The Easy Cooking Method For Tender, Browned Asparagus

The methods for cooking asparagus, a favorite springtime veggie, run the gamut and sometimes yield strikingly different results. Steamed stalks take on a whole new flavor and texture than their roasted counterparts. And popping a bunch of thick asparagus on the grill can (almost) rival a meaty match, and will definitely serve as a complementary side.

Asparagus can sometimes be surprisingly difficult to perfect, since it ranges in size and ripeness, both of which can affect the outcome. It can be easy to overcook asparagus in the oven, taking it from browned and crispy to tough and stringy. But if you take it out of the oven too early, you risk running into a raw-like crunch. What's the solution?

For beautifully tender and flavorful browned asparagus, the easiest cooking method combines two classic ones — steaming and sautéeing. To accomplish a cooked-through center and caramelized exterior, simply sauté the asparagus on the stovetop in a pan with cooking fat to crisp the outside, while covering the pan with a lid to initiate steaming and soften the inside.

Why this method works

When any food that contains sugar starts to brown, a chemical reaction called caramelization occurs. Yes, asparagus contains sugar, and when sautéed over a high heat, the sugars in the asparagus will oxidize, turning brown and affecting its taste — deliciously. This caramelization adds a rich, slightly sweet flavor to the vegetable.

The odds of burning the asparagus and smoking out your kitchen before the stalks cook through increase if you rely solely on sautéeing. This is where the lid to the pan comes in: Placing the lid over the hot pan traps the escaping heat, helping the asparagus cook faster from the inside out. 

The ultimate and easiest method to get the best of both worlds is to sauté the asparagus first for a minute, to coat it in the cooking fat and induce browning, and then pop the lid on. Allow the stalks to just sit untouched, giving the pan a shake intermittently until they are bright green and fork-tender. The exterior of the asparagus in contact with the hot pan will brown, while the steam cooks it through. It's a similar concept to searing a chicken breast or steak on the stovetop, before placing it in the oven to finish.