Artichokes signal that spring is in the air. With their earthy, herbaceous flavor, artichokes are in peak season from March through May. But did you know that they aren’t actually vegetables? Artichokes are the flower bud of the thistle plant. Hence, the outer leaves often have thorns on them.
Artichokes can be intimidating to cook, so you may opt for frozen or canned options. And while that is perfectly fine, cooking fresh artichokes is actually pretty easy once you get the hang of trimming them and worth it when they are in season. Here’s what you need to know to start cooking up tender artichokes — which are basically a great excuse to gorge on your favorite dipping sauce.
Artichokes vs. baby artichokes
Baby artichokes aren’t actually babies — they are just smaller versions of their larger brethren. They cook faster, trimming them is a bit easier and there is no fuzzy choke you have to remove. Each one is good for different types of dishes: For sautéing, baby artichokes are great; for presentation and drawing out the experience of dipping the leaves in sauce and enjoying it little by little, larger artichokes are the better option.
How to trim and prep artichokes
If your artichokes have thorny leaves, use kitchen shears or a chef’s knife to cut them off. Then, using a chef’s knife or serrated knife, cut off the top inch-and-a-half of the artichoke. For baby artichokes, you’ll cut off the top third. Immediately after cutting, rub the cut side with lemon so it doesn’t oxidize and turn brown. Cut off the end of the stem. You can also remove the outer leaves until you get to the soft, pliable leaves underneath.
On larger artichokes, you can leave about an inch of the stem, if desired. Use a vegetable peel to remove the skin from the stem. Large artichokes or artichokes from the farmers market may have some grit within the leaves, so run them under water while pulling the leaves apart. If you are going to steam them, keep the artichokes in a mix of water and lemon juice until you are ready to cook them.
How to cook artichokes
You have several options for cooking artichokes: You can braise them, you can stuff and bake them, grill or sauté them (the latter two are better with smaller artichokes or with large artichokes that have already been steamed), and you can even cook them in the slow cooker. One of the best ways to cook them is to simply steam them, and, as mentioned, this is a step you’ll often want to take before moving on to other preparations, because softening the leaves of large artichokes helps you get to the tasty heart.
To steam, fill a pot over medium heat with about 2 to 3 inches of water. Place a steamer basket or a metal colander in the pot, without touching the water. Add your artichokes cut-side up and cover with a lid. How long to cook artichokes depends on the size: Baby artichokes may be ready in 15 minutes, while larger artichokes may take 30 to 45 minutes. You’ll know they are ready when you can pierce the bottom of the artichoke with a knife.
Once ready, you can either enjoy dipping the leaves in sauce and biting the flesh off with your teeth, or you can just get to the heart (or both!), which you can eat in a variety of ways, from dipping in sauce and eating, to chopping up and topping your pizza, adding to spinach-artichoke dip, adding to salads and pasta dishes or incorporating into casseroles. Just be sure to spoon out the fuzzy choke, which is inedible.
If you’re in a rush, you can cook artichokes in the microwave and actually steam them that way. Add 1/4 inch of water to a microwave-safe dish that has a tight-fitting lid. Add the trimmed artichokes. Microwave on high for about 4 minutes then let sit without removing the lid for another 5 minutes. When they’re done, the leaves will come off easily when lightly tugged.
No matter how you cook them, don’t be intimidated by artichokes: They have a tough exterior, but with a little love, you can get them melt-in-your-mouth tender.