Long, knobbly and troublesome to cook, the root veg salsify has been on the periphery of fashionable in the culinary world for years. Perhaps a little confusingly, it comes in two versions: black or white, which both have a distinct zingy, oyster-like taste and are very closely related plant types. Having gone on and off chefs’ menus for the last 10 years, PBUK thought it was about time we looked into the veggie’s crunchy credentials
Apart from its unique taste and pleasing white-fleshed appearance, salsify strength comes from being available when pretty much nothing else is vegetable-wise, and also offering a break from potatoes and parsnips. Mainly available in the UK from October to January, salsify comes in two kinds, the light-skinned white version, which grows happily in domestic gardens, and the black-skinned alternative, known as scorzonera, which is used more widely on a commercial scale.
Looking much like a wooden stick, black salsify is particularly popular in France and Spain where is it appreciated as being gourmet. Black salsify is a member of the sunflower family, while the white version belongs to the dandelion. Black salsify has a white interior and is more fibrous and of a finer texture than regular salsify.
Also known as: the vegetable oyster or oyster plant, Spanish salsify, serpent root, viper’s herb, viper’s grass, goats beard and scorzonera (just the black-skinned type).
Varieties: Salsify Sandwich Island, Salsify Mammoth, French Blue Flowered, Scorzonera Maxima and Scorzonera Russian Giant
Origin: Salsify is native to southern Europe and the Near East.
Production: Black salsify is commercially produced or stored for supply throughout the year in the Netherlands, France and Belgium plus Germany to a smaller degree. Traditionally harvested in the winter (but possible to harvest year round), salsify is said to be best when it comes to maturity during cool weather in a fairly acidic soil.
White salsify is harvested when it’s young, but other than that both types grow in the same way, and are as easy to grow as dandelions. However, the root veg needs to be kept evenly moist to prevent the roots from becoming stringy during production, and it can be hard to harvest since the roots are delicate. Salsify is generally not susceptible to pests and disease and, commercially, it’s best grown as a second crop as part of field rotation.
History: It’s thought that the first mention of salsify was in 1575 by a Western writer called Leonhard Rudolf, having seen scorzonera at the market of Aleppo in Syria. People believe the name scorzonera derives from the French word scorzon, meaning snake or from the Italian “scorza negra” meaning black bark. By 1660, Italy and France were cultivating the crop and the Belgians then followed suit. It’s now eaten regularly across western Europe.
Preparation: Having worked with black salsify for two weeks straight for a recipe feature, it does become a little troublesome and you can see why some chefs leave it well alone. But when you get to eat the product, it does produce a very exciting tingle that can’t quite be described.
Worth cooking, but not easy, salsify is always absolutely covered in mud and it’s quite hard to wash because its flesh has a sticky quality, even at skin level, which means it’s caked with dirt. It’s best to wash the vegetable first, then soak it in clean cold water, before scrubbing under running water. Once scrubbed, topped and tailed, salsify should be peeled since the skin has a bark-like quality and once cut the flesh starts to seep white sticky liquid that very quickly turns the flesh a brown-yellow colour. Any citrus juice can stop this from happening, but it needs to be applied as soon as the salsify stick is cut.
A bit like beetroot, salsify has a discolouring effect as well as making everything very sticky. Unless you’re fine with a sticky brown substance attaching itself to your skin, gloves are probably a good idea and you should scrub chopping boards, especially wooden boards, straightaway after chopping. Despite the difficulty with preparation, you can keep fresh, unpeeled salsify in the fridge for up to two weeks, which makes it a good addition to a winter kitchen menu.
Taste: Some say oysters, some say it’s too woody. It has a very fresh taste when eaten raw and takes on an almost radish-like quality. It takes a lot of cooking to soften salsify but it keeps its crunch well, and develops a slight aniseed taste.
Culinary uses: Salsify is a root vegetable so it can be eaten raw and cooked like most roots. It has a pleasant tingly eating sensation when cooked and it’s oyster-like flavour develops the more you cook it. The plant that grows above ground is leafy and has delicate pale purple flowers. Popular in Victorian garden kitchens, the young roots of the white-skinned salsify are fleshy and taper, and are cooked and eaten like asparagus in the spring. Black salsify has yellow flowers and is generally harvested when the roots are full and carrot-size. They are generally used in fritters, soups and stews, as well as roasted and braised to be served as side dishes.
Nutrition: White salsify contains fibre, manganese, potassium, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and C, and is high in dietary fibre. Black salsify is considered to be particularly nutritious since it contains asparagine, choline, laevulin, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, sodium and vitamins A, B1, E and C. Salsify has around 40 calories per 250g.
Chef fans: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jane Grigson, Charlie Lockley at the Boath House in Nairn, Scotland; Richard Corrigan, Martin Wishart, Steven Williams, Simon King, Ben McKellar and Niamh Shields.
Dishes: Liquorice venison fillet with confit salsify (Charlie Lockley); turbot with mussels, sea vegetables and salsify or spinach and poached egg ravioli, truffle, ceps, girolles and salsify (Ben McKellar).
Did you know?: It’s thought that pre-16th century Celtic and Germanic people believed black salsify was a remedy for the Bubonic plague and snake bites.