A root vegetable, the parsnip is a member of the Umbelliferae family whose members include carrots, celery, chervil, fennel, and parsley. Parsnips are grown for their delicate tasting, carrot-like roots, which can grow up to 20 inches long and 3 to 4 inches across at the top. The smaller parsnips are preferable and more delicate in flavor than the larger ones.
Parsnips’ flavor is best in winter, when they are most abundant. Planted in the spring, they take a full three to four months to mature. Then, they are left in the ground until a hard frost occurs in late fall. The frost begins the conversion of the starches in the parsnip to sugars, giving parsnips their pleasantly sweet, nutty flavor. In fact, parsnips are one of the few vegetables that actually benefits from an early frost.
Parsnips served as a good source of starch for 4,000 years. They were cultivated during Roman times and were enjoyed for dessert with honey and fruit and in little cakes.
Their popularity continued through the Renaissance and well into the 18th century, parsnips were widely used in savory dishes such as stews, soups, and purees, as well as in puddings and bread. However, the parsnip’s status as a culinary star in Europe was challenged when the nutritional benefits of potatoes became widely known. Sadly, the poorparsnip never fully recovered its popularity. And although it has been in this country since the 17th century, it has never gained much prominence on American tables.
Low in calories, parsnips are rich in fiber, especially the soluble fiber pectin, which may lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Good amounts of vitamin C and the B vitamin folate are found in this subtle, sweet-flavored root vegetable, along with respectable amounts of thiamin, vitamin E, iron, and magnesium.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Parsnips in the National Nutrient Database.
A word on the "poisonous parsnips" myth: The folklore surrounding parsnips has generated some misconceptions about this root vegetable. One false notion attests that parsnips left in the ground over the winter are poisonous, which is ironic considering that parsnip growers leave the roots in the ground on purpose to enhance their flavor. It's probably not a good idea, however, to try to forage in the woods for wild parsnips. They contain furanocoumarins, natural plant chemicals that once absorbed by the skin and exposed to solar UV light can cause painful blistering (photodermatitis). Domestic parsnips don’t have this chemical.
How to Cook and Serve Parsnips
Learn how to peel, cut, and cook this sweet root vegetable, plus get six recipe ideas.
Types of parsnips
Parsnips range in color from pale yellow to off-white. Although they can grow up to 20 inches long, they are most tender when about 8 inches, roughly the size of a large carrot. There are many common varieties, among them the All-American, which is the most popular and is distinguished by its broad shoulders (tops), white flesh, and tender core.
How to choose the best parsnips
Very large parsnips are often over-mature, with tough, woody cores. The characteristic “broad-shouldered” shape is not a sign of overmaturity, but the wide top should taper smoothly to a slender tip. Parsnips should be firm and fairly smooth. Steer clear of parsnips with an abundance of hair-like rootlets. Also avoid parsnips with moist spots, and soft or withered parsnips, which may be fibrous. Irregularly shaped parsnips are acceptable, but wasteful, as you’ll have to trim away a good deal while preparing them for cooking.
Most parsnips are sold “clip-topped,” but if the leafy tops are still attached, they should look fresh and green. When buying parsnips in a 1-pound plastic bag be sure to take a close look at the vegetables through the wrapping. The bag may have fine white lines printed on it in an effort to enhance the appearance of the parsnips.
Sometimes you’ll find parsnips sold in a package of soup greens (a “soup bunch”), along with a carrot, turnip, some celery tops, or other greens. If you’re buying a parsnip for flavoring stock, it needn’t be in prime condition.
Published November 23, 2015