These freshly picked fiddleheads will be ready to cook once they are thoroughly cleaned in cold water and the brown "papery" layer removed from each fern. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

As the snow melts around Maine and temperatures begin to warm, it’s natural to start thinking about heading to your favorite woodland spot in search of fiddleheads.

The young, coiled leaves of the ostrich fern are one of the earliest wild edibles to poke their heads up in the spring.

From late April into June, foragers armed with empty bags, buckets, baskets or totes collect as many of the tasty ferns as they can. Once conditions warm and the fiddlehead portion of the fern unfurls, the plant is no longer good to eat.

Fiddleheads are an important traditional food source for the Indigenous people of the area and have been for centuries. Ambitious foragers earn money every spring by picking and selling fiddleheads.

If you’ve been dreaming all winter of fresh fiddleheads, or if you are new to gathering this traditional New England wild delicacy, here’s what you need to know.

How to identify edible fiddleheads

Maine is home to 11 species of native ferns. All are perennial plants but only one is edible: the ostrich fern.

Eating the wrong fern can make you very sick. Ostrich ferns grow in sandy soil next to rivers and streams. They also grow in wooded areas that are shaded and wet. Look for the bright green fiddleheads growing in clusters out of raised clumps called crowns.

Maine’s popular spring wild edible is in season. Fiddleheads can be found along rivers and in other marshy areas around the state. A flavorful green, food safety experts warn of health risks associated with eating improperly cleaned and cooked fiddleheads. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

The smooth stem has a deep U-shaped groove and there are thin, brown, paper-like scales covering the heads.

How to collect fiddleheads

Fiddleheads should be picked when they are between 2 and 6 inches tall and the head is still tightly coiled. You can snap them off by hand or cut them with a knife.

Either way, make sure to pick from only healthy crowns with at least four fiddleheads growing out from it. Don’t pick all the fiddleheads from a crown as the ones left behind will reproduce for next year’s crop.

Always make sure you have the landowner’s permission before you start foraging. Few things irritate landowners more than arriving at their own patch on their property only to find it picked clean.

Once picked, fiddleheads can be stored up to a week in your refrigerator.

How to clean fiddleheads

Those thin, brown scales that help identify the fiddlehead need to be removed. They contain a great deal of tannin and leaving them will make your fiddleheads taste quite bitter. Over the years, Mainers have come up with some unique and even complicated ways to make the tedious task of cleaning — or “fixing” — fiddleheads easier and faster.

The simplest way to clean them is to use your fingers to gently brush the skins away one fiddlehead at a time. Some people use a raised box with a screened bottom. They dump a layer of fiddleheads in and use a garden hose to spray them clean.

A dryer method calls for placing the fiddleheads in a colander and shaking them until the brown chaff floats free in the breeze. A mechanical version of that method is constructing a round drum out of screen that can be rotated. With the fiddleheads inside the spinning drum, the centrifugal force separates chaff from the head. Kick it up a notch by having a large fan aimed at the spinning drum.

How to prepare fiddleheads

The flavor of fiddleheads has been described as similar to asparagus, green beans or broccoli. They should never be eaten raw because they can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, cramping and headaches. These symptoms can be very dangerous for high risk people, including seniors and infants.

The easiest way to cook fiddleheads is to trim off any brown stem ends and then cook them in boiling water for 15 minutes, or until they are tender. You can also steam them for 10 minutes, or until tender, and then serve them hot with butter.

Cook fiddleheads before using them in any recipes including soups or casseroles. Cooked fiddleheads can be sauteed in butter, deep fried, stir-fried, baked or added to salads, pizza, quiches, omelets or sandwiches.

How to preserve fiddleheads

If you have stumbled upon, or already know about a particularly abundant patch of fiddleheads, odds are you pick more than you can possibly eat fresh. Luckily, there are several ways to preserve fiddleheads so you can enjoy them all year long.

To freeze fiddleheads, blanch them in boiling water for two minutes and then immediately place them in cold water. Drain and pack them into freezer bags or containers. They can store up to a year in the freezer. When you are ready to eat them, thaw and then cook them as described above.

Food safety experts do not recommend canning fiddleheads in pressure canners because no safe processing times have been established for home preservation. However, pickled fiddleheads can safely be canned using a boiling water bath. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has several recipes for pickled fiddleheads.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.