Of all the young growth of Spring, spruce tips occupy a space that’s really interesting. Literally the young growth on branches of spruce trees, they’re not quite a vegetable, not quite an herb. In a sense, they’re a little bit of both, and there’s a learning curve to working with them, but nothing you can’t handle.
The first thing to know is that all spruce species taste different. I had a great time (sarcasm here) working with some local Amish farmers a few years ago. They’d agreed to sell me spruce tips, but we had to figure out a good tasting species on their property. Every week for about 3 weeks, they would send me a couple different types of tips from different trees with my vegetable delivery. Eventually we hit on a tasty species before the Spring was officially over, but it took some time.
Every young spruce tip I’ve tasted will have a good flavor, but some have intense bitterness too. The goal is to find spruce tips that have the least amount of bitterness or astringency. No species of spruce is poisonous though, so what you can do is just go around to different trees until you find one that tastes good. You’ll want to bring a bottle of water to rinse your mouth out, otherwise after you get a bitter one they might all start to taste the same. When you find a tree that you like the taste of, remember it, and then find other trees that are the same species of spruce. Generally I like picking Norway, white, and blue spruce. The only tips I know I really don’t like are balsam fir, although their cones are fun.
Like with many foraged foods, you need to be careful with how you treat the trees. Here’s my rules that I follow when harvesting tips:
- I always pick from elder, mature trees, young trees need time to grow
- I never pick more than 20% of the tips from a single tree
- I never pick tips from the apical meristem, or top of a young tree, which would stunt it’s growth
With that out of the way though, know that spruce tips are something you can harvest in large quantity, easily, and put them away for winter.
Spruce tips have a fantastic shelf life. Picked fresh and cooled immediately, they can last for multiple months in the cooler under refrigeration at a restaurant. Home refrigerators dry foods out faster than commercial refrigeration units, so you want to be extra careful to keep them in a damp environment. I like to store them in a plastic bag with a couple holes punched in it for them to breathe, along with a damp paper towel or two to help hold in moisture. If you’ll be keeping the tips for a month or longer, make sure to change the towel every week or so. Spruce tips can also be frozen, and used for my ice cream and syrup recipe below at the bottom of this post.
Here’s a few bullets I find helpful
- When I cook with spruce tips, I usually add them raw to salads or vegetable dishes. When they get exposed to heat, their flavor changes, and their color darkens to an unappealing brown. You can get past this by using them in cold dishes, or by just being careful and adding them to thing at the last minute. Pickling them is, ok.
- If I use spruce tips in desserts, they will typically be pureed or in an infusion, and always strained since leftover particles can get bitter.
90% of the time, I use spruce tips raw in cooking, or in an-uncooked form
- “Cooking” with spruce tips is kind of a mis-nomer. After I heat them in something, like syrup, the tips turn brown and since their flavor is now in the syrup, they usually get discarded. I’m never going to toss them in a hot pan with something, since they will lose their color so fast. Think of them as something to sprinkle in a dish at the very last minute, toss in a cold salad, or puree into a cream or custard cold without exposing them to heat.
- Sure, people make spruce tip salt, breads and cookies, and all kinds of stuff. I’ve made them too, and there’s a reason you don’t see recipes for them posted here. You’ll have to search for the flavor in most of the finished products that are cooked, salt is salty and needs to be frozen to not lose it’s bright flavor, etc.
This was really tricky for me at first. By themselves, spruce tips are aggressively flavored, so a little goes a long way, especially if you have a more aggressive tasting species. For the most part, for me it’s helped to think about them as either one or two flavors: honeydew melon and mint. From there, I just imagine what a dish would taste like if I added one or both of the two. Here’s some examples of flavors spruce tips like be paired with.
- Sweet green vegetables, especially peas, fava beans, green chickpeas, asparagus, etc.
- Radishes, raw lamb, goat, bison, game, etc.
- Organ meats from all above animals, especially heart and liver
- Citrus, and anything flavored like citrus, especially lime
- Berries, especially dark ones like blueberries, serviceberries, aronia, cherries, etc.
- White chocolate
- Chocolate, like spruce tip ice cream with chocolate shavings
- Citrus, and anything flavored like citrus–especially lime
- Cream, as in ice cream, panna cotta, mousse, etc
- Nuts, especially creamy ones like pistachios, macadamia, and cashew
Vacuum Sealing + Freezing
This is your best option, hands-down. If you strictly want to preserve their flavor vacuum seal them and freeze, although you can put them in a tightly sealed ziploc too. Frozen spruce tips regularly sell for 30$ a lb through some wholesalers I know of, so putting a few away for the off season is time well-spent. Frozen spruce tips have their limits though, and they will not have the soft texture of freshly picked tips. If I’m reaching for frozen spruce tips, I’m probably making ice cream or syrup–not eating them raw.
You can cook spruce tips into a simple syrup, which I like to concentrate by slowly reducing in the caramelized spruce tip syrup below. The caramelized syrup is really a short cut though, and doesn’t have the ultra-concentrated flavor of something like mugolio, or sun honey.