The flavor of spruce tips is exciting. They’re easy to spot, and widely available. There are some tricks to cooking with them though, and I’ve been working hard at unlocking their secrets lately.
Recently my friend showed me a picture that a local chef posted of a dish he made with tips: lamb heart with a morel and a raw spruce tip on top. Now I’m all for keeping the individual shapes of ingredients, but eating spruce a whole tip raw is not something I recommend, no matter how intrepid your diners are.
So how should you use the tips? Looking online you’ll find plenty of recipes for using spruce, there’s spruce pickles, and the classic spruce tip syrup, which can be used to flavor drinks and such. I knew that there had to be other ways to use them though; I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned.
The most important thing to know is that each coniferous tree species will produce tips with different flavors. They will all have a similar cedar-y taste, but some of them have an intense astringency that follows, you want to avoid this. Hands down, the best flavored tip that I have found in Minnesota is that of the blue spruce. It has the cedar aroma, but it also an intense citrus flavor.
First, here are some general things I noticed about cooking with spruce, followed by a recipe for spruce puree which can be used to flavor just about any sort of sauce you like. At the end of the post is a recipe for the delicious spruce ice cream.
Spruce Tip Cookery Notes
- The flavor of spruce is strong, but also delicate. Just like the matsutake mushroom, if you combine the spruce with too many ingredients, it’s flavor will be lost. Keep it simple.
- Just like everything else, the spruce marries well with certain things. Green, Spring vegetables like peas, favas, and asparagus were the greatest pairing on the savory side.
- Spruce has an affinity for liver. Boss told me about a dish he used to do that was an entire lobe of foie gras cooked in pine needles, this gave me the idea to use pureed spruce as a sauce to garnish liver. Rabbit liver ravioli with peas, favas, asparagus, and a butter-y white wine sauce flavored with spruce puree was really great.
- The astringency of spruce can be tempered a bit by blanching in salted water (or unseasoned for sweet preparations). From here the tips can be pureed and used as a seasoning. They will lose their color, but blanched parsley can be added to the puree if you want a more vivid green color. Combining spruce tips with cooked, soft onions and pureeing not only mellows the flavor of the spruce, but makes the puree act as more of a thickening liaison, it’s an awesome way to use it. See the recipe below.
- Cream has a magical ability to amplify flavors without changing them, pureeing raw, and blanched spruce with cream both gave great results, I started by using a proportion of about 1/2 cup spruce to 1 qt cream. The astringency was mellowed by the cream as well, with the blanched spruce giving the lightest results.
- If spruce comes into contact with sugar, be it in a pickle liquid or otherwise, it will toughen and get an unpleasant texture. It may not seem that obvious, but trust me. If you want to make a sweet vinaigrette or something with them, best to add the honey or whatever you’re using at the last minute. I saw a candied spruce tip recipe online, which is a good example of something I wouldn’t make.
- Use a light hand with the spruce. When I was making sauces with it last week for the tasting menu, about 1 tsp of puree per dish was plenty. Even the milder blue spruce will be too strong if you get too happy with it.
Spruce Tip Puree
In puree form, you can easily experiment with the flavor of spruce any way you like. The onions mellow the astringency, without adding additional flavor.
- 1 cup blue spruce tips
- 2 cups sweet yellow onions, roughly chopped
- 1/4 tsp salt, plus more for seasoning blanching water
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup grapeseed oil, or another flavorless oil like canola
- Put the onions in a pan with the salt and cover with water, cook, covered, until the onions have wilted and are very soft, continue to cook until the pan is nearly dry, but don’t allow the onions to take on any color. Reserve the onions.
- Bring a quart or two of water to a boil in a small sauce pan, season the water lightly to taste with salt and then add the spruce tips. Cook the tips for 10 seconds, just until they lose their green color. Remove the tips and place in the bowl of a blender with the water and onions.
- Puree the mixture, slowly adding the grapeseed oil to create a smooth puree.Continue pureeing until the needles are completely broken up and smooth. If needed, add a little more water to help make the mixture super smooth. (I used a highspeed vita mix blender, it’s likely a home blender with a less powerful engine will need a little help pureeing.) Transfer the mixture to a container and refrigerate. Tightly covered, the spruce puree will last for a week.
My coworkers and I loved the cream pureed with spruce, so I knew ice cream had to be made. The flavor changed a bit too: it starts out resembling spearmint and melon rind, then the aroma of cedar floods your nostrils at the end; It was excellent. I thought one server in particular might start licking the ice cream bowl. Here’s the recipe.
Blue Spruce Ice Cream
Try this on a rhubarb crisp, it will blow your mind. Adding dark chocolate shavings or chips would make a delicious play on mint chocolate chip too.
It’s important to know that having the ice cream mixture at room temperature is key here. Pureeing cold cream will create butter in the blender and break the emulsion, pureeing hot cream with the spruce tips will react with their acidity and change their color swamp green.
Makes 1 qt
- 1.5 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup fresh blue spruce buds
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- On low, heat the cream, milk, sugar, salt, and egg yolks in a small sauce pan, whisking constantly to avoid having the egg stick to the bottom of the pan.
- When the mixture starts to steam and is hot to the touch, but not simmering or bubbling, (This should take a couple minutes) remove it from the heat, continuing to whisk. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a blender and allow to cool to room temperature completely.
- When the mixture is cool, add the spruce tips and puree working up the power settings gradually until you get to high. It takes a bit of horsepower to break down the needles, for the best flavor you really need them finely blended.
- When the mixture is pureed, pass it through a fine mesh strainer and then place in the bowl of an ice cream maker. Process the ice cream for 15 minutes in the machine, then check on it. The ice cream should be smooth and thick, doubled in size, with the consistency of sour cream. If needed, process for 5 minutes more, or until the desired consistency is reached.
- Keep a hairy eyeball on it to make sure the ice cream doesn’t get hard on the bottom, which will make it chalky and turn its color dark. When the ice cream is done, transfer it to a container and freeze until needed. The ice cream will firm up as it freezes.