I love fiddleheads. But, the season for them seems to go lightning fast: one minute they’re everywhere, the next minute they’re unraveled. I’ve preserved them (crunchy pickled fiddleheads) and that works well, but, vinegar-based preserves limit the possibilities for cooking down the road and it’s nice to have some variation. What you might not have thought of (I know I hadn’t until last year) is that you can dehydrate fiddleheads, a technique that takes a page from Korean culinary tradition.
I can’t take credit for the method, that goes to my friend Linda Black Elk who shared it with me. When she and her husband Ahán Heȟáka Sápa came out for my plant walk with Sam Thayer last year in the Spring, one thing she mentioned I should try was dehydrating my fiddleheads.
I made sure to try some, and, as I followed her directions, I was reminded that I’d already seen dried edible ferns before.
If you go to an Asian market and head over to the dried section, the aisle with the bags of dried mushrooms, roots and herbs, hiding among them, most likely, will be little bags of black twigs with the name “fernbraken” or something like it on the front.
The fernbracken, as the name implies, are ferns. They aren’t the ostrich ferns that I pick in Wisconsin, or lady ferns from the Pacific Northwest, but they’re close. Fernbraken (also known as gosari or fernbrake), are bracken ferns (Pteridium aquilinum) and are a calling card for certain dishes in Korean cuisine that may specifically call for them dried.
Bibimbap, the well known dish of rice with mixed vegetables and condiments (cursory description here) is probably the most famous dish I’ve heard of using gosari, and, after digging into my first jar of dried fiddleheads this winter, I knew why. They’re a sort of tasty fern concentrate.
Concentrated fern flavor
I thought I knew what to expect from rehydrating and eating dried fiddleheads. Just a mild vegetable, right? Kinda. Like all other dehydrated things, dried fiddleheads are concentrated versions of themselves, just sans water. Fiddleheads have a mild, vegetal flavor fresh, but after drying that flavor gets intensified.
The flavor of dried fiddleheads was stronger than I expected, and reminded me of the oceanic, saline quality I taste when I puree or cook large amounts of common stinging nettles. It’s not a fishy taste, per se, but that’s about the closest thing I can come up with. It’s definitely a verdant, umami taste.
If you have a fern patch like me, and you end up having bags of them in the fridge, consider taking a bag and drying them to try them out, if for no other reason than to make your own version of Bibimbap, or adding them to a noodle soup.
Use those stems
It bugs me a bit when I only see tiny curled croziers in images of food using fiddleheads. The whole fiddlehead, including the stems of varying lengths are edible, and shouldn’t be discarded. Drying the stems is a good way to preserve them and save space, it’s genius, really.
Adding to soups
It won’t do to just chuck the ferns in a random pot of soup or something like that. The ferns hydrate as they cook, and, as they’re coiled to begin with, they’ll unravel, so if you want to add them to soup, soak them, then chop and add at the end of cooking to avoid green fern worms on your spoon. Stick to clean, minimalist flavors, things like miso soup, simple broth with vegetables, etc.
My favorite thing to do with them so far has just been to either soak them until hydrated and still a bit chewy, an hour or two, or gently cook them in water until just tender. From there, I toss them with some oil and other chunky ingredients and fashion a salad out of it. This is the probably my favorite way I’ve found to enjoy their flavor.
When I say salad here, I’m talking specifically about a salade composée—chunky vegetable based salads, not leafy greens. Below is a variation on German potato salad (no mayo!) you could adapt, but something as simple as a few sliced cold potatoes with good oil and something sharp to wake it up (fermented ramp seeds and onion bulbils here with a few pickled peppers) would be good too.
I’m sure you can find plenty of things to do with them.
Dried Fiddlehead Ferns / Gosari
- 2 lb or more fresh fiddlehead ferns including long lengths of stem if available
- 1 gallon water
- Kosher salt to taste
- Brush off as much of the brown paper covering from the ferns as you can, if any.
- Cut the stems of the fiddleheads into 1 inch lengths, keeping the coiled croziers whole.
- Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil, then blanch the ferns and cook for 60 seconds.
- Turn off the heat and quickly remove the ferns with a slotted spoon or Chinese spyder strainer (get one if you don’t have one) and allow to cool naturally and drain, spread out (you can use the dehydrator trays) for a few minutes, patting them dry to remove excess water.
- Dehydrate the fiddleheads on high (145-150 F-ish) for 24-48 hours or until completely bone dry, then store in an air tight container like a mason jar in a cool dry place. They’ll last until next season and beyond, just make sure they’re completely bone dry before storing.
- To rehydrate and cook the ferns, soak them for a few hours until soft and chewy in cold water, or cook in water to cover in a pot until they're tender and taste good to you, then drain and add to whatever recipe you’re making.
Salad of Potatoes, Dried Fiddleheads and Sour Onions
- ½ cup dehydrated fiddleheads
- 5 oz small potatoes such as German butterballs
- Kosher salt to taste
- Small handful pickled hot peppers such as banana peppers, cut into ½ inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or another mild herb like celery leaf coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fermented onion bulbils ramps seeds (optional)
- 2 scallions tender white and green parts only, sliced ¼ inch
- 1 tablespoon Hickory nut oil or another rich tasting salad oil like extra virgin, to taste
- Splash of maple vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- Cover the potatoes with water and a generous pinch of salt, bring to a simmer and cook until just barely tender, then drain and cool.
- For the strongest flavored fiddleheads, soak them in cold water to cover for a few hours until tender, but still a little chewy (just make sure they taste good to you). To rehydrate them quickly and have them be more tender, simmer them for 10 minutes or so until water to cover until just tender, then drain and cool.
- To serve, toss the potatoes with the remaining ingredients, mix well, taste and adjust the seasoning for salt, acid and spiciness, and serve. If you want to make it ahead of time, omit the vinegar until just before serving.