When you go for a walk in the woods, do you glance around and consider which trees around you may have edible parts? Sure, you might identify maple trees as the source of the wonderful syrup that’s great on waffles and such, and there may also be nut-bearing trees in your area, but the average person wouldn’t look at an evergreen tree and think it looked delicious. Well, guess what? Those soft, delicate green tips that appear on spruce branches every spring aren’t just “edible”, they’re quite tasty, and can be used in several different ways!
If you decide to harvest spruce tips to cook or bake with, keep in mind that you need to remove their papery brown casings before using them, and it’s important to wash and dry them thoroughly too. Additionally, it’s best to try nibbling one before harvesting to make sure you like the taste, and then pick tips from several trees rather than taking all of them from a single conifer.
Raw, these tips have a lemony flavor that has a slight metallic tang along with the unique taste of fresh conifer. You can chop these up and add them (sparingly!) to salads, or mince them very finely and mix them with a bit of mayonnaise to spread on sandwich bread or add to tuna or salmon salad.
Pickled Spruce Tips
Tangy and lemony, these can be used just like capers: add them to sauces, dips, spreads, and marinades, or chop them and sprinkle them on a smoked salmon bagel. You can also use them instead of olives in a martini for a fun, unique drink.
What You’ll Need:
- 2 cups of light green young spruce tips, de-husked, rinsed and dried
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup vinegar (I like wine or champagne vinegar, but you can also use apple cider or rice wine vinegar)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 pint canning jars (sterilized by boiling, and kept in hot water ’til you’re ready to use them, along with their lids)
- Chopstick or wooden spoon with long, thin handle
Pull the jars out of the hot water one by one and pack them loosely with the spruce tips, allowing about 1/2 an inch of headspace.
In a small sauce pot, heat the water, salt, vinegar, and sugar until it’s boiling, and then pour the hot liquid into the jars, ensuring that the spruce tips are covered completely. Use a chopstick or spoon handle to release any air bubbles that might be trapped between the tips, then pull the hot lids and bands out of the water bath and seal the jars.
Let these jars sit overnight to cool, and you should find that the jars have sealed themselves. Often you’ll hear a popping sound as the lids are drawn downwards and the seal is formed, but do a thorough check of each jar to make sure the lids are indented. If any of them are still convex, or can be pushed up and down, the seal didn’t form properly: the pickled tips are still okay, but they’ll have to be refrigerated and eaten within a couple of weeks.
The jars that have sealed properly can be stored in your pantry for up to a year.
Spruce beer has been enjoyed for centuries, and even the Vikings enjoyed an alcoholic version thereof that they believed granted them fertility as well as strength in battle (not to mention helping to fend off scurvy during long sea voyages). This non-alcoholic soda version might not be quite that powerful, but it’s bubbly, delicious, and would undoubtedly earn Ægir’s seal of approval.
What You’ll Need:
An empty 2-liter soda pop bottle that has been washed and dried thoroughly (use soapy water first, then rinse thoroughly, rinse again with a water/vinegar mixture, and then either let the bottle dry in the sun, or use a hair dryer on low to get the inside as dry as possible)
- 1/2 a cup of chopped fresh, clean spruce tips
- Water (non-chlorinated)
- Powdered baking yeast
- Funnel (that has been washed and sterilized in boiling water)
- Ladle (also washed and sterilized)
- Colander or strainer
In a small sauce pot, combine the chopped spruce tips with 2 cups of water, bring that mixture to a boil, let simmer for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the flavor infuse for a few hours. Then, bring the heat back and simmer until its volume is reduced by half. Strain this mixture through a few layers of cheesecloth, squeezing it thoroughly to get all the liquid out.
Using your funnel, pour 3/4 cup of sugar into the clean, empty 2-liter bottle. If you’d like a sweeter soda, feel free to add a full cup. For a dry soda, add just 1/2 a cup instead. Then add a scant 1/8 teaspoon of the powdered baking yeast, and swirl the bottle to combine it. Keep the funnel in place and use your ladle to pour in the spruce-infused water. Swirl that around the bottle to help dissolve the sugar, then fill the bottle to the bottom of its neck with cold water and fasten the cap tightly. Shake the bottle to ensure all the sugar is dissolved, and then place the bottle on your counter, keeping it at room temperature.
Leave the bottle there until you can’t indent it with your thumb: the bottle should be hard and firm, like any commercial soda bottle you’d pick up at the grocery store. This can take anywhere from 24-72 hours, depending on the yeast you used. Once it reaches this firmness, place it in the refrigerator immediately so it doesn’t explode. Once it has chilled for a few hours, it’s ready to serve!
Spruce Tip Jelly
Ever since my mother-in-law made a batch of this jelly, I’ve been in love with it. The spruce-y, resin-like flavor is very subtle, and adds a really interesting note to any dish. I’ve paired it with peanut/almond butter in sandwiches to great effect, and it’s also lovely with smoked trout, and as a dipping sauce for crispy fried tofu.
The recipe is adapted from the one on Hitchhiking to Heaven, and is a 2-day process.
What You’ll Need
- 4 cups fresh, light green spruce tips (this is to make the spruce tip juice as described below)
- 4 cups sugar
- 1 package dry pectin
- Sauce pots (small and medium)
- Heatproof bowl
- 5 half-pint jars, sterilized (along with their lids and bands)
- Shallow stainless steel spoon
- Green or yellow food coloring *optional*
Day One: Preparing the Spruce Tip Juice
Rinse your spruce tips in cold water, then drain them, pat them dry to eliminate all moisture, and then chop them up a bit. You don’t want to chop them too finely or you’ll have difficulty straining them out lately.
Place the tips in a small sauce pot with 3 1/2 cups of cold water. Bring this to a boil and then remove from the heat. Transfer this mixture to your heatproof bowl, cover tightly, and let it sit at room temperature (or cooler) overnight.
Day Two: Making the Jelly
Sterilize your jars by boiling them in water for a few minutes, and then keep them and their lids/bands in hot water until you’re ready to use them.
Strain the spruce-infused liquid through several layers of cheesecloth into a large measuring cup, and pour 3 cups of that juice into a medium-sized sauce pot. Be sure that you only use 3 cups or the jelly won’t set properly. Since this jelly is almost perfectly clear, some people like to add a few drops of green and/or yellow food coloring at this point to add a subtle spruce-y hue to it.
Measure out 4 cups of sugar and set it aside.
Heat the spruce tip juice to medium and pour the contents of the entire packet of pectin into it, stirring constantly until it all dissolves. To avoid lumps, you might wish to use a whisk rather than a spoon. Next, increase the heat so you can bring the mixture to a rolling boil, and then add the sugar, stirring quickly.
Let the mixture return to a rolling boil and keep it there for 2 minutes, ensuring that you keep stirring the whole time. After the 2 minutes have passed, remove the pot from the stove and use your large spoon to skim the foam off. Once the foam is removed, ladle the hot jelly into your sterilized jars, and make sure that you leave 1/4 inch of headspace. Clean the rims with a damp cloth and secure the lids and bands.
Process the jelly in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes, then allow to cool and set.
This jelly really is delicious, and also makes a wonderful gift. If you’re planning to make more than 5 jars, it’s better to make multiple small batches rather than just doubling or tripling your amounts, as the measurements can interfere with proper setting.
Crisp and buttery, shortbread is a gorgeous treat that pairs beautifully with coffee or tea, and spruce-kissed shortbread brings a savory, evergreen note to this classic cookie. I adapted this recipe from the one on the Mediterranean Cooking Alaska webpage, and although I’ve made it with gluten-free flour with a pinch of xanthan gum rather than standard white all-purpose flour, it turned out spectacularly well.
When it comes to making shortbread, be sure that you don’t over-process the dough: it should be a little crumbly, but will stick together when rolled out. If you process it ’til it’s sticky and smooth, the texture of the cookies just won’t turn out right.
What You’ll Need:
- 1/4 cup fresh, clean, light green spruce tips (washed, drained, patted dry, and chopped finely)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup flour
- 1/2 cup butter (or Earth Balance)
- Food processor
- Parchment paper
- Rolling pin
- Baking sheet
Preheat your oven to 300 F.
Use your food processor to blend the spruce bits and sugar until they’re blended, then add your flour and process in little bursts until it’s all mixed uniformly. Be sure to use your spatula to catch any stray spruce bits or sugar that didn’t get mixed in.
Cut your butter into small chunks, add to the food processor bowl, and then process on low until the butter is distributed evenly and the dough is as mentioned above: still crumbly, but will hold together if you pinch it.
Place the dough onto a large piece of parchment paper and form it into a rectangular shape. Flour a rolling pin lightly and roll the dough until your dough rectangle measures approximately 6 x 8 inches. Cut this into even, cross-wise strips, and then cut in half lengthwise. You should have between 12 and 8 cookies, depending on how thick your cuts were. (You can also cut the shortbread into circles, wedges, or any other shape that you’d prefer: they don’t have to be rectangles.)
Use your fork to prick the top of each cookie a few times, and then use your spatula to move the cookies to a parchment-line baking sheet, ensuring there’s at least 1/2 an inch of space between them. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cookies have firmed up and are just starting to turn golden, but don’t allow them to brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before serving.
If there are any left after you’ve tried them, store the rest in an airtight container.
If you try any of these recipes and enjoy them, you can try some of the other fantastic wildcrafting recipes out there. So many tasty treats can be created from ingredients gathered in the great outdoors, but always make sure to do your research so you know exactly what you’re looking for, and how to identify it in the wild. With these recipes, you’ll get very similar results whether you use fresh spruce, pine, or fir tips (all are edible), but some other recipes may call for ingredients that have less-than-savory lookalikes.
When in doubt, go wildcrafting with someone who has a fair bit of experience, or buy your ingredients from a local forager or farmer’s market.
All photos via Shutterstock