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What is Asparagus?

Jane Harmon
Jane Harmon

Asparagus is a vegetable that has been in cultivation for millennia. The Greeks and Romans ate and enjoyed it, and the vegetable has also been immortalized in the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. The portion that is eaten is the immature shoot, which is often referred to as a "spear" due to its shape.

Counterintuitively, thin young asparagus spears are often tougher than larger, plumper ones. Shoppers should select spears that are well filled-out; if the skin is wrinkled or concave, the vegetable has been on display too long and is beginning to dry out. White asparagus is actually the same as any other type, but it has been shielded from sunlight.

Raw asparagus.
Raw asparagus.

Limp, soggy canned asparagus bears little resemblance to the fresh vegetable, and most people who enjoy asparagus avoid it. The vegetable should be cooked quickly, just long enough to be easily pierced with a fork. Some people bundle the spears into sheaves and cook them standing in a tall pot, with the tougher ends in the boiling water and the tender heads being steamed. Special steamers are also available just for this purpose.

Asparagus is a spring vegetable high in potassium and folic acid.
Asparagus is a spring vegetable high in potassium and folic acid.

When preparing asparagus, cooks should snap off the tough ends by hand, rather than using a knife. Doing this by hand allow the cook to feel where to break the spear — the stalk will break naturally where it becomes too tough to be edible. The vegetable is naturally quite low in calories, but is often served with rich calorie-dense sauces such as Hollandaise and butter sauces. If the spears are destined to be eaten as a finger food with dip, they should be cooked more briefly than they would be when served as a dinner side dish.

Asparagus is typically cooked by being boiled or steamed.
Asparagus is typically cooked by being boiled or steamed.

Asparagus is a good source of dietary potassium and folic acid, and it acts medicinally as a diuretic. In some people, it also has the peculiar property of giving the urine a distinctive odor. Even odder, not everyone can detect the odor, and those whose urine smells aren't necessarily those who can detect the odor, and vice versa. Both traits appear to be genetically determined, however.

Discussion Comments


@cardsfan27 - I totally agree. I've known the canned asparagus to turn off more than a couple people from the fresh stuff, which is unfortunate. I think once most people try good asparagus they end up liking it. Good luck getting kids to ever eat it, though!

I think if you look them up most asparagus recipes are going to be paired with fish. The two flavors complement each other very well. Additionally, the article mentions Hollandaise being used a lot of times with asparagus, and this sauce also goes very well with fish.

One recipe that my grandmother showed me was using some asparagus in place of green beans in green bean casserole. It sounds odd, but it actually works very well. Making an asparagus casserole would probably be a little to overwhelming of a taste, but if you just substitute about 1/4 of the beans with steamed spears, it will add an interesting taste and texture to the dish.


I am so glad that this article mentions the mushy stuff that comes in the cans. For the longest time, I always thought that I hated asparagus, because I had only been served the canned kind, and didn't like it at all. Besides the taste, the texture is just gross. I always feel like I am eating some sort of stringy spinach.

At my latest job, there is a cafeteria that serves a lot of dishes that use fresh asparagus, and it has completely changed my view on it. One of my favorite dishes is just a steak and pasta dish. They take penne pasta and add some pieces of steak, chopped asparagus, red peppers, and onions. Then they mix it all with some type of an Alfredo sauce. It is really good, and I have made it at home a few times.

That being said, I don't know of any other good recipes with asparagus, so if anyone has suggestions, I'd love to hear them.


@starrynight - You are probably right. I have also heard the thing about cilantro tasting bad. Fortunately for me, I can't smell the urine, and cilantro tastes great!

A friend and I did get into quite the argument about the urine smell one time, though. He swore up and down that asparagus caused the smell, but since I don't have whatever gene is needed, I didn't believe him. We finally looked it up a little bit later and got the story on it.

Apparently, most of the population actually produces the odor, but only about a quarter of people have the genes needed to process the smell.


@indemnifyme - Wow, that sounds really good actually. I never thought about adding goat cheese to asparagus, but I could definitely see how it would work. Thanks for the advice about cooking it. I am also someone who has always had trouble getting good results from asparagus. Usually, I just go with the normal blanching or steaming and end up with spears that are half-soggy and half-hard. I'll try out some of these ideas, though, and I'm sure something will work.


@JaneAir - I think this might just be a quirk of genetics and biology. I've heard of similar things that happen with other foods, such as cilantro. Apparently some people have a gene that makes cilantro taste fresh and delicious, while other people have a gene that causes cilantro to taste soapy.

This doesn't seem to serve any purpose either, but it sure is interesting! I guess it's food for thought next time you're eating some delicious asparagus.


I love asparagus, but I have to admit the thing I find most fascinating about this vegetable is the urine odor phenomenon. I wonder why some people have genes that allow them to smell it, and others don't? I can't think of what purpose this could serve from an evolutionary (or other) standpoint.


@indemnifyme - I usually prefer to saute asparagus also. I've tried blanching it in boiling water, and it always came out overcooked on the top and undercooked on the bottom.

That being said, if I could find an asparagus steamer as mentioned in the article, I would definitely try it. It sounds like that would remedy the problem of the asparagus cooking unevenly.


@StarJo - Asparagus is actually pretty easy to cook, but I find that it takes a bit more time than the article says. What I usually do is break the tough parts off, then saute the asparagus tips with olive oil.

I use a non-stick skillet and cook them on medium heat with some garlic. I find that it usually take around 10 minutes to cook the asparagus so they're tender enough to eat, but not overcooked. Then, right when I turn the burner off, I sprinkle some goat cheese on top of the asparagus. Delicious!


After you eat fresh asparagus, you don't ever want to eat canned asparagus again. I like to eat it raw with some ranch dip, just like I do carrots and broccoli.

The only time I can find this fresh is at the farmers market, or at one of our local grocery stores that sells fresh local produce.

My grandma has a small asparagus patch in her yard that produces asparagus every spring. She has lived in the same house for 25 years, and this asparagus plant was there when she moved in.

This is some of the most tender and sweet asparagus I have ever tasted. She likes to fix it with a light cream sauce that doesn't cover up the taste of the fresh asparagus.

When I see the asparagus ready in the spring, I feel like the season has officially begun.


@seag47 – I would imagine that garden-fresh asparagus is best. I have never done any asparagus gardening, but I do know that the kind you can buy fresh at a farmer's market is way better than the frozen kind at the supermarket.

I tried boiling frozen asparagus once, but it just turned into a gooey mess. Freezing just takes something out of vegetables.

I boiled some fresh asparagus, and it was much better in both texture and flavor. I made a sauce out of melted butter, garlic, and lemon juice, and this made the asparagus very enjoyable.


I tried some excellent asparagus at a nice restaurant downtown. The fact that they are growing their own asparagus in a garden on the property probably had something to do with how fresh and delicious it tasted.

I am guessing that it had been steamed, because it wasn't limp at all, but it was tender enough to cut in two with a fork. The chef had poured raspberry coulis over it, and this gave it a tart flavor that was out of this world!

I have tried to replicate the meal at home, but something is missing. I think it may be the home-grown asparagus, because I have to buy mine from the produce section of a supermarket.


My friend bought some asparagus crowns online and planted them a few years ago. She didn't dig very deep, and she planted them when the ground was still cold, so they didn't perform very well at all.

She did some research and decided to try again. She read that planting the crowns deeper would make them produce more spears. She also learned that she needed to wait until the dirt had warmed up in late springtime.

With this new information, she was able to grow good asparagus. I think it's always best to research your plants of choice before you put them in your garden.


I've tried out a few asparagus recipes, but none have ever worked for me. I had never heard of boiling the stems standing in water, like this article mentions, and I think that this will probably work out better. It makes sense to boil the tough end and steam the delicate end, rather than steaming or boiling the entire shoot.

Fatehyab Ali Syed

In this article I found very useful information about asparagus and its health benefits.


I heard that asparagus is big in Germany. They supposedly eat more white asparagus than other countries, probably because they are the biggest asparagus cultivator in Europe.


While visiting the Adriatic coast in springtime, not long ago, I was invited by some locals to go pick asparagus growing in the wild. Asparagus grows in some kind of thorny green bushes. The asparagus itself is thinner and it definitely has a more bitter taste than cultivated asparagus.

The whole experience was quite interesting. Add to that all the health benefits about asparagus we have been reading about, it made it into an even healthier fun.

Because of folate found in asparagus, as well as other green vegetable, it is claimed that eating asparagus reduces the risk of some cancers, and it is also good for heart health. Half a cup of asparagus provides about 25% of daily folate requirement.

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      Raw asparagus.
    • Asparagus is a spring vegetable high in potassium and folic acid.
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      Asparagus is a spring vegetable high in potassium and folic acid.
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      Asparagus is typically cooked by being boiled or steamed.
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