One person's weed is another's salad: for some, dandelions are a pesky nuisance in the quest for a perfectly groomed lawn. Others value them for the perky burst of yellow, signaling full-blown spring. I'm probably genetically predisposed to liking dandelions. As a child playing on my grandma's farm in the summer, making dandelion necklaces and sneaking just-picked green beans, I'd listen to her tell me stories about her parents, also farmers, whom I never met. It amazed me to hear that her dad made wine out of dandelion flowers and her mom cooked the greens as a vegetable - it seemed so exotic, especially because my dad used to spend hours on his hands and knees obsessively pulling dandelions up from our yard. I don't think I was actually brave enough to eat the greens until well into adulthood, when I spotted them at my local food co-op. They've since become one of my favorite greens - I love their bitter bite paired with eggs and bacon, just how my great-grandmother used to cook them.
Dandelions are probably native to Europe and Asia, but their true origins remain a mystery. Although we now think of the plant as an annoying weed, they were once highly esteemed as a medicinal plant and salad green. According to ethnobotanists, the first reference to the use of dandelions in medicine comes from Arab physicians in the 10th century. In addition to its reputed diuretic properties, the plant is also used for digestive issues, including as an appetite stimulant and as a laxative. It is also said to help with liver problems and high blood pressure. The Oxford Companion to Food notes that their cultivation began in France and England in the 19th century; a type of forced, blanched dandelion shoot (like endive) was popular, along with the greens.
In her fascinating book about the natural history of the plant, The Teeth of the Lion, Anita Sanchez speculates that dandelion seeds were botanical stowaways on the first ships that crossed the Atlantic to what is now the US. The ships' ballast, usually made up of soil and stones, likely contained seeds, dandelion among them. She says that by 1672, the common dandelion was well established in North America.
Taraxacum officinale, aka the common dandelion, is a member of the Asteraceae (daisy) family, of which lettuce and chicory are also members. The plant has deeply serrated, thin leaves and yellow flowers that grow on hollow stalks that leak a milky, sticky sap when cut. According to Wildman Steve Brill, a New York City forager and naturalist (who was once famously arrested for harvesting wild dandelion greens in Central Park), the best time to harvest wild dandelion greens is before they flower; after which the leaves become markedly more bitter. (See our Pro Tips, below, for a method to reduce some of their bitterness.) If you do choose to forage for dandelions, make sure to do so in a spot that has never been sprayed with herbicides or insecticides. Here's a video from Serious Eats demonstrates basics of dandelion foraging!
Dandelion greens are at their best in the spring to very early summer, before the flowers begin to bloom, while the yellow flowers can be harvested throughout the summer and into early fall. The roots are best in the late summer through late fall.
Cultivated dandelion greens are still a specialty crop in the US; they are mostly found at farmers' markets and farm stands, and fortunately don't appear on the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Pesticides on Produce. (*Check out our veggie rule of thumb.) Dandelions' environmental impact has less to do with their role as a food and more to do with their perception as a hard-to-control weed. In Americans' quest for the perfect patch of green, we use almost 80 million pounds of dangerous pesticides per year on US lawns, according to this report. Some of this is in the form of weed control chemicals like glyphosate, a chemical linked to a number of health problems, including Parkinson's and some cancers. Here are a few natural ways to get rid of dandelions - or you can just embrace the plant and eat them!
Cultivated dandelion greens tend to be quite a bit larger than their foraged counterparts. Both are dark green, with deeply serrated leaves. Some cultivated greens marked "dandelion" are not taxonomically dandelions at all, but a type of Italian chicory (a close relative), commonly called "Catalonian dandelion." (They look like very large dandelion greens, with the same serrated edges and long, skinny shape.) From a culinary perspective, these greens can be used exactly like true dandelion greens and have the same pleasingly bitter bite. They are notably longer than true dandelions.
Look for greens with no wilted, yellow or brown spots on them. You'll probably be hard pressed to find fresh flowers or root for sale, but their dried counterparts are available at some natural food stores and herbal medicine shops.
Raw dandelion greens have a crazy amount of vitamin K, necessary for blood coagulation and bone health. The greens are also a great source of vitamins A and C, and a decent source of iron, calcium, vitamin E, potassium and manganese. The leaves even have a little bit of protein.
All parts of plant are edible, though the leaves and the flowers are the most delicious. Because the greens are quite bitter, they are often paired with ingredients that temper the bitter bite of the vegetable. Dandelion greens are delicious both raw and cooked, while dandelion flowers can be used to stunning effect for garnish and to make all sorts of jellies, drinks and pickles.
Dandelion greens are often paired with rich ingredients like eggs, bacon and nuts; a classic French raw dandelion salad incorporates bacon, croutons, hard-boiled eggs and a Dijon dressing. They also pair well with strong flavors like garlic, onions, chiles and lemon juice. I like to chop up a handful of leaves and mix them with other salad greens for a deliciously bitter addition, sort of like adding radicchio to your spring mix. I also like to chop them up and mix them into cold grain salads (like faro or wild rice). Dandelion greens are also excellent cooked - they can be sautéed or braised just like other greens. Toss them into pasta and pair with a strong cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino, or make this delicious-sounding dandelion tart for your next brunch!
Fresh dandelion flowers don't have much flavor; their chief use in the kitchen, aside from their use in preserved foods (like jams and beverages - see our food preservation section below) is to add a cheerful yellow garnish to dishes. Pull petals from the flowers and scatter over a salad, rice or other grain, or toss whole flowers into salads. The flowers can also be made into tea that supposedly helps with bloating. Like its relative chicory, dandelion roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (caffeine-free, of course). The roots can be boiled and served as a vegetable, steeped into a tea, or made into this amazing-sounding roasted dandelion root ice cream!
Blanching dandelion greens removes some of their bitterness. To blanch: remove any thick stems from your dandelion greens. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Toss in the dandelion greens; blanch for 1-2 minutes. Remove and plunge into an ice bath. Remove from the ice bath and squeeze as much water from the leaves as you can; use as you would any cooked green. (If you've harvested wild greens after the plant has flowered, the leaves may be especially bitter, and you may need to blanch them twice.)
Store dandelion greens wrapped in a damp paper towel in an open zip-top bag in your crisper drawer for no more than two or three days.
Have a very weedy yard? Forget about those noxious pesticides - so much can be done to preserve dandelions! You can pickle dandelion buds or make this lacto-fermented dandelion soda (I am so excited about this recipe, I can barely stand it). Or make dandelion wine - here's a dandelion wine recipe roundup. And here is a treasure trove of dandelion preservation ideas, including dandelion jelly, dandelion vinegar and dandelion bud "capers." If eating preserved dandelions isn't your bag, make this dandelion salve to sooth your skin!
My Great-Grandmother's Sautéed Dandelion Greens with Hardboiled Eggs, Vinegar and Paprika
This is my great-grandma's recipe for dandelion greens (told to me by my grandma). My grandma says that her mom used ingredients that were easily available from their farm or their neighbors - like their own eggs and local cider vinegar. She also used home-rendered lard (they raised their own pigs) with cracklins, or bacon fat that had little bits of bacon still in it. Feel free to use either, or substitute olive oil. I used regular (Hungarian) paprika for this recipe, but using smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton) would be delicious, too. As a heartier addition, a slice of bacon, crisped and chopped up, would be excellent, or chopped, toasted walnuts (or both!). You can use commercially raised or foraged dandelion greens.
2 large bunches dandelion greens, washed and dried
1 tablespoon lard, bacon fat or olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 hardboiled eggs, quartered
1 teaspoon paprika
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)
This post was originally published in May 2013.