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Bulletin #4198, Facts on Fiddleheads

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Food Safety Facts

Facts on Fiddleheads

By Food Safety Specialist Jason Bolton, Ph.D., Food Science Professor Alfred Bushway Ph.D., and Extension Professional David Fuller.
Originally developed by Extension Professor Mahmoud El-Begearmi.

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Photo by David Fuller.

Fiddleheads, an early spring delicacy throughout their range, are the young coiled fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Nearly all ferns have fiddleheads, but those of the ostrich fern are unlike any other. Ostrich fern fiddleheads, which are about an inch in diameter, can be identified by the brown papery scale-like covering on the uncoiled fern, as well as the smooth fern stem, and the deep ”U”-shaped groove on the inside of the fern stem. Look for ostrich ferns emerging in clusters of about three to twelve fiddleheads each on the banks of rivers, streams, and brooks in late April, May, and early June. Make sure that you have landowner permission before harvesting fiddleheads.

Potential Foodborne Illness

In 1994 there was a large outbreak of foodborne illness that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) determined was a result of eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads. Since then there have been several reported cases of foodborne illness related to fiddlehead consumption. Researchers have yet to determine what the origins of the illness are but, they do know that proper handling and cooking helps reduce your risk of foodborne illness related to the consumption of fiddleheads. Under no conditions should fiddleheads be consumed raw.

Symptoms of illness from eating improperly cooked fiddleheads

Health Canada and the CDC both have investigated a number of outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads. The described symptoms of this foodborne illness were diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and headaches. These symptoms generally occur within 30 minutes to 12 hours after eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads. This foodborne illness typically lasts less than 24 hours, but it was found that some cases could last up to three days.

If you experience symptoms after eating fiddleheads, you should seek the advice of a health care professional and contact your local public health unit to report this illness.

Harvesting Fiddleheads

Harvest the tender little rolls of ostrich fern as soon as they are an inch or two above the ground. Carefully brush off and remove the papery brown scales. Before harvesting in the wild make sure that you can properly differentiate the ostrich fern fiddleheads from other fern fiddleheads. Not all ferns are edible; in fact bracken ferns are carcinogenic and should not be consumed. (See Bulletin #2540, Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads for more information.)

Cleaning Fiddleheads

Fiddleheads can be cleaned by first placing them in a colander and thoroughly rinse/spray them off with clean cold potable water. Placing the rinsed fiddlehead in a bowl full of clean cool potable water should follow rinsing to remove the remainder of the brown papery coverings, and repeat as needed. They should appear clean at this point.

Short-term storage

Remember to keep fiddleheads refrigerated until you are ready to cook or preserve them. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Cooking Fiddleheads

Fiddleheads can be safely cooked using two different methods, boiling and steaming.


Bring lightly salted water in a pot to a rolling boil and add washed fiddleheads. The water should fully cover fiddleheads when added. Bring the water back to a steady boil and hold for 15 minutes.


Bring a small amount of water to a boil preferably in steam apparatus. Add washed clean fiddleheads and steam for 10-12 minutes.

Serve at once with optional melted butter and/or vinegar. The sooner they are eaten, the more delicate their flavor. They may be served, like asparagus, on toast. Cooked, chilled fiddleheads can be also served as a salad with an onion and vinegar dressing.

Sautéing, stir-frying or microwaving ostrich fern fiddleheads are NOT recommended methods for cooking fiddleheads. Fiddleheads should be boiled or steamed prior to use in recipes which use further cooking methods like sauteing, stir-frying or baking.

Source: Food Safety Tips for Fiddleheads, Health Canada.

Preservation (Freezing Fiddleheads)

Due to the short season for fiddleheads, some people like to preserve them for later use. Freezing is the most common and safest way to preserve fiddleheads. To freeze fiddleheads make sure to follow these steps:

  1. Clean them based on the steps outlined above
  2. Blanch a small amount of fiddleheads at a time for two minutes in 4-6 cups of water. As a reminder the blanch time starts when the water comes to a rolling boil after adding the produce.
  3. Cool in a ice bath immediately after blanching (half ice water mixture)
  4. Dry thoroughly and place into moisture and vapor proof containers such as resealable plastic bags. Do not over fill bags.
  5. Place container in freezer.
  6. To use frozen fiddleheads thaw in refrigerator or cold water and follow cooking direction outlined above before serving. Fiddleheads can be thawed in a microwave if for immediate consumption.


  • Because process times have not been established and tested for home-preserved fiddleheads, UM Cooperative Extension does not recommend pressure canning as a method to preserve fiddleheads.
  • Many consumers are interested in pickling fiddleheads. In cooperation with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Maine, UMaine Extension staff have tested some pickling recipes for fiddleheads. The most successful of these in terms of flavor, keeping quality, and safety are included in this fact sheet.
    • To pickle fiddleheads, pour enough cider vinegar over the fiddleheads to cover, then strain it off into a pan. Add 1 cup sugar for every gallon of vinegar. Add a 1/8 teaspoon each of pepper, ground nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and celery seed. For a little heat, you may add red pepper flakes. Boil this syrup for 7-8 minutes; then pour over the fiddleheads in pint-sized jars. Seal and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water process canner.
    • Special Note: Our tests showed that the pH of these pickled fiddleheads ranged between 3.35–3.74 (liquid) and 3.38–3.78 (solids). This is important to ensure microbiological food safety. It is also important that you follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) to assure the safety and quality of the pickled fiddleheads, including sanitation and sterilization of jars and lids. All fiddlehead products should be hot-packed and processed for 10 minutes in a hot water bath.

Fiddlehead Nutrition

Contains: Fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids (Delong, 2011; Bushway 1982)

DeLong, J; Hodges, D; Prange, R; Forney, C; Toivenon, P; Bishop, M; Elliot, M; Jordan, M. The unique fatty acid and antioxidant composition of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddleheads. Can. J. Plant Sci. (2011) 91: 919-930.
Bushway, A; Wlilson, A; McGann, D; Bushway, R. The Nutrient Composition of Fresh Fiddlehead Greens. 47 (1982) J. of Food Science.

Shrimp and Fiddlehead Medley

1 pound fiddleheads
6 ounces linguine, uncooked
6 cups water
1-3/4 pounds Maine shrimp, fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon margarine
2/3 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup green pepper, diced
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon celery seed
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Cut off ends of fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan; add shrimp and cook three to five minutes, or until done. Drain well, and set aside. Cook fiddleheads in boiling water for 15 minutes. Drain. Coat a large, nonstick skillet with cooking spray; add margarine. Heat until margarine melts. Add onion and green pepper and sauté until crisp-tender. Stir in fiddleheads. Meanwhile, cook pasta as directed, without salt or oil. Drain well, set aside and keep warm.

Add sliced mushrooms, thyme, pepper, salt and celery seeds to vegetable mixture; stir well. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat three to four minutes or until mushrooms are tender, stirring often. Stir in shrimp and lemon juice; cook until heated through, stirring often.

Place pasta on a large platter. Spoon shrimp mixture on top. Serve immediately. Serves 6.

Fiddlehead Dijon

1-1/2 pounds fresh fiddleheads
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup nonfat buttermilk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Clean and prepare fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Place fiddleheads in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam 20 minutes or until tender, but still crisp. Set aside, and keep warm.

Combine cornstarch and buttermilk in a small saucepan; stir well. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in mustard, lemon juice, tarragon and pepper.

Arrange fiddleheads on a serving platter. Spoon sauce over fiddleheads. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Plain and Pickled Fiddleheads

cider vinegar
1/8 teaspoon each of pepper, ground nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and celery seed

Pour enough vinegar over the fiddleheads to cover; then strain it off into a pan. Add 1 cup sugar for every gallon of vinegar. Add a large pinch of each of the spices and celery seed. Boil this syrup for 7-8 minutes; then pour over the fiddleheads in pint-sized jars. Seal and process for 15 minutes in a boiling water process canner.

Sweet Pickled Fiddleheads

1 quart cider vinegar
5 cups sugar
2 teaspoons salt

Mix vinegar, sugar and salt in saucepan; bring to a boil, pour over fiddleheads in pint-sized jars; seal; process 15 minutes in boiling water process canner. Makes 6 pints.

Sugar-Free Fiddlehead Pickles

1 gallon vinegar
1 teaspoon powdered saccharin (if desired)
1 teaspoon powdered alum
1/2 cup salt
1/2 teaspoon powdered cloves
1 teaspoon powdered allspice
1 tablespoon powdered cinnamon
1/2 cup dry mustard

Pack fiddleheads into jars; pour enough liquid to cover fiddleheads; seal at once. Process for 15 minutes in boiling water bath. Let stand at least two weeks before using. If the product is to be sold, it may be necessary to check with the Food and Drug Administration on the use of saccharin in this type of product.

Mustard Fiddlehead Pickles

1 quart button onions (peeled)
1 quart fiddleheads
2 cups salt
4 quarts water
1 cup flour
6 tablespoons dry mustard
2 cups sugar
2 quarts vinegar

Wash and prepare button onions and fiddleheads. Mix salt and water. Pour over fiddleheads. Let stand overnight. Bring to boil, and drain in colander. Mix flour and dry mustard. Stir in enough vinegar to make smooth paste. Add sugar and vinegar. Boil until thick and smooth, stir constantly. Add the fiddleheads and cook until they are just heated through. (Overcooking makes them soft instead of crisp.) Pour into jars and seal immediately. Process 15 minutes in boiling water process canner.  Makes 8 pints.

Quick Sour Fiddlehead Pickles

1/2 gallon cider vinegar
2 cups water
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup mustard seed

Mix ingredients, bring to boil. Pour over fiddleheads in pint-sized jars; seal; process 15 minutes in boiling water process canner.

Bread and Butter Fiddlehead Pickles

4 pounds fiddleheads
3 large onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup salt
cold water
3 trays ice cubes
5 cups sugar
5 cups cider vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard seeds

In 8-quart enamel, stainless steel or glass container, stir fiddleheads, onions, salt and enough cold water to cover fiddleheads until salt dissolves; stir in ice. Cover; let stand in cool place 3 hours. Drain fiddleheads and rinse with cold running water; drain thoroughly.

Measure sugar, vinegar, turmeric, celery seeds and mustard seeds into 8-quart Dutch oven or heavy saucepan. Over high heat, heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low; simmer, uncovered 30 minutes, stirring often. Meanwhile, prepare jars and caps. Add fiddleheads and onions to Dutch oven; heat to boiling. Spoon hot fiddleheads into hot jars to 1/4 inch from the top. Immediately ladle syrup over fiddleheads. Process 15 minutes in boiling water process canner. Cool jars and test for air tightness. Makes about 6 pints.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Pat Pierson, Extension educator, Waldo County; Evelyn Boynton, Hartland, Maine; and Al Bushway, UMaine professor of food science and cooperating professor of entomology, for their valuable contributions in testing these recipes.

For more information, see Bulletin #2540, Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads, or contact your University of Maine Cooperative Extension county office.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

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