Status: Widespread in western and eastern U.S. and Canada
Where: Open ground and gardens; occasionally sold in supermarkets, Chinatowns
Season: Spring, late fall
Parts Used: Taproot and immature stem
In culinary terms, biennial burdock is better known as gobo (Arctium lappa), cultivated for millennia in Japan for its impressively long, starchy taproot. Its earthiness lends itself to cold-weather comfort cooking, providing a sweet carbohydrate satisfaction to sauces and stews. In wild plants, the root is good to eat late in the first year or in its second spring, becoming more fibrous late in its last season. But unearthing a 2- to 3-foot taproot requires exceptional determination and good digging skills.
The roots contain indigestible inulin, which will cause a gas attack. If you're using them raw, disarm them by parboiling or soaking. (Inulin is water-soluble.) If you'd prefer not to dig the root in the plant's first year, you can wait for burdock's second edible stage: the immature flowering stems. Appearing in late spring, they're a delicious and easily foraged wild food. Cooked, their flavor is a marriage of globe and Jerusalem artichokes. Prime harvest height is between 1 and 3 feet. The stem should still be immature and actively growing — in the meristem stage — or it will be extremely fibrous. It's too late by the time it's begun to produce laterals. The best stalks remain hidden within the green depths of the wide leaves, and the stouter, the better.
Raw, the peeled stem is succulent and crisp. When cooked, it absorbs the flavors to which you introduce it, and caramelizes nicely when sautéed with oil or butter. I prepare the stems, cut them into 1-inch-long pieces, and add white wine, lemon juice, fennel fronds, coriander seeds, and extra-virgin olive oil at the last minute. I sometimes add whole garlic cloves or disks of carrot. To trick and entertain a dinner guest, sliver the stems lengthwise and blanch them before sautéing and adding to linguine. Miso and soy are natural partners for the stems, cooked whole and served like asparagus on a platter. The peeled midribs of the large leaves are a crisp and worthwhile vegetable in their own right, chopped and raw in any sort of salad, or pickled.
By collecting burdock, you're disarming this invasive plant of its reproductive arsenal and saving civic employees and landowners the time and trouble of rooting them up or spraying them down with herbicides.
How to Collect and Prepare
To collect the stems, begin by lopping off the leaves that radiate from them. Cut the stem as
low as possible to the ground, and discard the very skinny top. You can keep some of the leaves' midribs, filleting them on the spot — just strip the leaf from each midrib.
Peeling is key. If you happen to lick your fingers after working with any aboveground parts of burdock, you'll recoil at its bitterness. Some foragers collect and eat the young leaves, but you have to boil them to death to get rid of the bitterness.
Every bit of green must be stripped and trimmed from the stem to reveal the core, or pith, which is pale cream and tender. You lose a lot of volume: 1-1/2 pounds of unpeeled burdock stems will yield 8 ounces prepared. The peeled parts will discolor. If this bothers you, drop them into a bowl of acidulated water as you work. Unlike the roots, the stems don't need to be soaked or parboiled.
Digging the roots is easiest in early winter or early spring when the ground is workable, but before the new leaves have appeared. Dig deeply, straight down, all around the burdock crown. Once you've dug as deep as you can, angle your shovel under, tilt, and lift. Severing the root may be unavoidable.
At home, scrub the roots well and trim off any whiskery side roots, but don't remove the flavorful skin. If you're making pickles, soak the shredded or cut root in water for at least an hour before rinsing and pickling. If you're cooking, cut the roots into sections 2 inches long or less, parboil for 45 minutes, and discard the water.
Burdock Root Pickles
Yields about 2-1/2 cups.
I first made these pickles as part of a pickle smorgasbord for a Lunar New Year party. They were surprisingly popular. No foragers were present, but the pickles disappeared in a flash. Soak the burdock root to avoid inulin-induced stomach distress.
- 8 ounces burdock root, scrubbed
- 1 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup sherry vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon crushed prickly ash husks
- Cut the burdock root into thin slices, lengthwise. Stack the slices on top of one another and cut again into matchstick thicknesses, as long as your pickling jar is tall. Rinse in a bowl of water. Empty the bowl and fill with fresh water. Soak for 1 hour. Drain, and pack the burdock upright into a jar or jars.
- In a jug, combine the soy sauce, vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Stir until the granules have dissolved. Pour the brine into the jar to the top. Add the prickly ash. Screw on the lid, and marinate for a minimum of 2 hours. Drain before serving.
Learn about and discover more edible invasives to use in your seasonal cuisine:
- Black Locust Foraging and Cooking Techniques
- Foraging and Cooking with Invasive Species
- How to Prepare and Cook Japanese Knotweed
Marie Viljoen is a forager, cook, and gardener in Brooklyn. Follow her at 66 Square Feet.
Reprinted with permission from Forage, Harvest, Feast: A Wild-Inspired Cuisineby Marie Viljoen, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.