To Sunchoke Or Not To Sunchoke

Lovely, prolific, hardy.

Lovely, prolific, hardy.

Life is full of big decisions.

Profess your love or play it cool? Over easy or sunny side up? Argue or let it go? Leave everything behind for what might be the big break? Speak your mind or pretend it doesn’t matter?

There’s another big decision you might be making. Grow sunchokes or avoid sunchokes?

It doesn’t seem like such a big decision, but it is.

I was drawn into the sunchoke question a few years ago. I’d been reading about health problems linked to inflammation. It’s a scary list that includes asthma, allergies, arthritis, auto-immune disorders, osteoporosis, heart disease, depression, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. If that’s not enough, inflammation is also a key factor in skin aging and other outward signs of aging. There are all sorts of things you can do to combat inflammation. Things like being physically active, eating a Mediterranean diet, flossing daily, and getting adequate sleep (not easy for insomniacs like me). It also helps to include sources of inulin (not insulin!) in your diet.

Inulin is a soluable dietary fiber. It brims with naturally occuring oligosaccharide (linked sugars) that belong to the class of carbohydrates known as fructans. Unlike most carbs, inulin isn’t digestible. It ferments (a sort of intestinal home brew), boosting healthy intestinal micro flora but not your blood sugar.

A great source of inulin happens to be the sunchoke. In the world of inflammation prevention it’s called a prebiotic, basically an eager cruise director of healthy gut flora.

So I grew some.

I didn’t know at the time that the sunchoke is a member of the sunflower family. It is.

sunchokes 1

A huge, prolific member of that family. These plants are nearly 8 feet tall.

sunchokes 2

The few tubers I planted turned into a veritable forest, tall stalks topped with cheery yellow blossoms waving in the slightest breeze.

Sunchoke-related advice 

First off, these are powerfully prolific plants. Don’t grow them where you don’t want them to keep growing. If you’re afraid you’ll be screaming with sci-fi horror, “just make it stop,” then don’t plant them anywhere you can’t mow. Because mowing, maybe a few years of mowing, is really all that will stop them. (Unless you’re a Round-up sort of person. I’m pretty frustrated with you people for all sorts of reasons.)

Second, I haven’t seen anything written about this but sunchokes seem to have a very positive effect on the soil. I planted them in a section of our back garden that was mostly clay. A few years back we’d amended the soil with some well-seasoned cow poo contributed by our cattle pals, but it was still hard with broad orange streaks of clay. After two years of growing sunchokes, that same patch is loose, friable, and teeming with worms.

Third, these babies last all winter. You can harvest them through the holidays, into the last days of winter, maybe even into early spring if you’ve had heavy snow cover without a thaw. Right now it’s April and I’m digging up sunchokes. Most of them at this point aren’t for us, they’re cattle fodder, but still useful.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, these tubers are commonly known as Jerusalem artichokes. They’re not artichokes nor are they from Jerusalem. They’re also called by another name you should know: “fartichoke.” That’s because the tuber’s health-promoting insoluble fiber gives some people gas. Prolific, propulsive gas.

Still harvesting sunchokes in April.

Still harvesting sunchokes in April.

Tips for easier sunchoke digestion

Don’t harvest sunchokes until after the first hard frost. And then, harvest only what you need and use them while they’re still firm.  Sunchokes happily stay fresh and firm under the snow all winter so you can dig out a few as needed. (Unless the ground is frozen solid. We dug up more in March and early April than we did December to February.)

The first few times you eat them don’t eat too much. They’re tempting little devils when sliced thin and fried into Sunchoke Chips (or Paleo Fries.) Take a few bites and stop. Think of them like beans. If you don’t eat them often your gut may not have enough We Handle This Particular Fiber bacteria. Give your microbiota time to handle the challenge with small regular sunchoke doses.

Avoid eating them raw. There are lots of recipes telling you to add them to salads (just like jicama!) but don’t. Just don’t.

Make them into sunchoke pickles or naturally fermented sunchoke pickles. Apparently fermentation eases the digestion problem too.

Roast em!

Roast em!

Some culinary thoughts on the wonderful versatile sunchoke

Remember, don’t harvest until after a frost or two because cold sweetens the tubers.

Only harvest what you can use in the next day or two. Stored too long they get discolored and lose their firm texture.

Sunchokes are fascinatingly convoluted. No need to peel. Snap or cut them apart so you can clean all the crevices, then scrub with a brush meant for potatoes.

Sunchokes hide nicely in all sorts of dishes and seem to be trendy the last few years.

Sunchokes oxidize when exposed to air, just like apples or eggplant. To prevent this, use right after cutting or toss with an acid like lemon juice or red wine before cooking. There are a bunch of other fascinating tips for preparing sunchokes here — one of my favorites is a pointer about preventing sunchokes from turning gray when pureed or made into soup (their high iron content causes this to happen): again they suggest that you add a pinch of cream of tartar or an acidic liquid (like lemon juice) to the sunchoke cooking water.

They qualify as paleo as well as low carb by most reckonings.

Make them into soup, crisp them in a pan with prosciutto and mint, toss them with fettuccine, crust them on fish, serve them roasted with chicken, hide them in garlic mashed potatoes.

Sunchokes are great roasted. I like to cut them up along with onions, potatoes, mushrooms, and Brussels sprouts or cauliflower. Drizzle with good oil and roast in a hot oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Halfway through, toss in a handful or two of whole garlic cloves–making sure the cloves are covered by oil so they don’t burn. Yum.

They’re great in soups. Add a sunchoke or two to nearly any soup recipe, cook thoroughly, and enjoy.

Parboil them, then add them to other recipes. They’re particularly good in potato dishes, plus all that fiber counterbalances a potato’s high glycemic index (if you worry about such things).

They’re also not easily detected (by taste) if you want to toss them into a recipe. Thoroughly boil a few sunchokes, whirl them in the blender, and you’ve got a puree you can add to everything from smoothies to pancakes.

Resist the urge to impose sunchoke-heavy dishes on unaware diners, although it’s tempting when you’ve required to bring something to that company potluck you dread. Well, unless you really wanted to change jobs.

Sunchokes fit in nearly every recipe.

Sunchokes fit in nearly every recipe.

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is the author of four books and served as 2019 Ohio Poet of the Year. She's the editor of Braided Way: Faces & Voices of Spiritual Practice. She works as a book editor, teaches writing workshops, and maxes out her library card each week.
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12 Responses to To Sunchoke Or Not To Sunchoke

  1. Thanks so much for sharing…
    Your comment about fartichoke-containing dishes being a potluck option had me giggling so hard my kids asked what I was reading that was so funny. I restrained myself and just shook my head. I don’t want to even consider what they’d do with that knowledge. 🙂
    Your post is a pleasure for many reasons, as always.

  2. katechiconi says:

    Grow them in tubs or potato sacks and they’re perfectly well behaved in the garden. But nothing will stop them producing gas…. I find them delicious, but in small quantities!

  3. Margaret says:

    A great post, again! I was bemoaning the fact that I don’t have room for something to take over, and now see the comments about containing them in a tub or potato sack. Love it! Thanks for this wealth of info (and I’m always thrilled to discover yet another thing to roast – yum!).

  4. Bill says:

    We tried growing sunchokes once, and failed. I don’t remember why. But now I’m inspired to give it another go. I’m especially interested to see that they improve clayey soil. We could certainly use some of that. Thanks for the great info!

  5. Amy says:

    I have planted sunchokes for a few years now. If there is no sign that they are coming back up but the temperatures are staying around 60-70s during the day and 30-40s at nights (and there is no sign yet of them sprouting from the ground) can they still be eaten during this time of year? I just wasn’t sure if that was safe or not?

    And if I do dig them up now, is there signs I should look for that will tell me if their edible or not? Thanks!!!

    • They’re a long way from being ready in April. They’ll probably erupt from the ground before mid-May, depending on where you live. There are three distinct phases to look for. First they’ll sprout, growing as tall as six or seven feet. Then they’ll bloom, the sunflower-like blossoms showing you they’re indeed in the sunflower family. And then the leaves will start to yellow and wither away. The tubers aren’t ready to dig up until the leaves are dead or at least dying. Dig only what you need. And for the absolute best flavor, don’t dig them until after the first good frost in your area. The cold sweetens them and those altered sugars supposedly make them easier to digest too!

      • Amy says:

        Hello! Thanks for answering. I am talking about last year’s harvest that is still in the ground. They grew last year, and the flowers wilted and died. I just wanted to know if they were still edible this time of the year or will I have to wait till the end of the year for this year’s crop. Sorry for the confusion.

  6. Oh, sorry for the misunderstanding.

    At least here, our sunchokes are good through most of the winter. When the temps have stayed steadily at or below freezing I’ve harvested as late as March for our consumption, April for livestock. Most winters, however, the tubers become discolored and progress to mushy. Naturally, not edible at that point. You can leave them in the ground, they’ll sprout new plants from the old tubers.

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