the younger plant is more likely to have more crude fiber per square inch. Whereas, if thick asparagus got a reputation as woody, it’s because home cooks were forgetting to snap off the ends — a problem that’s easily fixed.
Thickness is just a sign of the age of the root bed of the plant. Very young plants will yield very thin spears. Plants with a few years on them will yield thicker spears.
The most important factor when looking at asparagus isn’t size, but rather, is it fresh? Both thick and thin spears are tender and tasty, as long as they haven’t been sitting around too long.
You can identify freshly-picked asparagus by looking at the tips and the cut ends of the spears. If the tops are tightly closed and the bottoms are still juicy, it’s fresh. If the tops are opening up or the bottom is dry and shriveling or stringy, it’s well past its prime.
Use your asparagus as quickly as possible. Asparagus loses moisture pretty quick, so the longer you let it sit, the more time it has to turn tough. Any size spears will develop woody tissue if left out too long, but this happens faster in thin asparagus.
In case you’re not convinced that thick asparagus has earned its rightful spot on your menu, consider that thin asparagus isn’t hearty enough to stand up to many cooking techniques. Try grilling thin asparagus and it will go limp and lifeless, creating something mushy and gross instead of something tender and delicious.
So the next time you’re looking for a savory side vegetable, serve up some stalks of the thick stuff and see if you’re not impressed.
Also see, Asparagus tart with strawberry salsa.