Asparagus, that short-lived treat that's only in season in early summer, provides a simple side dish when dressed with a bit of butter and herbs. You can also add asparagus to tarts or savory casseroles. Boiling the asparagus produces tender stalks and a mild flavor, but if you cook them too long they develop a drab color and become limp and flavorless. Properly boiling the asparagus doesn't just prevent overcooking, it also ensures the tender tips aren't broken or damaged in the process.
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Rinse the asparagus under running water, handling gently so you don't break the tips. Grasp the stem end of the stalk in one hand and the center of the stalk in the other hand. Bend the stalk until the tough bottom snaps off. Discard the bottoms.
Fill a shallow, wide skillet with 1 to 2 inches of water. Heat the water to a full boil over medium-high heat.
Lay the asparagus in the boiling water, lowering the bottom of the stalks into the water first so the tips don't break. Rest the thinner tips against the side of the pan so they are just above the water and only the stalks are boiling. Layer the asparagus no more than two stalks deep. Return the water to a full boil.
Boil the asparagus stalks for 2 minutes if you are partially cooking the stalks before adding them to another recipe that requires further baking. Boil for 5 minutes if you want to cook the asparagus stalks completely for immediate serving. The tips steam above the water while the stalks boil, so they don't overcook.
Lift the asparagus stalks from the water with a pair of tongs. Place the asparagus in a colander to drain before serving or adding to other ingredients.