After you wait all winter for tender asparagus stalks to peek through the ground, your goal in asparagus preparation should be to get the best flavor from every bite. Sauteing concentrates and enhances the natural flavor of asparagus, rather than diluting the flavor as happens with boiling or steaming. This high-heat, quick-cooking process caramelizes the sugars in asparagus while achieving a tender-crisp, rather than mushy, texture.
Asparagus tends to develop a dry, woody stem at the base, particularly with older asparagus left to develop longer. Even tender young asparagus can have a woody texture. To remove the woody base, feel the ends with your hands and cut just above the hard, dry point with a knife. Alternatively, bend the asparagus in your hands; it will snap off just above the woody part.
Sauteing is all about cooking food quickly and evenly, so asparagus is often cut into bite-sized pieces before cooking. For best results, cut the stems into 2- to 2 1/2-inch pieces. Make the cuts on the bias -- instead of making straight cuts across the grain, turn the knife and cut diagonally.
Successful sauteing requires a pan large enough to accommodate all the asparagus with room to move. Without adequate space, the asparagus steams in the pan and does not brown. Use two pans or cook in batches if you don't have a large enough skillet.
Preheat the pan over medium-high heat before adding your choice of cooking oil. Minimal fat is needed to saute vegetables, usually no more than 1 tablespoon or enough to make the pan slick. Use a heat-tolerant cooking fat such as olive oil, coconut oil or vegetable oil. Allow the oil to heat until it begins to shimmer on top before tossing in the asparagus.
Cook the asparagus for about 3 to 5 minutes or until the outside begins to brown. Keep the pieces moving constantly in the pan as they cook, using either a shaking or tossing motion, or by stirring them. The term "saute" translates to "to jump" in French, so think of it as keeping the asparagus constantly jumping in the pan.
Seasoning and Serving
Asparagus purists would argue that the best way to eat asparagus is unseasoned, directly from the pan. Given the bold, earthy flavor of asparagus, however, numerous seasonings enhance the vegetable without overwhelming its flavor. This quality also makes it a suitable candidate for stir fry.
One of the simplest options is to simply melt some butter over the asparagus just before removing it from the pan. Add a sprinkle of dry seasoning such as salt and pepper, or a spice blend like seasoning salt or steak seasoning blend. Sauteed, caramelized onions, shallots and peppers complement caramelized asparagus with an added dose of sweetness. Fresh garlic adds another bold component without competing or overwhelming asparagus.
The vibrant citrus flavor of lemon juice contrasts well against sweet sauteed asparagus. If you don't have fresh lemons on hand, mix some real butter with lemon pepper seasoning and toss to coat in the last minute in the pan. Parmesan cheese is often paired with asparagus, adding a slight nutty flavor when shaved over hot sauteed asparagus. Another easy way to add nutty flavor is to top the asparagus with a sprinkle of sliced almonds.
Pan Cooking Variations
Searing and pan-grilling quickly caramelize the sugars on the exterior while the inside remains somewhat raw and crisp. While sauteing requires moderately high heat and cooking fat, searing is done at high heat with little to no fat at all. The asparagus isn't moved much, so you may cut the spears or cook them whole. Add the asparagus to a hot pan and turn approximately once every 4 to 5 minutes or until the side touching the pan caramelizes and chars a bit. Repeat until all sides are evenly cooked. A grill pan with ridges cooks asparagus in much the same way as searing in a skillet, but results in a pattern of lines on the spears where they touch the ridges, much the same as marks on a standard grill grate. Serve seared or pan-grilled asparagus as a side with grilled meat. Serve it unseasoned or with butter and lemon juice or dry seasonings such as salt, pepper and garlic powder.