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This is the best way to cook asparagus (and it was invented by the Romans)

22 mayo, 2021

Now they are grown throughout the year, but spring is the best time to enjoy the delicious asparagus. They are very versatile in the kitchen and when they are in season they are a delight that is worth taking advantage of but, What is the best way to cook asparagus? The technique is as simple as it is ancient, as it was already known to the Romans.

The key was left to us by the now famous Marco Gavio Apicio -o Marcus Gavius ​​Apicius in Latin-, a Roman who lived in the 1st century AD. C. and who has gone down in history as one of the first gastronomes in history and author of the considered first great cookbook, Of re co Maquinaria. On its pages, and behind a conflicting Latin term, is the secret to cooking some quality asparagus.

Of re co Maquinaria, recipes and curiosities of Ancient Rome

The play Of re co Maquinaria (“About cooking matters”) is a gastronomic treatise that brings together recipes, tricks, techniques and tips on a multitude of ingredients and elaborations, but it is also a jewel for its historical value. Any fan of Ancient Rome will find it delicious to read, as it is full of information about the uses and customs of the Romans at the table.

Apicius's re-machinery Frontispiece of a 1709 edition (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The book is divided into 11 parts dedicated to different food groups, and includes such curious preparations as recipes for cooking dolphin or preparations to improve health. Although the most exciting are the curiosities that portray the banquets and tastes of the Roman high society of the time.

Apparently, Apicius was passionate about good food and had somewhat peculiar customs, with taste for trying all kinds of ingredients, organized banquets and contests and achieved a large group of admiring followers of his way of life.

We cannot know exactly who he was Apicius and the truth is that probably many of the recipes included in Of re co Maquinaria They are added by later copyists, but it is still an essential work. Many historians, researchers, and cooks have returned to it over the years, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was discovered that a wrong translation hid a little secret.

This is how Apicio described the best technique for cooking asparagus


The third volume of Of re co Maquinaria, dedicated to garden products (Cepuros), includes a section dedicated to asparagus. We know that they were highly appreciated in ancient times and were considered a healthy and exquisite food, of great value, that is why Apicio provides some tips and recipes to take advantage of them.

Specifically, the first elaboration is Very brief and it reads like this:

Asparagos siccabis, rursum in calidam summitas: callosiores reddes.

Habitually it translates as follows:

Wet some asparagus, then dry them; Put them back in hot water: this will make them harder.

But the somewhat inaccurate translation of one of the Latin words hid the key in the technique of cooking asparagus. What does it mean rursum?

Any current Latin dictionary tells us that rursum It is an adverb that is equivalent to “again” or “again.” As Ari LeVaux tells in his gastronomic column, the meaning that this term could introduce in the phrase was more or less obviated when paired with in quality, which refers to cooking in boiling water. But, Cook how?


LeVaux directs us to Joseph Dommer Vehling’s translation of Apicius in 1936, when he gave rursum the meaning of backwards, that is to say, “backwards”. To understand us: They must be cooked standing, face up, vertically.

Why? We have already discussed it above in some of our recipes with fresh white asparagus: the tip or yolk of these vegetables is much more tender and hardly needs cooking time. But the base of the stem is much thicker and more woody, so cooking the asparagus whole at the same time leads to an uneven result.

How to cook asparagus in the best possible way

Cook Asparagus

If we have some great seasonal green or white asparagus and we want to enjoy its flavor to the fullest, the ideal is to cook them at their point without any further flourishes. And to avoid a hard stem or an overcooked and squishy yolk, we can recreate Apicio’s technique at home. We have seen one of the possible systems to keep them vertical in The Takeout, which takes LeVaux as a reference.

  • Introducing the asparagus in a glass jar high.
  • Using a narrow and tall pot, in the style of spaghetti cooking, if we have a bunch big enough to keep them straight.
  • Tying the asparagus with a kitchen cord, pressing firmly but without passing us.
  • Wrapping them with a cloth soft, so as not to damage them if we like them softer.
  • With a special steamer or rack for cooking asparagus and a suitable pot.

Once we have the asparagus vertically, the steps are simple:

  1. Fill a pot halfway with water, in such a way that it does not reach the tip of the asparagus when we place them inside.
  2. Bring the water to a boil.
  3. Insert the asparagus held vertically, gently.
  4. Cook until they reach the desired point on the base (15-25 minutes).
  5. If the tips are not cooked, increase the steam by covering the pot to cook them for just a minute or two.

I admit that until now I have never bothered to adjust the cooking time for green asparagus; whites are even more delicate and it is usually recommended to take good care of the yolks. But both varieties, when they are of first quality, deserve to be treated with care in the kitchen. And like so many other things, it is something that the ancient Romans already knew.

Via | The Take Out
Photos | iStock – Unsplash
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