Fiddlehead Ferns: Friend or Foe?

The hidden danger lurking in the vegetable crisper

Ostrich fiddlehead
Ostrich fiddlehead

But, here's the thing: ptaquiloside is water soluble. So chances are, a good long soak in a bowl of ice water will reduce the amount of the compound present. And, the compound is volatile, meaning it breaks down easily when exposed to high temperatures, say when boiled. So, there's hope yet. (Photo courtesy of flickr/Pictoscribe - Home again)

What about eating the other variety? While it doesn’t seem like there's much (if any) noise being made out there linking consumption of ostrich fiddleheads to cancer, public health officials have noted that consumption of raw or undercooked ostrich fiddleheads could lead to various stomach problems within 12 hours, including nausea, vomiting, and cramps. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following two outbreaks of food poisoning due to consumption of ostrich fiddleheads in various restaurants in New York State and Western Canada found that most cases were due to undercooked fiddleheads. Thus, cooking ostrich fiddleheads thoroughly would seem to reduce the risk of any adverse symptoms.

So no matter which variety is available, it's definitely a good idea to wash, soak, and cook them thoroughly. This means boiling them for about 10 minutes and then sautéing them, or steaming them for the same amount of time. So the evidence has been presented. Now the question remains. The fiddlehead fern — is it friend or foe?

On the one hand, there seems to be an awful lot of damning reasons not to eat either type of fern. On the other hand, one could argue that if consumed in moderation, and cooked properly, it would seem like a delicious way to work some essential nutrients into one's diet.

And, in the case for bracken ferns, there are other foods we eat occasionally that also contain known carcinogens or other toxins — charbroiled hamburgers, cured meats, and produce sprayed with various pesticides — that many people haven't stopped eating just because of their cancer-causing potential.

After all, every day we are subject to all kinds of carcinogens from the environment — automobile exhaust, secondhand smoke, VOC's, etc. — not just in the foods we consume. And, it is unlikely that one will want to eat fiddlehead ferns every single day of spring. The key would be moderation. Ultimately, however, the choice is up to you.

Click here to see the Cream-Poached Halibut Cheeks with Spring Vegetable Medley.

Click here to see the Grilled Shrimp and Fiddlehead Spring Salad.

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