Fiddlehead Guide – Harvest, Preserve & Cook
Foraging for fiddleheads is a spring activity the whole family can enjoy. They are abundant along river banks and are a great way to harvest food for free in God’s abundant creation! Fiddleheads have a rich earthy taste, similar to asparagus. Learn how to identify, harvest and preserve fiddleheads with me!
Fiddleheading is a maritime tradition, one that has been carried on from generation to generation in my family. My grandfather taught me where and how to pick fiddleheads, and he learned from his father. Canning fiddleheads is my preferred method of preserving them for the year, which I learned to do from stories of my great grandmother.
Whether you are new to wild harvesting or an experienced forager, here are my tips and tricks for harvesting and preserving fiddleheads!
What are Fiddleheads ?
Fiddleheads are young ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) that have just sprouted. Although some other species of ferns, such as cinnamon (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) and interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), are edible the ostrich fern is the most common and desirable for eating fiddleheads.
When the ferns have grown through the soil (approximately under 6 inches tall) and are still tightly curled they are edible. However once the ferns grow taller and have unfurled they are no longer edible.
Where to Find Fiddleheads
Ostrich ferns (fiddleheads) are a large fern found throughout northern North American but are most commonly found in the maritime Canadian provinces and north eastern United States. (Image of ostrich fern range in North America).
Fiddleheads often grow along river banks, on river islands, and in floodplains. These ferns also grow on the ground of mature forests. If you are looking to find a patch of fiddleheads I recommend starting by talking to elders in your community who may be able to point you in the right directions or take you to a patch themselves. If you do not find any leads, a good place to start is canoeing down a river and searching the banks.
Once you find a patch of fiddleheads you are set to harvest for years, since fiddleheads come back in the same location each spring. This year I harvested my fiddleheads along the river where my grandfather grew up and picked fiddleheads over 60 years ago.
It is important to be able to identify fiddleheads before harvesting to be sure you found the right species of fern. The best way to have confidence in your identification is to go with someone experienced who can show you what to look for.
If you are setting out on your own here is what you should look for:
- Ostrich fern fiddleheads will be a bright green color. If they are black it means the frost has hit them and they are not good to eat. Also if they are red it is the wrong species.
- Ostrich fern fiddleheads will be smooth. If they are fuzzy it is the wrong species of fiddleheads.
- Ostrich ferns have two types of fronds, the fleshy green fronds that we pick for fiddleheads and the spore fronds that are used for reproduction. When searching for Ostrich ferns keep an eye out for the spore fronds, which look like a brown feather, as this will let you know you have the right species.
- When Ostrich fern fiddleheads first grow up they are covered in a thin brown layer that is like tissue paper, which you can dust or wash off.
- Ostrich fern fiddleheads grow in little clumps, which are all connected at the base.
- In some locations there can be fiddleheads and the mature ferns at the same time (because of sunlight hitting one area and not another), therefore keep an eye out for the mature ostrich fern to know you have the right plant. If you notice an area of Ostrich ferns in the summer, remember the location and come back in spring to pick them as fiddleheads.
Fiddleheads are harvested in the spring, however the exact time will depend on your location. Here in New Brunswick, Canada the fiddleheads usually come up at the end of May, however this year they were a week early. In the United States they can come up in April.
To be sure you do not miss the fiddleheads, keep an eye out once spring comes and check back every week. Most years they will come around the same time, therefore if you remember when they sprout you will know for the next year.
To pick fiddleheads snap or cut them off at the base when they are up but not unwound. The head and the stem are edible, therefore you can harvest just the top or keep an inch or so of stem with it.
When harvesting be sure to do so sustainably so you will have fiddleheads growing again the next year. There is some debate on sustainable practices, however leaving a few fiddleheads in a clump will ensure the plant is able to live for another year. That being said, my grandfather cleans the whole patch and they still come back every year.
Fiddleheads usually have a brown papery film on them and possibly dirt and bugs so it is important to give them a good cleaning.
The easiest way I have found to clean fiddleheads is in the river by where I pick them. I find this method much faster than cleaning them at home, which usually results in a clogged sink. To clean your fiddleheads in the river you will need some type of mesh wire bucket. Something that can hold the fiddleheads and allow the water to flow through.
The fiddlehead washer that we made is simple and works well. To make it, take a plastic milk crate and cover the sides and bottom with small mesh wire. The holes of the wire need to be ½ inch or smaller so that the fiddleheads do not fall through. We attached the wire with zip ties to the inside of the bucket, however I recommend attaching the wire to the outside since the fiddleheads sometimes get stuck on the inside wire.
When cleaning fiddles in the stream, fill the cleaning crate ¼ full at a time and slosh it around in the stream until the fiddleheads are clean.
Once home, place the fiddleheads in a bucket of cold water in a cool area for up to a week to help clean them. Another option is to fill a sink with cold water and let them soak.
Store uncooked clean fiddleheads in a bowl of cold water in the fridge or a bucket of cold water in a cool place for up to a week.
Canning fiddleheads is not approved by the USDA, therefore do so at your own risk. Although canning fiddleheads is not USDA approved, it has been done for many generations in the maritimes. If done properly canned fiddleheads will last up to a year.
We finished off our last can of fiddleheads this spring and it still tasted as good as the first jar! I have made this recipe many times and have never had an issue, it is the same method my great grandmother used to can her fiddleheads. I found a youtube video with the specific measurements and times I use and share with you here, I am so grateful to have found this video!
Step 1: Clean fiddleheads
Step 2: Sterilize jars
Step 3: Add 1 tsp of canning salt to each 1 pint jar
Step 4: Pack raw clean fiddleheads into jars, packing in tight and leaving 1 inch head space
Step 5: Pour boiling water over fiddleheads, leaving 1 inch head space
Step 6: Remove air bubbles from jars, wipe rims clean, place on new canning lid and screw on the ring finger tight
Step 7: Put jars into a preheated water bath canner and put on the canner lid
Step 8: Bring canner to a boil, then boil for 45 minutes
Step 9: Turn off burner, remove jars from the canner and let cool without disturbing
Step 10: The next day remove the canning rings, check that the jars are sealed, wipe down the jars and place them into storage for the year!
Fiddleheads need to be cooked before eating, as they are believed to contain toxins while raw. Health Canada recommends boiling fiddleheads for at least 15 minutes before eating.
To cook raw fiddleheads, boil water then add the fiddleheads. Boil for 15 minutes and until tender. To check if they are ready, pierce them with a fork and if they are tender then they are ready.
The canning process cooks the fiddleheads, therefore you do not need to cook canned fiddles. Before eating canned fiddleheads rinse them off since they are canned in salt water. They can be used directly in a dish or sautéed in a pan with butter until hot. The convenience factor is why I love to can my fiddleheads.
Here are some of my favourite ways to eat fiddleheads:
- Side dish to fish or meat
- In omelettes with onions and cheese
- In a frittata with veggies or bacon
- On a white sauce pizza
- In quiche
- Cream of fiddlehead soup
- In a veggie stir fry
- Pickled fiddleheads
Let me know your favourite way to eat fiddleheads in the comments, I would love to find a new method for cooking them!
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Hey, I’m Maggie. I hope you will join me and my family in getting back to the land. Here you will learn about making things yourself, cooking homegrown food, and beginning a homesteading journey.