Still Eating Parsnips, and Planning for More

The longest root here ended up in the compost; it had dipped below the water table and so was rotting. The others broke off at about a foot below the soil surface, as usually happens with my parsnips.

At last week’s book club meeting, in the midst of a discussion of race and gender in nineteenth-century America and the founding of the U.S. Geological Survey, somebody asked the inevitable sort of question: How do you grow parsnips?

Our husbands think we talk about them at these meetings. We do, sometimes. But more often the talk turns to gardening.

I felt an immediate surge of affection for the new member who asked about parsnips. Parsnip lovers are rarities, it seems. Why is this? Who can dislike that carroty flavor combined with extra sweetness? Is the parsnip just too blandly white next to its sunny cousin the carrot? Or is the parsnip so pricey in the market that most people never even try it?

Why such a humble root should cost so much is puzzling in itself, but at least I could take a stab at the new member’s question. For my big parsnip crops of the past couple of years I must thank my friend Lisa, who told me to toss the seeds onto bare soil in February. This works because parsnip seeds require constant moisture for about two weeks while they think about sprouting. Here in the Willamette Valley, we generally have that constant moisture in February. Our frosts continue until mid-May, but that matters not at all to the hardy parsnip.

This year February was so strangely dry that I wonder whether Lisa’s parsnip seeds have germinated. As for me, I’ve held off planting. As I dig the last of last year’s crop, with roots averaging 8 inches across and 1½ feet long, I’m thinking I’d like this year’s parsnips to be a little smaller.

Most gardeners know that you’re supposed to leave your parsnips in the ground until after the first frost to sweeten them up. This is what I’ve done, though I don’t know that I wouldn’t like a less-sweet parsnip. Usually I leave most of my roots in the ground for much longer still. A virtue of parsnips is that you can store them right where they have grown all through the winter—unless the water table rises into their root zone, which causes them to rot, or unless the weather is so brutally cold that a mound of mulch won’t keep them from freezing.

But when you plant parsnips in February for digging in late fall and winter you’re at least doubling the usual four-month growing period. And when parsnips grow for that long they develop two problems: They get so big they become hard to dig, and they develop a hard core that gets bigger and tougher over time. By mid-winter the parsnips may have as much core as tender flesh, which makes for much effort in the kitchen and a big pile of trimmings. And then in late winter the plants sprout new top growth, because, like their carrot cousins, they are biennial. As parsnips prepare to produce seeds, their roots become entirely tough and inedible. So last week I dug the last of the parsnips that we’ll eat this winter. The rest I’ll till under or let go to seed.

We didn’t talk at book club about parsnip varieties. It may be that the variety I’ve been growing, All-American, is more prone to tough cores than others I might try, such as Tender and True, which is described as “almost coreless,” and Harris Early Model, which is said to have no core at all. Considering the high water tables here in winter, maybe the short- and thick-rooted German varieties would be an even better alternative. (Readers, if you’ve had success with particular varieties I hope you’ll share your comments.)

Regardless of the variety, the best course may be to plant parsnips later, dig them promptly after the first frost, and store them out of the ground. So, here’s how I tentatively recommend growing parsnips: Plant them late spring, around the time of the last frost. Use fresh seeds; old ones won’t sprout. Keep the seeds moist for two to three weeks, until they germinate (Next time I may try covering them with a board, as I do carrot seeds, or I even try germinating them on damp paper towels). Don’t give parsnips too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer; it’s said to make their roots hairy. Let them grow for 105 to 130 days, depending on the variety, to maturity. Start digging them as soon thereafter as you like. If you have time to devise some out-of-ground storage system, such as a clamp or box of sand, dig them all soon after the first autumn frost.

Preparing parsnips for the table is easy when you have no big, tough cores to cut out. Betty Fussel recommends boiling the roots, dousing them in cold water, and then slipping off their skins, but parsnips have no more in the way of skins than carrots, which I rarely peel at all. Just to make sure my parsnips are fully clean, though, I peel them with a swivel peeler. Then I use them in most of the ways you might use carrots. They are especially good roasted, on their own or along with carrots or chunks of squash or wedges of sweet potato, or pureed in soup flavored with nutmeg, as in my recipe here.

11 thoughts on “Still Eating Parsnips, and Planning for More”

  1. I love parsnips.. and so do my 2 daughters who are adults now.. We get pretty excited over a big bunch of them Silly but true! 🙂 I’ll have to give them a shot one of these days.

  2. I love them too, but I’m the only one in my family that does! They are expensive around here too!

  3. My hatred for parsnips came at an early age.

    I can thank Grandma Daisy for that.

    My mom, brothers and I went to her and Grandpa’s house for dinner. Grandma Daisy had made a pot roast with assorted root vegetables. I thought I was dishing up a couple chunks of potatoes, so was confused when Grandma said, “Here, let me get you some potatoes,” and spooned a couple more potatoes onto my plate.

    When I bit into the first potato – which wasn’t a potato at all, but a parsnip – the taste was not a pleasant surprise to my 7-year-old palette.

    To this day I still wonder why Grandma didn’t tell me what I was about to eat before I took a bite. Instead, she barked out a good, hardy laugh as she watched me screw up my face in disgust and displeasure. And THEN told me the true identity of that disturbing potato.

    Parsnips. Meh.

    I will always think of them as the practical joker of the vegetable world.


    Actually, I should put my parsnip racism aside and give them another try. If I could get past my brain block, I might like them now. Especially if they were grown and cooked by you, Linda.

    As for Grandma Daisy, she’ll turn 94 this month. I had a nice, long visit with her just last week. The subject of parsnips didn’t come up in conversation. If it had, I wonder if Grandma would even recall the parsnip incident. My school-of-hard-knocks-educated guess is no, although the memory of that oh-so-very-wrong taste on my tongue is something I’ll never forget.

    Danita Cahill

  4. With woody parsnips including those that have bolted the outer flesh can be pulped to make a delicious dessert pie. Of course people find that as odd as Danita’s potato experience, but it’s a mind over matter issue “parsnips are vegetables!”

  5. Parsnip pie sounds good to me! Do you make it much like pumpkin pie?

    Winter squash can be used to make a delicious savory custard with no added sugar. Has anyone tried a savory parsnip custard?

  6. Hi Linda,
    Pumpkin pie is not part of our NZ tradition so no idea there, but I don’t see why not. The recipe came out of “Simply Living: A gather’s guide to New Zealand’s fields, forests, and shores” by Gwen Skinner, 1981, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, NZ.
    2C parsnip pulp, 1/8 tsp salt, 1C sugar, 4 eggs – separated, 1/2tsp cinnamon, 1/3C cream, 1C whiskey, 1/4C melted butter, 1T cornflour.
    Line a pie dish with pastry.
    Combine parsnip, salt, sugar, yolks, cinnamon and beat 4-5 minutes. Add cream, whiskey and butter mixing well. Beat whites until stiff, sprinkle with cornflour and fold into main mixture.
    Pour into pastry shell and bake in very hot oven (235C) for 10min then reduce to 155 for 30 minutes. test with a knife (should come out clean).
    I’ve substituted water for the whiskey with no ill effects.

    1. Thanks so much for the parsnip pie recipe! Except for the whiskey, the recipe is much like a typical one for pumpkin pie (we’d use milk or more cream in place of whiskey or water–let me know if you’d like a pumpkin pie recipe).

      I’m intrigued by the fact that you found the parsnip pie recipe in a book about foraging. Can I rightly conclude that parsnips grow wild in New Zealand?

  7. Yes, parsnips grow wild but strictly as garden escapes and near old house sites. They’re not obvious in the long grass until they bolt, but boiled up the outer flesh can be separated from the woody core. We haven’t sown parsnips since I let them seed one year (10 yrs ago), they move around to where ever the latest bit of disturbance has been and now I am in the dogbox as my partner thinks they give her horses colic! She incidentally grew up in San Luis Obispo and has made pumpkin pie in the past and has a recipe somewhere so I think we have that covered.
    Leaves and tops can be an irritant, NZ even had a presumed case of foot and mouth that turned out to be excessive use of parsnip tops for sheep forage causing blisters on the sheep’s lips and tongues.
    The plants in Gwen’s book are about 2/3rds exotic (mostly European) and the rest native but it’s fairly comprehensive covering: fungi, seashore, pickling, wine (gorse, dandelion etc), cosmetics, medicine and even household hints (the sorts of things you might find in ‘Mrs Beeton’s book of Household Management’). My apologies for waffling on.

  8. Graeme, thanks for waffling on. I see from a quick Web search that parsnips grow wild in the U.S. Midwest and that they poison horses there, too. Chemicals called furanocoumarins in the greens and seeds are even toxic to people; the chemicals can cause blistered skin when the tops are pulled and photosensitivity when they’re eaten. So I guess we really shouldn’t let our parsnips run wild. Keep out of the dogbox, eh?

  9. Rats! So I am going to have to remove the stray parsnips and go back to sowing them like normal people. By the way I enjoy the blog, interesting to see different things and different ways of dealing with the same things. I have never seen or heard of an 8″ parsnip before.

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