Looking for an interesting, perhaps novel, addition to the sweet potatoes or turnips you usually serve at Thanksgiving (or other holidays)? Consider Jerusalem artichokes—but with some caveats. Commonly called sunchokes or sunroots, these knobby-looking tubers in the sunflower family (hence the “sun” in the name) have a thin edible skin, crisp white flesh that turns creamy after cooking, and a flavor that has been described as earthy, nutty, and sweet. You might have spotted them at a farmers’ market from spring to fall, or even in your regular grocery store, as well as on some restaurant menus.
Bear in mind that the Jerusalem artichoke looks and tastes entirely different from the spiny-leaved and tender-hearted globe artichoke and is, in fact, an entirely different vegetable. It doesn’t hail from Jerusalem, either, but rather is native to North America, where it was a staple food of Native Americans, who introduced it to the pilgrims.
From iron to inulin
Jerusalem artichokes provide about 110 calories per cup, sliced, along with a range of nutrients—for instance, nearly 30 percent of the Daily Value for iron, 20 percent for thiamine, 18 percent for potassium, and 10 percent for vitamin C, plus nearly 3 grams of total fiber. But they may be best known for the type of fiber they contain: inulin. Besides helping to normalize bowel function and relieve constipation, inulin may, according to preliminary studies, help regulate the body’s immune system, enhance calcium absorption, and sustain beneficial intestinal bacteria while inhibiting pathogenic varieties.
Most of the research on inulin, however, has been in animals and test tubes; more studies are needed in people to confirm these and other proposed benefits. Inulin (from Jerusalem artichokes and chicory root) is also commonly added to processed foods as a fat substitute, which is why you might spot it in the ingredients list of such products as low-fat ice cream and yogurt, and which explains why those normally fiber-free foods have all that fiber listed on the Nutrition Facts label.
On the downside, inulin is also the reason why Jerusalem artichokes have picked up the unfortunate but fitting nickname “fartichokes.” Yup—eating too many of these tubers can have disconcerting side effects including bloating, abdominal cramps, and flatulence. The amount tolerated will vary from person to person, but if you already have a digestive issue, such as irritable bowel syndrome, you especially may want to limit your intake—or avoid them altogether, particularly raw. That’s because inulin remains undigested until it enters the colon, where it encounters bacteria that utilize it as a nutrient. Called colonic fermentation, this process produces not only the substances that give inulin its range of effects, but also a prodigious amount of intestinal gas.
Tips for preparation
If you love Jerusalem artichokes but not their downstream consequences, Harold McGee—the famed expert on food science and cooking—offers some suggestions in his book, The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore (1990), where he devotes an entire chapter, “Taking the Wind Out of the Sunroot,” to the topic. These include storing them in the refrigerator and boiling them, sliced, in a large amount of water for 10 to 15 minutes (discard the water afterward); you can then roast or sauté the precooked slices, or use them as is in soups, salads, or other dishes.
McGee also recommends adding a small amount of an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or cream of tartar, to the cooking water to prevent the tubers from turning an unappealing gray color. Far more effective for removing the inulin—but also far less practical—is to boil or roast Jerusalem artichokes (at low heat) for 24 to 48 hours. Whatever preparation method you choose, you might still be best off starting with a small serving (just a few forkfuls) to assess your tolerance before digging into a whole plateful. Keep in mind that it may take several hours or until the next day for any untoward reactions to become evident.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see 5 Unexpected Holiday Side Dishes.