How to Cook Asparagus Evenly
If you’re still steaming or roasting asparagus, you’re losing half of what makes this sturdy spring vegetable so appealing. Because each method delivers only part of the flavor equation, while undermining the other.
When we roast asparagus, we develop wonderful robust and smoky flavors, but the texture becomes soggy and oily. Blame the indirect heat of the oven, which cooks relatively slowly. With semi-tender vegetables such as asparagus, by the time we get any char, the interior texture is overdone.
Speedier steaming, on the other hand, preserves the snap of raw asparagus. But the flavor is a bit lean and one-dimensional because it doesn’t get hot enough for browning.
This is why we favor skillet-charring asparagus. The vegetable makes direct contact with the hot surface of the pan, so it browns on the exterior in the same time it takes for the interior to tenderize without overcooking. The result is a plate full of delicious contrasts: Each spear is soft and smoky on the outside and verdant and crisp on the inside.
Successful pan-charring isn’t difficult, but it relies on a few simple tips. Start by heating the skillet until barely smoking. Cast-iron pans are best; they get very hot and retain that heat well. They also are more nonstick than stainless steel, allowing us to use less oil for better texture.
While the pan is heating, toss the asparagus in just a touch of oil. This avoids the oiliness of roasted asparagus. And don’t salt it. Salt draws out moisture, which slows browning. When the pan is hot, add the asparagus in a single layer and don’t touch it. Stirring cools the pan, which we absolutely do not want. Also, make sure not to overcrowd the pan, which would result in steaming. That’s it.
As for sauces, choose something that highlights the flavor of either the smoky exterior or the grassy interior. In this recipe, we opt for the latter and make a bright, herbal sauce of lemon and tarragon stirred with butter. Seasonal asparagus is a fleeting pleasure, and we don’t want to get in the way of its naturally good flavor.