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I've heard of several approaches to cutting green asparagus to remove the woody ends from the bottom which are no good to eat. In general, none seem to take account of the thickness, or the age or freshness. For instance:

  • Alton Brown recommends grabbing the asparagus from either end and bending together, creating a tighter apex until it naturally snaps at the "magic point".
  • My mom's approach is just to take off about 1/5 of the bottom with a knife regardless of shape or apparent age
  • In fact, in some episodes of BBC Masterchef, the Professionals, I noticed that the chefs will trim or peel the exterior only around the bottom 1/5 of the asparagus. I've been totally unable to replicate this method, it usually snaps off the whole end - could they perhaps trim the asparagus after cooking?
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4 Answers 4

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So, first, let's look at what you're doing when you trim asparagus. Like most other green "stalk" vegetables, as asparagus gets larger and older, the stalks get more fibrous as a way of supporting the plant. In addition to asparagus, this is true of broccoli, kale, and many other vegetables. One way to avoid this fibrousness is to eat very young "baby" plants. For example, if you simply buy asparagus that are pencil-thin or smaller, you often don't need to trim them at all.

If you do need to trim, though, Serious Eats covers techniques in some detail. The "snap at the natural breaking point" thing for asparagus is a pervasive cooking myth. It doesn't hold up under testing, and tends to result in removing much more of the asparagus than just the fibrous portion ... up to 50% according to Cook's Illustrated.

I trim my asparagus with a knife. In my personal experience, the best indicator of where the fibrous portion ends is to look at the color of the asparagus; the fibrous portion is usually paler, shading to white at the bottom. This can mean trimming some individual stalks separately.

In other words: your mom is one-up on Alton Brown, here.

As both you and Cook's Illustrated note, there's an alternative, which is to peel the asparagus. The inedible fibers form mostly in the skin and outer flesh of the asparagus, while the core of the stalk remains tender, just as it does in broccoli. And just like broccoli, you can remove these fibers with a sharp peeler or paring knife and still cook and eat the core. Personally, I rarely do this because it's a lot of work and here on the West Coast of the US asparagus is pretty affordable. But it's very common, even standard, in Europe.

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    If they’re really wide, it’s worth peeling, as there’s still a lot of the soft middle bit. Part of it comes down to buying the right size asparagus for how you plan on preparing it. (And avoiding any bundles that have a mix of skinny and fat ones)
    – Joe
    Dec 29, 2022 at 20:39
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    You may want to note that while the green asparagus is prevalent in most countries, there’s also the short-season white asparagus, where different rules apply.
    – Stephie
    Dec 30, 2022 at 6:26
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    One thing I've noticed with most cooking shows, Alton Brown included, is that they're far more cavalier about wasting perfectly good parts of the food. Not sure if they do this in their off-screen cooking profession or if it's just a shortcut for TV. That said, the "waste" bits can still be used in a vegetable stock if you're feeling guilty about it. Dec 30, 2022 at 21:38
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    @CodyGray — Asparagus, brassicas, and fennel can impart a strong and undesirable flavor to stocks. Dec 31, 2022 at 15:21
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    ... a flavor which gets stronger, in unpleasant ways, with sitting.
    – FuzzyChef
    Dec 31, 2022 at 20:02
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Two of your methods are the same (you may misremember Alton Brown's method)

Your mother's technique (and my mother's) and Alton Brown's preferred methods are all the same. You likely misremember the episode -- or maybe are referring to a different show or book. In the asparagus episode of Good Eats he does mention the bend method, but he then goes on to explain his own preferred method: cutting off about a fifth of the end. Where he differs from maternal technique (and I like this idea) is that he suggests you might consider slicing the next inch into thin discs as a flavorful garnish.

A transcript of the relevant scene from Season 14, episode 3, Age of Asparagus:

"Typically, asparagus must be trimmed of its woody lower stem. The problem is the amount of material that needs pruning depends on the specific specimens under consideration. Now traditionalists will tell you that each spear will signal where it wants to be severed simply by bending it to the break point [demonstrates]. The problem is I'm lazy. And on top of that, I want my asparagus to be uniform in length, so here's what I do. Just bundle it up and apply a produce-department rubber band to hold the spears together. This may have actually come on your asparagus, but you didn't store it on there, did you? Good. Okay, now I measure the average length of the bunch here, 10 inches. Now I divide that by five, roughly, and it turns out to be two. So two inches will be taken straight off of the bunch, and we will feed that to compost. Now compost is my potbellied pig. He's around here someplace.

"Now I'm going to assume that the next inch will be tasty, but still a little on the flossy side. So I'm going to slice it very, very thin, into rounds. And these we will put on salads, soups, chicken salad's really good, or even yogurt for dips. I'm not going to waste that flavor. And that leaves with us seven inches of spear ready for further processing."

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    Thanks I misremembered that he advocated against that method.
    – AdamO
    Dec 31, 2022 at 14:39
  • @AdamO - Over the years he has gone back and forth on various recommendations in a realistic manner: as he learns more, gets more experience, or his tastes simply change. I wasn't sure if he had presented the snap method during his pandemic streams or something like that. When I watched the GE episode, I thought I could see a potential for confusion with how it was presented. Jan 2, 2023 at 5:33
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Don't trim at all, then eat as much as feels good

Just an alternative approach, which is much less fancy but very practical if you are fine with the whole asparaguses on your plate.

Maybe peel them, cook them whole, then just start eating them at the tip, and for each individual bite make a decision if it is time to toss the rest of the stick (which I would just leave sitting on the plate until I'm finished).

As said, not very fancy, but very low effort and wastes the least amount of asparagus possible.

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    Nice if you are serving the asparagus as a separate component. Doesn’t work if the asparagus is cut up and combined, e.g. in a stir-fry, quiche, casserole…
    – Stephie
    Dec 30, 2022 at 18:37
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    @Stephie obviously, that's why "if you are fine with the whole asparaguses on your plate".
    – MaxD
    Dec 30, 2022 at 18:38
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I've often wondered about this too and developed my own method which I've not seen published.

My goal is to snap off as little as possible to have high yield and so than all the remaining parts are fully enjoyable.

Starting at the cut end work your way up until your fingernail can puncture the asparagus, then snap at that point.

Rarely (but occasionally) the snapped off part is substantial. In this situation, instead of snapping, I peel from this point down. And of course cut and discard any parts of the stalk that you deem to be inedible.

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