a primer on pickling fiddlehead ferns

If I’ve learned one thing in the past week, it’s that city dwellers are fascinated by the idea of foraging. They understand the concept perfectly, sure. Person goes outside, person collects tasty treasures, person brings treasures home to hoard in cupboards like a pack rat. But barring conceptual understanding, the plausibility of actual foraging strikes these city folk as incredible. Miraculous. A bit dangerous, even.

This preamble stems from my spending the weekend in New York City. We brought along a jar of these pickled fiddleheads as a gift, and it caused quite a stir. And while the words ‘miraculous’ and ‘dangerous’ were not spoken on any lips per se, there were a few bug-eyed stares, and at least one foolish grin.

But, honestly, who isn’t fascinated by the idea of successful foraging? It seems to be all I can talk about these days.

I wrote about my excitement for fiddleheading a few weeks ago. The only thing that has since changed is that I now have fifteen pounds of them hoarded in my cupboards …like a pack rat.

With all those l’il cuties sitting around, something had to be done to keep them from going to waste. Many were cleaned and stored immediately in small portions in the deep freeze, but an equal amount were left behind to be dealt with in a different way. To be pickled, for consumption later in the year.

While I haven’t discussed it much here, I enjoy canning immensely. I typically make jams and preserves, for the sole and super sophisticated reason that I love sugar. But guess what? There’s sugar in pickling brine, too. And lots more good stuff, too.

After cleaning fiddleheads of their brown papery chaff, trimming their stems, and washing them, they are blanched. I.e., they are allowed to boil for a short amount of time in a salted pot of walter, before being plunged into cold water to chill them and halt their cooking progress.

A brine, consisting of vinegar, salt, sugar, and various spices, is brought to a boil. Blanched fiddleheads are packed into sterilized glass jars, and topped with brine. At that point, the jars can be placed in the refrigerator and eaten quickly, or can be canned in a boiling water bath to increase their shelf life.

The concept is quite easy, but the process is rather involved, and can easily eat up the better half of a day. Especially if you have an epic ‘canning incident’ in the process, like I fretfully experienced, and reported on here.

I made two different brines for two separate batches. Both are delicious, and not as shockingly different from each other as I initially thought they might be.

Feel free to alter the recipe to suit your interests – as long as you keep the vinegar:water:sugar:salt ratio approximately equal, you’ll be just peachy. Or pickley, if you like.

Pickled Fiddleheads {Original recipes, inspired via Edible Portland}

Apple Cider Vinegar Brine

Makes ~5-6 quarts’ worth


6-8 (wet) lbs fiddleheads, ~2 grocery bags’ worth
8 c. apple cider vinegar
4 c. water
2 c. sugar
2 c. salt
3 tsp peppercorns
1 1/2 tbsp mustard seed
1 1/2 tsp coriander seed
3 tsp dill seed
8 Garlic cloves, halved or quartered
1 shallot, sliced thin

Red Wine Vinegar Brine

Makes ~4 quarts’ worth


1 grocery bags’ worth of fiddleheads
2 c. red wine vinegar
1 c. rice wine vinegar
3 c. distilled white vinegar
3 c. water
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. salt
3 tsp peppercorns
1 1/2 tsp dill seed
1 tbsp mustard seed
1 tsp coriander seed
6 garlic cloves, halved or quartered
1 shallot, sliced thin
1 bunch fresh dill, cut into small sprigs

++Directions for both brines:++

Clean fiddleheads, removing brown papery chaff. Wash well, and trim stems.

Sterilize jars to be used for canning. Wash well with hot and soapy water before allowing to be heated for ten minutes in a canning pot filled with boiling water. Wash canning lids and rings in hot, soapy water, but do not boil.

Bring a large pot of salted water (for blanching fiddleheads) to the boil.

In a large pot, combine all ingredients except garlic cloves, shallot, and fresh dill (if using). Bring to the boil, until sugar and salt are dissolved.

Add fiddleheads to pot of boiling water, and cook for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Remove, and immediately plunge into large bowl of cold water. Depending on the size of the pot, fiddleheads may have to be blanched in several batches.

As soon as they are cooled, prepare to pack fiddleheads into sterilized jars for canning. Start by adding a garlic clove quarter and shallot slice to each jar, as well as a sprig of dill if using. Pack half of the fiddleheads before adding some brine. The brine will immediately begin to cook the fiddleheads, and will cause them to shrink. This will then allow more fiddleheads to be packed into each jar. [Note: the surrounding images show that despite attempts to pack fiddleheads in tightly, they will still shrink during the canning process.] As the jar is being filled, add an additional one to two garlic cloves, shallot slices, and dill as desired.

When jars are filled to within 1/4″ of the top, run a clean paper towel around jar rims to dry them. Place a dry canning lid on top of each jar, and tighten on a dry ring [Note: tighten as tightly as easily allowed, before loosening the ring with an approximate 1/4″ turn].

Submerge jars into a prepared canning pot that has been brought to the boil, ensuring that there is a minimum of 3/4″ of water above the tallest jars. Process the jars for 10 minutes before removing to a heatproof surface; allow to sit undisturbed for up to several hours. Periodically check to see if the jars have sealed [Note: to do this, attempt to push gently on each lid. If there is any give, the jar is not properly sealed]. If any jars do not seal, repeat the process (perhaps with a fresh lid), or place in the refrigerator and eat within two weeks.

Enjoy this seemingly-foreign treat with at least one bug-eyed stare or foolish grin.


32 thoughts on “a primer on pickling fiddlehead ferns

  1. Niiiice. (Did I drag that out enough? :wink)
    I have yet to can fiddleheads, but I’m now a ranch-hand at freezing them (how does that even make sense? I don’t know). I’m going to try my hand at canning this year (though not fiddleheads), since I got an awesome guide to canning for my birthday a few weeks back.

    Also, I wanted to tell you: I appreciate your comments on my blog. If it seems like I never respond to you, I am! Unfortunately, my blog platform is Squarespace (fortunate in some ways, not great in others); Squarespace doesn’t currently have comment threading, which means I can’t directly respond to your comments. I usually respond with my own comment, but I doubt you receive any notification of that.

    I can’t wait for them to change it. I’m almost to the point of switching platforms (again), because I really miss out on building friendships and facilitating conversations when nobody knows I’m talking back to them. Hmph.

    I don’t expect you to go back to the original post to see if I’ve responded to you. I’m just apologizing for choosing a crappy platform in the first place; I assure you I will remedy this as soon as I get the gumption (slash know-how).

    1. Let me know what you end up canning; it’s such a relaxing project, I find. And happy much belated birthday:)

      Don’t fret about your platform too much – I usually check back on all blogs that I leave comments on that aren’t WordPress-based (such as those who use Blogger). So yes, I do see your responses. Being someone who is very comment-centered myself, know that I appreciate it;)

  2. Okay, so I worked out what a fiddlehead fern was all on my own (clever, I know!) but what do you use them for and what do they taste like?

    Also, kudos to you for preserving some. I’ve often thought about jams or pickling but it’s just so time consuming … one day (when I’m on my imaginary farm preserving all of the imaginary produce that I’ve grown myself).

    1. Congrats on the cleverness:) And excellent question….

      My first thought is to say “they taste like something green you’d find in the woods,” but that would be amazingly unhelpful. A lot of people think they taste like asparagus, but seeing as I like to serve mine (when fresh) doused in garlic and butter, I would postulate that they taste like garlic and butter. On their own, sort of earthy and asparagus-y, yes.

      Live the dream, lady! You can make it happen:)

      1. Ahhhh, something green that I’d find in the woods, now I understand! :) Asparagus, garlic and butter – that’s a combination I could handle.

        Working on the dream … silly reality keeps getting in the way though.

        1. Ah yes, that construct known as reality. I find jam to be quite quick really, it’s just getting a huge pot of water to the boil that takes so long. But hey, you could always do a quick non-canned version with lesser amounts of produce – that’d be a great (and quick) intro for you!

  3. Emma, Rad! I love fiddleheads and pickled goodies but have yet to taste the marriage of the two. And I have to say I am one of those urban-ish people who still gets a child-like thrill from foraging. Food? Free? In nature?
    I just photographed an entire cookbook about canning last week and it’s so fun to see your images here. I especially love the 2nd from the last shot!

    1. Yeah, rad! I see you’re getting the bike lingo down. Ready to tear up some trails? ;)

      I definitely get a thrill from foraging still, but I’m from the suburbs, so that’s allowed I think.

      A canning cookbook, excellent. I have one book on canning, and the photographs are my favorite part of it. I’m betting I’d love your images even more, given how much I connect with your photography!

      Now I just need to get some of those Weck jars:)

  4. I love that you noticed the name Winifred on that gravestone! That is exactly what drew me to it. The place was almost hidden and so very peaceful. On to fiddleheads…I will be one of your people squeeling with delight or the one with the ‘foolish grin’ when I see fiddle heads for the first time. Never saw them living up North and I don’t think they are down here in the South. Yes, the idea of foraging is captivating the country. When I lived in NYC, I would tell WILD stories about growing up in So. Louisiana (exaggerated stories). I recall the ‘bug eye’ effect I created! Tee Hee!

    1. This topic of spreading the foraging love (specifically to people in cities) is quite important to me. It’s a career goal of mine to introduce the public in urban settings to the importance of active forest management. And while I can’t do that kind of work right now because of my location, I CAN focus on utilizing other aspects of the forest (non-timber forest products, as they’re called in the biz). I think the foraging craze is a great way to get people thinking about forests, if not actually out into them!

      I want to hear these wild So. Louisiana stories – did you eat nutria for breakfast?!?

  5. 1. You savesave some for me.
    2. You comecome to Australia and help me forage out bunya bunya nuts, honey ants, bush tomato, and wattleseed.

    1. No problem, this shiz will KEEP!

      And you don’t know how much I’d love to hop on a plane and come check out Australia, stat. I finished season 1 of Dance Academy yesterday and I bet I will finish season 2 today. As such, I’ve got Aussie accents in my head. As such #2, I just remembered that I dreamt last night that I heard your voice over the phone, and I was all “I’ve broken the accent barrier! I can’t even hear an accent!” This is what watching that show for hours on end does to me, apparently:D

      I want to forage for bunya bunya nuts! They sound tasty. Not sure about honey ants…. must learn more first:)

  6. Those little fiddleheads are so cute! Would love to try them someday. My dad is good at foraging and gardening, me not so much, so I admire your skills. The only thing I’ve foraged, I think, is dandelions from my aunt’s garden. :p

    1. Well, dandelions are up next on my list for the year:)

      Gardening is a lot of tough work! I just spent two hours pulling out weedy tree stems, ooof, tough work.

  7. I’ve never seen a fiddle head in person. It did sound so exciting and dangerous that you forage, then I remembered we used to forage for asparagus in Utah. It would grow on the side of the road and we’d pull over and cut some off to bring home. I forgot how people would look at me when I told them we’d do that.
    In AZ I have seen people pull over and cut off the fruit from prickly pear cactus. It’s rather bland though and never seemed worth the trouble.

    What do fiddleheads taste like? I’m pretty sure I could drink that first brine. It sounds delicious.

    1. I think my first moment of wide-eyed interest in foraging was actually hearing my dad talk about picking wild asparagus when he was younger:) I’ve never chanced upon it, but I’ve long been on the (casual) lookout.

      I’m curious to try prickly pear. There’s got to be something neat that you could do with it, to bring out a better taste? Or maybe not, I wouldn’t know.

      When pickled, they mostly just taste like a pickle – different texture, same flavors. But they’re a bit earthier, and they’re often likened to asparagus when eaten boiled/sautéed. My boyfriend thought the brine was quite peppery, but I thought it was just resoundingly pickle-y, whatever that means. It’s pretty delicious as a finished product!

  8. Cooo-elle post…Yah, you be dangerous, fer sure:D I wish that the weather had been a little further along, and that we had been able to stay a little bit longer, so that we could have had some of your pickles, and certainly more sauteed fiddleheads. YUM! Your photos, as usual, are sooo beautiful. I love theTrout Lilly photo!

    1. Yeah I’m super dangerous.

      Lilacs are finally blooming! I wish the weather had been further along as well, though. And warmer. And sunnier. Ohhhhh, shoot.

      Pretty trout lilies, the hillsides of the Nordic Heritage Center were crawling with them, all a-bloom!

  9. I’ve never had fiddlehead before, it looks so interesting! I would definitely try it if I can get my hands on some in Melbourne..but I have no idea where I can get it from..:(
    Love your photos!

    1. Hi Jenny, thanks for the nice compliment!

      I’ve been looking up edible ferns in Australia for you… I can’t find very solid information, although it seems that people may eat bracken fern, tree fern, and Bungwall fern. It looks like historically, the rhizomes (underground root-like structures) were eaten frequently, and were even ground into flour first. So there you go, have at it :)

  10. My mom foraged mugwort and steams it into this glutinous rice cake. It’s delicious. I’ve never gone foraging for anything else though. I’ve always wanted to try fiddleheads…those things are expensive in store!

    1. Mmm, glutinous rice cakes sound very delicious right about now:)

      And that’s what I’m taking about – fiddleheads are super pricey in big cities – I’ve got to figure out a way to transport them quickly and cheaply, and make some big bucks!

  11. While we are successful at making jam, most attempts at pickling hearty stuff did not came out as we hoped. But maybe we have to keep trying!
    But now I’m looking forward to apricot and strawberry jam.

    1. Aw, shoot:( Yes, keep trying – what in specific are you referring to?

      Apricot and strawberry jam sounds delicious – I did a cherry/pluot (apricot&plum hybrid) jam a few summers back that was really amazing, so I can only imagine it’ll be fantastic!

  12. These remind me of New Zealand! (google koru) I didn’t know about the eating of these or that they were called fiddleheads until a couple months ago. Definitely not a Texas thing! Foraging does seem like a weird thing to do…you freak! ;) Glad you were able to pickle those guys without another traumatic incident.

    1. Whoa – ferns look way cooler in New Zealand:) No surprise there, I guess, as it pretty much seems like a dreamy treasure land of beautiful things!

      I’m glad there were no more traumatic incidents as well, one (or was it many?) was enough!

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