18 December 2019

Why do parsnips taste better in winter?

The journey of this hardy root veg, from the soil to your Christmas dinner.

By Ellen McHale and Hélèna Dove

Parsnips in the Kitchen Garden

They're an iconic root veg at Christmas, but how do parsnips grow and why do they taste so good in wintertime? 

Parsnips have been cultivated since ancient times for their large fleshy white root. They were brought to Europe by the Romans, and have become a firm favourite in our British winter dishes.  

Parsnips, Kitchen Garden
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

From soil to plate 

We start growing these large roots in the springtime to get them ready for the festive table.

Once the soil has warmed up, usually April or May, we sow parsnip seeds directly into the ground.

Parsnips actually are one of the few crops we directly sow into the ground in the Kitchen Garden. Most other crops are grown first in our greenhouses before transplanting them to the soil.

But parsnips have a delicate root cap (the tissue at the tip of the plant root). If it's broken during transplanting, it causes the root to fork and stunts the growth of the parsnip. It's best to plant the seeds directly in the ground, so that the vulnerable root caps can stay snugly protected in the soil. 

Parsnips, Kitchen Garden
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew
Parsnips
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

They taste better in winter 

Did you know that parsnips are primarily harvested in winter because they taste better when the weather is cold?  

Once parsnips experience frost, they becomes sweeter and tastier. Stored starches in the parsnip are broken down and converted to sugar, which is why they have that delicious sweetness. 

This technique is actually the parsnip's defence mechanism against the cold weather because the sugar molecules make the water in the plant cells less likely to freeze.

For the best flavour, parsnips are harvested when they're a small to medium width in size, as larger roots tend to be woody and fibrous.

Parsnips, Kitchen Garden
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

Friendly with the radishes 

Parsnips tend to be slow to germinate, so in the Kitchen Garden we use an intercropping technique by sowing radishes between the parsnips seeds.

Intercropping is when you grow two different vegetables in the same plot, which means we can grow more vegetables in a single bed and use the space more efficiently. 

So there you have it; the reasons why parsnips taste so good and how we grow them in our Gardens. 

Parsnips
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden
Parsnips, Kitchen Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew
Parsnips

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