The Essential Guide to Fiddleheads

Fiddlehead, or fiddlehead fern, are a unique plant that can be found growing in the wild and is prized for its delicate flavor and nutritional content. If you are looking for a new and interesting wild food to add to your repertoire, look no further than the fiddlehead fern!

In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about fiddleheads, from what they are, to how to harvest them sustainably, to what they taste like. So read on to learn more about this wonderful wild food!

What is the Fiddlehead Fern?

The term ‘fiddlehead’ is used to describe the immature, unfurled frond of any fern plant. All fronds begin as fiddleheads, but not all fiddleheads are edible. When used in a culinary context, ‘fiddlehead’ refers specifically to the fiddlehead of the Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, that grows in the wild. It  can be found growing throughout North America and Eurasia in the early spring

Fiddleheads are harvested when they are just starting to unfurl, but are still tightly wound and firm. They can (and should) be collected without killing the plant itself, by cutting a few of the stalks (also called stipes) and leaving most behind. It is essential for several of the fronds to continue growing in order to reproduce.

Fiddleheads are popular in local farmer’s markets and specialty gourmet shops when they first come into season, but because of their short harvesting window, it is rare to find them for sale outside the month of May.

Recently Harvested Fiddleheads
Recently harvested fiddleheads ready for the pan.

How Do Fiddlehead Ferns Taste?

Fiddleheads have a flavor that is somewhat reminiscent of asparagus, though with an earthier, nuttier taste. They are often enjoyed boiled, steamed, or fried, and commonly eaten in pastas, frittatas, and salads. 

Fiddleheads can have a slightly bitter taste that can be tempered by  boiling or frying. Some describe their taste as being similar to asparagus or spinach, although they have a more earthy flavor than either of those vegetables.

Fiddleheads are also high in antioxidants, making them a healthy choice for those looking for something new to add to their diet.

Freshly Harvested Fiddlehead Ferns
Fiddlehead ferns, amongst other foraged greens, freshly harvested and ready for consumption.

When to Harvest Fiddlehead Ferns

Fiddlehead ferns are found primarily in North America and eastern Asia, where they grow in shady areas near rivers, streams, and ponds.Although they can be eaten year-round, fiddleheads are most popular during the short harvesting window between April and May when they first come into season, but because of their short harvesting window, it is rare to find them for sale outside the month of May.

As we’ve already mentioned, it is important to harvest Fiddleheads sustainably. They should only be collected from a large, healthy patch, and you should only harvest from a small percentage of the available plants. Additionally, each individual plant will have multiple fronds (fiddleheads) growing from the rhizome – be sure to leave at least a couple fronds on each rhizome you harvest from.

How to Identify a Fiddlehead Fern

The easiest way to identify a fiddlehead is by its unique coiled shape, though there are other key identifying characteristics to make sure you have the Ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, and not a common toxic species.  These toxic species include the cinnamon fern (Osmundea cinnamomea), interrupted fern (Osmundea claytonia), and lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). 

Ostrich fern fiddleheads grow directly from the ground and emerge as tightly coiled spirals with immature fronds protruding from the center. They are typically light green in color, but can also be dark green.When young, the fern will have a brown papery covering on its surface, which should be easily peeled of. This is not  to be confused with the sheath of the cinnamon fern, which is softer and feathery, and has a notable cinnamon color. It is possible to find harvestable fiddleheads after they have already shed their papery sheath, so this should not be your only point of identification.

The most obvious identifying feature of the ostrich fern fiddlehead is it’s deep u-shaped groove running down the inside of the stalk/stipe. This should be apparent visually as well as physically – when you roll it between your fingers, you should feel a large, distinctive groove that interrupts its otherwise round shape.

As with all wild foods, you should consult multiple texts, pictures, and people to confirm your identification before harvesting or eating any fiddleheads. Commonly confused species like cinnamon fern are mildly toxic and should not be consumed.

Once you have properly identified the ostrich fern, make sure the fiddlehead does not have any holes in it, as these are likely from insect larvae.

The fiddlehead should be a bright green color with no brownish or yellow tint to it. If the fiddlehead has any blemishes on it, you can trim that part off and eat the rest of the fiddlehead.The presence of some type of blemish does not make them inedible, but it’s always best to be safe and remove any questionable parts.

Ostrich fern Matteuccia struthiopteris
Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) in early spring.

Cooked Fiddleheads

When it comes to consuming fiddleheads, proper cleaning, preparing, and cooking is key. For recipe ideas, check out the full Foraged Recipe Library!

To clean fiddleheads, first use a paring knife to trim any dark spots or blemishes. Then, submerge them in a bowl filled with cold water, and vigorously agitate them to release dirt or bugs that could be trapped within the tight coils. If you want to be thorough, slightly unfurl and rub each fiddlehead without breaking them. Drain them from the water, and repeat the agitation process until the water runs clear.

The best way to prepare fiddleheads is to blanch and shock them before incorporating them into a dish. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and prepare a bowl filled with ice water. Boil the fiddleheads for 30-60 seconds, or until they turn bright green and verdant, then immediately remove them from the boiling water and plunge them into the bowl of ice water. This process helps kill any lingering toxins, gives you a more brightly colored ingredient, and partially cooks them while maintaining a crisp texture.

Once they’re cleaned and prepared, they can be cooked using a wide array of techniques, similarly to how you could prepare asparagus. They can be sauteed with olive oil and lemon, boiled in soup, baked in a casserole, or chopped for the filling of a quiche.

Keep in mind that overcooking them will result in a drab color and mushy texture – it’s best to keep the cooking time brief so that their flavor and texture can shine.

Can you eat them raw?

While it is possible to eat raw Fiddleheads, we don’t recommend it. Fiddleheads should always be cooked before eating, as they can contain harmful toxins when eaten raw. They also are likely to contain dirt or bugs in their tightly formed coils, so proper cleaning and cooking is essential to safe consumption.

Eating raw Fiddleheads isn’t going to kill you, but it might make you sick if eaten in large quantities.

Where to buy Fiddleheads?

If you can’t find any Fiddleheads in your area, don’t worry, there are other options. The Foraged Market is a great place to order fiddleheads online in addition to a wide array  of your other favorite foraged foods.

The Foraged Marketplace has many different products including fresh and dried Fiddleheads available. They also carry other wild edibles, such as dandelions, ramps, and more!

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