Of all the young growth of Spring, spruce tips occupy a space that’s really interesting and worth getting to know if you love wild food, like I do. Literally the young growth on branches of spruce trees, spruce tips not an herb in the typical sense, but, they are for all intents and purposes.
Each species tastes a little different
The first thing to know is that all spruce species taste different. Quick aside: 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 and taste them 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. The only tips I know I really don’t like are balsam fir, although their cones are fun and can be used to make an interesting version of Mugolio.
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
That being said, spruce tips are one of the most easy to harvest and sustainable things you can forage, and the aforementioned details are relatively minor details as far as sustainability goes. Even if you tried, it would be hard to pick all the tips from a tree, since only the lower hanging branches are accessible most of the time, unless you have a ladder. Also, spruce tips have a strong flavor, and you don’t need a lot of them to make things, a handful or two will be enough to serve dessert to 10 or more people.
Species I like
As I mentioned, each species of spruce tip is going to taste a little different. Some will have a strong citrus note to them, some will taste a bit bitter. All the types I’ve had have a strong piney-citrus note to them, but some have more of the astringency than others. Let your palette be your guide here. By far, my two favorite species to cook with so far are:
- White Spruce (Picea glauca)
- Blue Spruce (Picea pungens)
- Norway Spruce (Picea abies)
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
- Remove the paper covering of any tips before eating, just as you would fiddleheads.
- 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.
Toxic “look-alike” Yew tips
Generally speaking, conifers are some of the safest edibles I know, but with spruce tips, It would be remiss of me not to mention that you need to be able to differentiate common yew (Taxus spp) from spruce tips. It’s pretty easy. Yew grows typically as a low-growing shrub, while spruce tips come from trees. To me, yew doesn’t really resemble spruce tips, but to someone very new to foraging, they could. You’ve been warned.
Too much Vitamin C
The strong taste of spruce tips should be a deterrent from eating multiple handfuls, but, it is possible for some people to get an upset stomach from eating them, which should (I’m speculating here, chime in if you have concrete examples) be due to the fact that spruce tips are naturally high in Vitamin C.
That being said, from my experience, the tummy rumbles I’ve been notified of and experienced myself are only from consuming raw, un-processed spruce tips straight from the tree, and I have never had a problem serving someone a dessert where the tips are pureed in cream, as they are in just about every dessert I make with them.
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.
Classic Spruce Tip Syrup
By leaps and bounds, the first thing you need to make with your spruce tips (if you haven’t already) is classic spruce tip syrup. This is a cousin of Italian mugolio (pine cone syrup) and it is one of the easiest, most delicious ways to capture the flavor of your favorite tree. It takes at least a month to make (I’ve seen older recipes where they instruct you to bury a jar of spruce tips and sugar in the ground) but the finished product is so worth it.
You can drizzle it on things like pancakes and cheese, or even use it in cooking. At one restaurant I worked at, we used to use it to flavor ice cream and sorbet. Try it for yourself and be a believer. Link to the formal recipe at the bottom of this post.
Intro to Spruce Tips