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Sweet & Peppery Parsnips

These humble root vegetables are wonderfully versatile in soups, mashes and braises.

Fine Cooking Issue 84
Photos: Scott Phillips
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While eating at a restaurant not so long ago, my order of lamb came with a delicious parsnip and apple gratin. The waiter told me that only recently had the chef been bold enough to describe it accurately on the menu. Before, he’d called it a “turnip and apple gratin,” because he worried that parsnips might scare people off. (The idea that turnips might have more appeal than parsnips amused me a little.) In another dish, parsnips were snuck in as “white carrots.”

I think the lowly parsnip deserves better than that. Yes, parsnips do look like overgrown white carrots (they’re related to carrots, after all), but their flavor is more complex. They’re wonderfully sweet like carrots—maybe more so—but they’re also rich, earthy, faintly peppery, and a little nutty, too. It’s an acquired taste for some, but to me, it’s one worth having. I also love parsnips’ versatility. They’re good roasted or sautéed, braised, and even puréed for soups and mashes—and they make great side dishes with rich, wintery meat courses, such as braised short ribs, lamb shanks, pot roasts, and roasted duck.

How to prep

Simply trim away the tops and bottoms and peel them, just as you would with carrots. Parsnips have a core that can be tough and fibrous, especially in the thick upper part of the root. It’s best to cut out that inner core.

Parsnips come into season in fall but are at their best smack in the middle of winter. They’re sold either loose or in 1-pound plastic bags. Either way, look for roots that are firm and heavy for their size. Size itself doesn’t matter, but larger parsnips often have a tough, fibrous core, which should be removed, at least from the thick upper half of the root. Store parsnips in a loosely closed plastic bag (don’t tie it; you want some air to circulate) in the crisper drawer of the fridge. They’ll keep for several weeks.

Parsnips are especially good with fruits and vegetables harvested in the same season, such as apples and pears, as well as with potatoes, carrots, turnips, and beets. Sometimes I play up their natural sweetness with brown sugar, maple syrup, or apple cider; other times, I add a counterpoint with a good sherry, cider, or wine vinegar. Balsamic works well, too, lending flavors both sour and sweet.

Three ways to cook parsnips

Parsnips are so versatile they can be cooked almost any way you want. Here are some quick ideas for mashing, roasting, and braising.

Mashed or puréed: I usually start with boiled parsnips, but roasted parsnips are also delicious for these mashes and purées.

  • Mash boiled parsnips with cream, milk, and butter. Season with salt and pepper and a spoonful or two of sherry or Madeira. Transfer to a shallow baking dish, scatter chopped walnuts or pecans over the top, if you like, and bake until lightly browned on top.
  • Purée boiled parsnips and carrots with a bit of cream, season with salt and a little white pepper, and stir in some finely chopped crystallized ginger.
  • For a twist on applesauce, boil and mash together parsnips and tart apples. Add butter, freshly grated nutmeg, and a little lemon juice and zest. Serve with roast chicken, turkey, duck, or goose.

Roasted: Typically, I reach for olive oil when I’m roasting vegetables, parsnips included. (Follow general time and temperature guidelines in the recipe Roasted Parsnips with Cinnamon & Coriander.) You can roast them halved, cut into matchsticks, or in chunks.

  • Toss a blend of parsnips and carrots in olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast until tender and lightly caramelized. Stir in some cilantro pesto.
  • For a colorful mélange, toss parsnips, turnips, beets, and sweet potatoes with oil and season with salt, pepper, and a little cayenne. Roast until almost tender. Stir in lots of chopped parsley, some minced garlic, and lemon zest and finish roasting.
  • Toss the parsnips in oil, salt, and pepper and roast them with whole shallots until almost tender. Drizzle with a blend of maple syrup and fresh orange juice, toss with some chopped rosemary, and finish roasting.

Braised: When braising, I like to cut parsnips crosswise into 1-inch pieces; then I cut the thicker pieces in halves or quarters to get chunks of roughly equal size. I start by browning the pieces in a fat—I like butter, but olive or vegetable oil works well, too.

  • As the parsnips brown, season with a healthy sprinkle of chopped fresh sage. Then simmer in apple cider until the parsnips are tender and the cider boils away to a brown glaze.
  • Brown the parsnips, season with salt and pepper, toss in a few thyme sprigs, and braise in chicken broth until tender.
  • Combine parsnips with 2-inch chunks of leek and brown. Add salt and pepper, deglaze the pan with white wine or dry vermouth, and let it boil away. Add a little water, cover, and cook until tender.
Roasted Parsnips with Cinnamon & Coriander 

In the garden

Parsnips need a loose, deeply worked, fertile soil and a full season of growth to come to maturity. As with carrots, sow the seed directly in the garden in spring and keep it moist until it sprouts, which may take up to three weeks. Late in the fall, cut the tops back, leaving just enough to see where the plants are, and begin harvesting. The flavor will improve as the weather gets colder and frosts convert some of the parsnips’ starch to sugar.


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