Gene Logsdon and Friends

What Is The Secret Of Parsnips?

In Gene Logsdon Blog on May 30, 2012 at 5:08 am

From GENE LOGSDON

Whenever I go to a big supermarket that carries fresh food, I always find these long, wrinkled, ugly, rooty-looking things called parsnips on display. Someone must like them or they wouldn’t be there, but I can’t find anyone who admits to eating them, or anyone who knows what the attraction might be. It certainly isn’t phallic, as carrots sometimes get portrayed.  What is the allure of parsnips?

We grew parsnips once. They were slow to germinate so weeds got a head start on them. As for taste, I am not saying they weren’t edible if cooked with enough butter, but that is kind of true of cardboard too. Parsnips are “best” in early spring after having spent the entire winter in cold or even frozen soil. The cold enhances their taste which tells me that in the fall they must taste terrible. Nowadays, marketers sometimes refrigerate fall-harvested parsnips before selling them.

Parsnips have been cultivated and cherished at least back as far as ancient Roman times. The most obvious reason for their popularity is that they are available to eat before any new growth arrives in spring, a real advantage before modern storage methods came along. But there are other roots in the ground that also survive winter. Why parsnips?  Help me out here.

What little solid history I can find about the parsnip only increases the mystery.  In Gardening For Profit, an interesting old book by Peter Henderson, first published in 1867, the author goes to great length pointing out that parsnips are not a profitable crop for market gardeners to grow. But then in an about face, he tells about a year when for some reason a shortage of parsnips occurred in early spring when they were most in demand. The price rose so high that Henderson and his crew of workers actually used “crowbars, picks, and wedges” to pry the roots out of the half-frozen ground. He sold $800 worth of parsnips from less than an acre. Remember, this was in the 1860s! How much money would that be today? Normally, an acre of parsnips sold then for around $200.  My question: who liked parsnips enough to pay that kind of money for them?

I am full of theories. Do parsnips carry some potent drug that sends its devotees into orbit but they aren’t telling for fear the government will outlaw the root?  Are parsnips deemed by some to be an aphrodisiac even if they don’t look very phallic?  Have those who say they like parsnips lived on them all winter during the Great Depression and so developed a kind of nostalgic loyalty for the root? (That doesn’t seem likely. An old man in Maine told me that when he was a child, his family had only a cellar full of turnips to live on one winter and that he never ever after ate another one.) Maybe there is an ancient recipe, kept hidden from the rest of us by parsnip lovers because they fear if the news got out, a shortage of their beloved vegetable would develop. Got any other ideas?
~~

  1. There is an Iowa gardening book Parsnips in the Snow.

  2. I like the taste of parsnips, especially when they are roasted with other winter root veggies. But I’ve had a hell of a time getting them to germinate, so I’ve decided that they are not really worth my time.

  3. In The New Self-Sufficient Gardener and The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, John Seymour talks about how to make parsnip wine.

    • Just shows ta go ya, you can make wine out of anything with enough sugar, eh?

      • As a mead-making beekeeper, I’ve made mead with blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, persimmons, elderberries….hmmm parsnip mead? Is there even a category? Not a melomel.

  4. I (and my entire family) enjoy parsnips sliced up and roasted in a bit of olive oil. In my relatively small (less than 300 sq ft of growing space) garden, parsnips and carrots each have a 12 square foot patch.

    I’ve had less trouble with weeds in the parsnips than in the carrots. You do have to weed (and thin out) 3-4 times while the parsnips are small, but once they’ve gotten established, they can be left alone until harvest. I haven’t had too much trouble with germination rates, but tend to plant 4-5 seeds per spot instead of the 3 I use for most plants.

  5. I’m spitballing here, but maybe they’re selling a bi product at the store: try toasting the leaves in the oven, and roll some up in wheat straw paper. What’s the worst that could happen: they’d make parsnips illegal? Could be your ticket to early retirement. When is the last time you saw a rope made of hemp?

    • Parsnip stems and leaves are not to be trifled with. They contain a substance that will cause a chemical burn on your skin. (furanocoumarin). It is not an allergen, but a true chemical reaction. That said, the tubers are tasty.

  6. Parsnips with boiled dinner, parsnips with pot roast and parsnips with beef stew, add a sweetness to the dish that is just plain tasty. Parsnips mashed with potatoes are excellent. I’ve even had parsnip pie and it wasn’t too bad.

  7. One spring in Alaska I bought some small, overwintered parsnips from a local farmer and planted them in a raised bed for seed. Parsnips are biennial so I figured I was getting quite a bargain. And yes, most of them flowered and produced large amounts of seeds. I collected a whole lot of them except I must have missed some, which then proceeded to volunteer – except we’d rotated the beds and had something else growing there. A number of volunteers came up in the gravel pad that was underneath the raised beds but they didn’t survive. The ones in the bed got pulled out before they got very far along. I was the only one that would eat them (out of three households sharing the gardens) so it wasn’t considered that much of a loss.

    While living in England I found that my enjoyment of parsnips was shared by pretty much everyone around me. The most popular way to consume them was to cut them into strips and roast them then melt a little butter over them before serving. I love throwing some parsnips in stews and I’ve even finely chopped roasted parsnip to put in quiche and rice bakes (usually combined with roasted carrots and/or rutabagas). Leftover roasted root vegetables (parsnips and the rest of the gang except beets) when pureed together make a dandy soup base. Mashed parsnips and potatoes are pretty tasty, too. The trick to adding parsnips to whatever you’re making is to be cautious with the ratio of parsnips to everything else. Parsnips can easily overwhelm the flavors of other vegetables if not used in moderation.

    I think that you either enjoy parsnips or you don’t; there really isn’t a neutral position. I don’t just enjoy them but look forward to fall/winter when they (and other root vegies) show up in the markets! Nomnomnomnomnom….

  8. I agree with Ray — love them roasted .. brings out the sweetness. Also like them boiled, mashed (can add them to mashed potatoes) mixed with butter (!), salt and pepper.

  9. I suspect that “back in the day” any food sweetness, especially in early spring, was a real pleasure. Summer’s melons & berries were long gone, and the stored apples & pears probably weren’t all that great by then.

    Or maybe it was simply that something (anything!) other than the usual winter storage fare (onions, potatoes, assorted squash) was welcome as a change.

  10. I love parsnips. Like rhubarb, I suspect they were a real treat after a long winter. Never tried growing them as I have hardly any soil here ( I live on an eroded hilltop and have only a few inches of good soil)

  11. I love parsnips. As a boy I had “feral” parsnips from an abandoned farmstead in Washington County, IA where the Burlington Northern crosses a creek (with a WPA bridge) near the old Schmeler and Peters farms used to be – but much older.

    All that was left as an old apple orchard, a few gooseberry bushs and those parsnips. The apples never came in (I wish I knew then what I know now about refreshing old trees by companion grafting) but the gooseberries and parsnips fed one little boy on many a spring adventure.

    • I think it has to do with living in a world with addictive McDonald’s food, twinkies, and over sweetened sodas… People have lost their appreciation for naturally sweet and savory foods. Everyone I know thinks parsnips are delicious, especially me but the difference is that we eat whole foods with solely natural ingredients. I like to mash them with sweet baby turnips and serve with butter and nutmeg, or put them in my pumpkin beef stew. They are incredibly versatile and the same difficulty as carrots, you just leave them in longer.

  12. Before carrots were developed in the middle ages, and before potatoes were brought back to Europe from the new world, parsnips were the main winter starchy vegetable there. They’ve probably kept millions of people from starving, but my guess is that as its importance has waned, really good ways of preparing parsnips have been lost too. If you had to eat them every day, you would get pretty creative about it, I bet.

    Maybe they are just something one likes or not, as Kerri suggests. Me, I love ‘em. As for planting them, it helps if you save your own seed every year and seed heavily because their germination rate is fairly poor.

  13. “fine words butter no parsnips”

  14. I suspect that parsnips, like rutabagas, carrots and beets, were a food you could eat in various sizes over a period of time, store over winter and roast in the ashes. They’re also amenable to long slow cooking and don’t fall apart in the stew pot. They are also relatively high in vitamin C, an important factor in the days before citrus fruits being shipped all over the world and loaded with minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc. My guess is that all of these advantages made up for the fact that they aren’t what you would call bursting with flavor. Remember, potatoes didn’t get to Europe until after the explorations in the New World, and even then were considered suspect for a long time. I have also noticed that the heirloom varieties of parsnips are much better testing than the grocery store variety (isn’t that true of everything?), especially when roasted and buttered with a bit of salt. I can’t say I would choose a parsnip over a potato, though…

  15. I’ll add to the chorus of those vouching for roasted parsnips–they’re quite lovely, I think. Though, admittedly, I still don’t eat them that often. I’ve also read that they were once used to sweeten baked goods and other dishes back before sugar was common. It seems they once were a staple crop, so I imagine much of the popularity is residual from that time.

    I bet we’ll see a real resurgence of parsnip popularity before all is said and done.

  16. I love parsnips. The key to cooking them is not to let them touch water after a quick wash, unless they go into the stew pot. Cooking in water leaches out all flavor (wanted in stew) and leaves them soggy and waterlogged. I slice them and cook them in the microwave for about 2 minutes, stir, 2 minutes. They are done when they get slightly translucent. Add butter – no, you don’t need much – eat. They reheat nicely in the microwave, so I make extra for later in the week. They are also good cold on salad.

    I grow them by tilling them into a permanent spot with perennial chicory. The ones we miss in the spring become beautiful 5′ tall yellow umble flowers that contrast well with the blue chicory flowers. They reseed nicely, so we have a permanent chicory/parsnip patch. It’s very low maintenence. I love chicory in the spring, too. Some makes salad (grumolos, radicchios, and sugarloafs), and some are for braising (catalognas, strap leaf, and monk’s beard) in olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes. The bitter makes a wonderful contrast with the sweetness of the parsnips. Salt on the parsnips and vinegar on the chicory round out flavors beautifully. Maybe you need the right accompanyment with the parsnips. I guess any bitter spring greens would do.

    I never grow any fussy parsley anymore. Parsnip leaf tastes the same, but much stronger. One parsnip leaf, finely chopped, will substitute in a recipe for a bunch of parsley. It makes a great addition to salads, especially tabouli.

    I am not a doctor. This is personal experience only. I ate a lot of chicory and parsnip leaf raw this spring after experiencing gall bladder pain. Two mornings later I had expelled a lot of gallstones. I was shocked that it worked. I got the idea from John Lust’s herb book. Don’t try this without supervision. I don’t know which herb caused the expelling, or whether it was the combination. But as far as I know I have never expelled gallstones before. Ask your doctor and anything else that will keep me from going to jail for reporting this.

  17. Parsnips are delicious and excellent for the gardener + someone who wants to be food self sufficient. I cut them into wedges and saute them — get ‘em nice and carmelized — fantastic, creamy and flavorful. I cook carrots like this too. I love them too, but I’d say carrots are not as delicious as parsnips. Sometimes I’ll do them both in a melange. Parsnips have other similarities to carrots, in fact I grow them altogether like they are the same plant. The “white carrot” like the carrot are hard to germinate. That is why you soak them them for 24 hours before planting. They both convert starch to sugar and get very sweet after a fall/winter freeze, so I plant mine Aug. 1st. The beauty of them is that you can keep them in the ground all winter and harvest them as you need them. In areas where you do not get some thawing this is more difficult.

  18. Parsnips are gorgeous IN WINTER (for a Brit, “winter” includes most of spring but not much of autumn/fall). You can roast them, drizzled with butter/olive-oil/honey, or with the Xmas turkey, you can make soup out of them, you can put them in casseroles. They taste kind of savoury and nutty. I am trying to grow some on the allotment this year, but yer not wrong they’re taking AGES to show!

  19. I suspect Gene is trolling to get reactions, parsnips are one of the best flavored root veg there is, especially for soups and stews, where it can advantageously replace potatoes. Actually, it’s the other way round, potatoes replaced parsnips.
    They are so delicious honey roasted, which enhances their natural sweetness. Mixed honey roasted root vegs is a traditional side dish for Christmas in Ireland. In my opinion, it makes the turkey or ham the side dish…

    Maybe it’s time for you to get a better introduction to parsnips, you must have had a terrible experience with them.
    I don’t know the sales figures for parsnips, all grocery stores carry some, but at the price they are being sold ($1.10 each), I reckon they are not as popular as you make them, quite the opposite, I never ever saw anyone buy them at my local grocery store. Same story for red beets, turnips, rutabagas, celery root, and it’s also true for other tasty vegs such as the even more expensive and rarer leaks.

    I guess this lack of popularity has to do with the absence of parsnips in traditional American cuisine. It’s one of these “forgotten” vegs that is no very popular in Europe either, except for Britain and Ireland, mostly. It has been rehabilitated mostly by organic farmers and gardeners, so if we see it at all in France’s markets, it’s thanks to them.
    One thing I hate in American stores is the way carrots and parsnips are prepared for sales, cutting all the green stems right at the root: This makes these vegs go stale and soft in a matter of days, compared to when you leave some of the green stuff.

    There are a few different varieties of parsnips, maybe the ones in the stores that seem to be selected for uniform calibration instead of taste are not the best, and I don’t find any in the organic aisle, so they are grown to these large sizes from heavy doses of chemicals, but even so, they taste pretty good to me. It’s not like there is such a market for parsnips that Monsanto will introduce new GM varieties…

    Get over your finding them ugly or imagining them as a phallic symbol, they’re none of that, just an humble veg trying to make a living.

    In short, give it another try! ^-^

  20. One person’s parsnip is another’s sweet potato, I guess. Gene, the same question could be asked of okra! I know I come close to blasphemy here in Tennessee to question the appeal of okra–but really? I think it’s the tofu of the vegetable world–takes on the flavor of whatever you cook or deep fry it with. On it’s own, it’s a tasteless, sometimes stringy thing, yuck! But I have friends and family here who although they’ll let no other vegetable cross their lips, love okra?!

    I think people who like these things became accustomed to and developed a taste for them out of necessity–nothing else to eat.

  21. The more I see on this blog, the more I’m login’ the people who post here. Me? I tried to grow parsnips when I was a rookie. Never did get much joy, but you know, where I planted them (I don’t till) in a semi-flower bed, the few that kept surviving sowed their seed and the purple flower that comes up reminds me of a weird carnation. I suspect that they’re really hardy, and the ‘old folks’ didn’t mind messing around with them because they would provide SOMETHING in the spring, when they desperately needed a vegetable. Maybe I’m off kilter on it. I have to create my own soil up her in SE Ohio on the ridge, so tilthy we’re not. I’m tempted to buy some in the store but I suspect they’ll not taste too great. All the best to you all … Homegrown

  22. I am a fan. They are like parsley – the seeds need to be fresh. I am keen to try the permanent bed method which has always worked for me with parsley. They also seem to need a very moist situation to germinate well. I have had success flooding the seed bed or putting a piece of board over the row to stop evaporation until germination.

    I wonder if anyone has the defintive answer on companion planting. Some books say plant with carrots, as they are both root vegetables. Others say avoid carrots at all costs. I have not been observant enough to reach a conclusion.

    As for cooking boiled and mashed with carrot is a nice combination.

  23. Yea, and what’s with turnips, anyway? Goat feed, or sacrificial crop to draw wireworms away from potatoes, perhaps, but to actually eat the suckers?

    • I love turnips – the root and the greens! Young, smallish turnips will be less bitter than the really big ones but if big is all you have…cut into chunks and cook in water until they’re not quite done. Drain off the cooking water and either finish cooking in fresh water or a meat broth. Add some salt and pepper and there you go. Seems that cooking twice in changes of water helps to remove the bitterness. Once cooked, mashing turnips and potatoes together is yummy, too. And the greens cooked with salt pork, bits of ham or chopped up bacon are divine!

  24. Another delicious root veg that keeps well in the cellar over winter is salsify and the even tastier black salsify. I never saw any for sale in the U.S. stores though. Jerusalem artichoke is excellent too, and it easily gets perennial and takes care of itself after the first year, so it’s a good sustainable root veg to grow.

    I am just in awe thinking of (and eating!) all the different vegetables that have been cultivated for centuries. I really love all of them and dislike none, they all participate to a rich varied diet of different tastes and flavors, like bitterness, which is all too often despised in this world of sweetness. I also love that there is now so many Asian vegetables available to grow.

    And Betty, okra tastes great on its own, totally unlike the indeed bland tofu you mentioned, that never gets any better in stew or deep fried. If it gets stringy, cut the pods into 1 cm pieces as I always do, or get really fresh and young pods that have been well watered during growth, as the lack of water induces the strings. Same goes for green beans.

    Talking about vegs that take up the flavor of the stew, I think the best is probably soy, in the form of textured soy proteins large chunks. They are just like sponges and great for vegan/vegetarian diets, or even to get away from meat stews once in a while.

  25. Thought I would leap in here — I suspect because of the hardiness of the parsnip many northern European cultures used them to fill in the gap of nutrition that occurs from harvest until spring gardening, along with potatoes, etc. I ate them as a child, but then couldn’t find them in the groceries. Just thought they fell out of favor. Parsnips are high in nutrients, and are great in wine, mashed with orange zest, juice, etc., mixed with mashed potatoes, great in stews, especially beef and veal, particularly flavorful when put in with strong greens, etc. I think they probably provided a niche in the Omega-3 diet I experienced as a child. My dad was a commercial fisherman, and hunted and fished for our protein. I am rediscovering the importance of that diet, now that I have been living in the mid-west and having experienced the heavy dependence on beef, chicken, and commercial operations for vegetable production. Oh, that I could get some parsnips and try them again.

  26. I really enjoy them roasted – I think the sugars caramelise if you cook them for long enough with oil/fat. My favourite roast vegetable – when done right :)

  27. Roasted in olive oil. Also sauteed in butter. Yum!!

  28. Not too many years ago, I was a dedicated bachelor living in a remote mountain cabin. I met an equally dedicated city girl, and after a few dates, I decided to cook her dinner, and somehow talked her into the idea. It was late winter, and my pantry was not at its harvest best. I cubed some potatoes, carrots, onions and parsnips, tossed them in bacon grease, salt and pepper and put them on a flat pan to roast in the oven. I mixed up a batch of biscuits, and fried a couple of deer steaks.

    During dinner, I noticed her separating out and lingering over the parsnips. Turns out she had never heard of them much less eaten them. Now I don’t know if it was the parsnips or my biscuits that swung the deal, but that dedicated city girl is now my lovely farm wife. Parsnips are still in the garden each year, and she often request either them or biscuits for supper. And she cooks a mean deer steak too!

  29. I remember when the news crews were interviewing the UNABOMERS neighbors they all talked about what tasty parsnips he grew ! That by its self has always made me suspect of parsnips. I will admit I planted some this year . Time will tell if they can make it in this tough to grow place.

  30. All those recipes. Just dig them in the spring, slice them, cook until they are done and cover with butter.

    Did I miss something? Parsnips are the best bait for muskrats on float sets.

  31. Oh Gene. What a scallywag you are! You start off with a not so enthusiastic item on the value (or not) of parsnips and here we end up with a wonderful medley of recipes, vegetable history and veritable (not vegetable note!) compendium of the pros and cons of parsnips and other much maligned root veggies.

    You are certainly drawing a great deal out of your readers (I suspect for your own and our benefits and/or amusement) and that is part of the magic of this blog. Long may it continue and the wonderful, varied and dedicated people who read and respond to it.

    On a personal note, parsnips are damned hard to grow down here in NZ (germination rate as always) and I don’t particularly fancy their taste myself although they are quite yummy roasted as some have mentioned but those reasons in itself condemn me to continue trying to grow them. Crazy; maybe, but who isn’t in this line of living (to many anyway).

    Cheers everyone.

  32. I love parsnips in any form but especially raw – the core, to me, tastes like coconut.

  33. Thank you John for so ably summarizing what I, and I’m sure many others, were thinking about this post and all the interesting and informative comments it has evoked. Imagine a college English professor telling the class to write an article about parsnips that will cause people from all over the world to respond, I’d wager that at least half of the class would go immediately to the registrar’s office and drop the class. Just another day at the office for the Contrary Farmer.

    As soon as I read the title, it reminded me of something else that Gene wrote about parsnips which caused me to search through the archives to find what I was looking for. It is a much more somber but very beautiful piece of writing in keeping with a previous post about “Scars Tell the Record of Our Liives”. Ed Searl wrote a sermon which was posted as a guest blog on April !2,2011 entitled “Holy Food — A sermon based on Gene Logsdon’s book ‘Pope Mary & The Church of Almighty Good Food”. It contains Gene’s poem “Roots” which is both memorable and magnificent in my opinion and I will always be thankful to Ed for first bringing it to my attention. I would recommend that newer readers go back and read that post and I’m sure many longtime followers would enjoy reading it again also.

  34. Ah, root vegetables… the lazy man’s way to gaden. Parnsips are usually easy me, I think a lot of folks run into problems since they don’t freeze the seeds before they plant. Started doing that a few decades ago and don’t have germination issues.

    Great in stews, roasted, or mashed…

  35. Cubed in soup. Parsnip wine, too Anyes, Gene, in one of my favorite poems.
    .

  36. My CSA (Community Supported Agriculture – subscription veggies) farmers grow parsnips, & they’re a staple of our winter ‘share,’ & I do enjoy them! I also roast them with other veggies, or stir fry. I have some that volunteer in my garden, but I never remember when I ‘should’ harvest them! The seed needs to be fresh to germinate well, hence the self sewn ones!
    I don’t recall making them into wine, but pumpkin made some of the best wine!! Surprising how any ‘squash’ taste faded, it was just a good pale wine!

  37. Parsnips = Irish Stew! I cannot make Irish Stew without them. It just does not have the same warm, hearty, wholesome flavor and comfort if it is not made with parsnips. My kids had a favorite winter meal when they were little, Irish Stew with Soda Bread – mmm!

  38. I can’t get them to grow or taste good here in the states, but when I was in the Peace Corps in Morocco, my goodness they knew how to do it. Parsnips stewing in a tagine for hours with goat, chickpeas, and a mess of other vegetables, WOW. I miss it terribly and hope one day I can get it right.

  39. Parsnips- a couple of things… They need to be prepared correctly… boiled till soft, in 1/2-3/4″ sticks then fried in butter until carmelized . Spring parsnips are way way better. Grocery store parsnips are inedible. Season with other Umbrels.

    But consider the survival advantages of a HIGH ENERGY crop available in the spring time. Also once germinated they are extremely HARDY. they don’t rot in cold wet weather (think ireland). no pest or disease problems, HIGHLY productive (produces nearly as much mass as potatoes about twice as productive as carrots). Provided good fodder for pigs, horses and sheep.

    Parsnips are slow to germinate and need constant damp for 5-10 days, and are in the middle of the planting rotation, I treat them just like carrots and never have any problem, unless i get bad seed. Parsnip seed is only viable for about 6-9 months.

  40. Parsnip and Apple soup.

    Saute sliced parsnip in a little oil/butter/bacon grease, add some tart apple, puree with chicken or veggie stock, add a tidge of coriander or possibly nutmeg, and finish with a bit of milk or cream if desired. Best served with thick chunks of wholewheat sourdough.

  41. Gene, I’ve been reading the wonderful articles in your archive, and thought I would tell you about my first crop of parsnips. One winter, we moved to a small farm whose previous owners had a vegetable garden. The next spring, some large plants started sprouting up. By the time I realized they were parsnips, it was a little late to dig them, so I let them grow. Then some large caterpillars appeared, which turned out to be the larvae of the black swallowtail butterfly. They eat the foliage of plants in the carrot family.

    So we had a lovely “crop” of butterflies, as well as the seeds the plants produced. Some of the seed self-sowed and came up the following spring. I have since learned to appreciate parsnips as food for people, as well as for butterflies.

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