Last Updated on September 1, 2022
Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are fun perennial vegetables to consider growing in your garden or picking up at the farmers’ market. Here’s what to know about sunchokes and how to use them. But first of all, what is a sunchoke?
WHAT IS A SUNCHOKE?
So the name isn’t doing this cool vegetable any favors. I mean, other things with ‘choke’ in the name (black chokeberry, for example) are called that because they taste terrible without a lot of preparation. That’s thankfully not the case with this intriguing niche veggie.
Sunchoke’s name has an odd history (and nothing to do with choking). A marketer in the 1960s decided the name ‘Jerusalem artichoke’ wasn’t working for this unusual tuber and renamed it sunchoke as a nod to the plant’s relation to sunflowers.
Incidentally, ‘Jerusalem artichoke’ is also a very misleading name, as they also have nothing to do with Jerusalem or with artichokes. Apparently the name is a corruption of the plant’s name in Italian, girasole articiocco, so-called because of its resemblance to sunflower and taste similar to artichokes.
Sunchoke is the tuber of the plant Helianthus tuberosus, a perennial in the sunflower family native to North America. Sunchokes were brought back to Europe during the colonial period, and they’re now far more popular there than in the U.S. They’re also known as sunroot or earth apple. In France and Germany, they’re called topinambour and are often used to make a German schnapps called Rossler.
Sunchokes are knobby and covered with a papery layer than makes them slightly resemble ginger root.
They store extremely well and are tasty raw or cooked. (More details on that below.)
WHAT DO SUNCHOKES TASTE LIKE?
Sunchokes have a mild, nutty flavor and taste a little like water chestnut or jicama. They’re crunchy when raw and get softer than potatoes when cooked.
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT OF SUNCHOKES (& AN IMPORTANT CAUTION!)
Low in calories and high in fiber, Jerusalem artichokes contain decent amounts of potassium and iron, as well as smaller amounts of other minerals, according to this analysis from the USDA.
Sunchokes are considered an exceptional source of the gut-health boosting prebiotic inulin, which can be both a blessing and a curse. This insoluble form of fiber helps Jerusalem artichokes keep their low-calorie, low-carb status.
It’s also the reason for one of their less fortunate nicknames: Fartichokes.
Not everyone has this problem with Jerusalem artichokes, but it’s probably wise to start slow if you’re concerned about gassiness. Raw sunchokes are most likely to cause gas, so eat them in moderation. Some sources say that as your gut bacteria develop in response to the inulin, you build up a tolerance and can eat more at a time.
Cooked sunchokes may be less problematic, but it’s still a good idea not to eat a heaping portion at one sitting.
To reduce the impact of inulin in sunchokes:
Try cooking Jerusalem artichokes in an acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Or make pickled sunchokes and the lacto-fermentation process should help make them much more digestible. Plus you get all those great probiotics as you crunch!
If you’re growing Jerusalem artichokes yourself, wait to harvest till after a frost (or better still, several frosts) or ask at your farmers’ market whether they were dug after the frost, and you may find they give you fewer problems.
CAN YOU GROW SUNCHOKES / JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES?
Absolutely! Jerusalem artichokes are easy to grow, even in cold climates. Sunchoke is a tough perennial that grows well as far north as zone 3. Like their sunflower cousins, they grow long stalks, though the little flower that finally appears at the end of summer is far less showy than most sunflowers.
–>Be forewarned if you choose to plant some in your garden that they can be quite invasive, though they’re easily pulled out by their stalks. It’s best to have a dedicated area with a boundary to stop them, or you’ll be pulling them out of your garden patch forever. Tiny tubers missed will sprout whole new colonies!
If you want to plant Jerusalem artichokes, you can start with purchased tubers from the farmers’ market or natural foods store, which you’ll start seeing for sale in early fall. Plant a handful and you’ll have your own sunchoke patch in a season or two.
To plant, choose a sunny location in early spring. Jerusalem artichokes prefer loose, well-drained soil with a slightly acidic pH but do fine in poorer soils. They have a tendency to take over, so choose somewhere they won’t compete with other plants.
Plant tubers 4 to 6 inches deep and 12 to 18 inches apart. Rows should be 2 to 4 feet apart to allow for spreading. Mulch well.
Dig up the tubers starting in early fall. Some sources recommend waiting till after a frost, which may help temper their gas-producing abilities.
HOW TO COOK SUNCHOKES
Like so many other root vegetables, Jerusalem artichokes are delicious roasted, steamed, boiled, grilled, or fried.
♦ If sunchokes are new to you, start with a small amount of thin slices raw on top of your favorite salad or alongside other crudites.
♦ Roast with other root veggies. Just drizzle with olive oil, add a little salt, and roast till tender at 400 degrees. I like to add carrots, onions, and potatoes for a mixed roasted veggie dish rather than eating a big bunch of sunchokes at once. You can also use some black pepper or thyme if you like.
♦ Make a sunchoke chip by slicing thinly and tossing with olive oil and salt. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees until crispy.
♦ You can steam and mash sunchokes for a low-carb sub for mashed potatoes. Boiling is also an option, though they’re prone to getting mushy.
♦ Sunchokes might pose the least problems digestively speaking if cooked or soaked in an acid like vinegar or lemon juice. Try making a simple sunchoke pickle using your favorite pickle recipe.
Need more ideas for using Jerusalem artichokes? Stay tuned for a round up of the best-looking sunchoke recipes coming soon. Sign up for our newsletter and get the recipes delivered right to your inbox!
CAN YOU EAT SUNCHOKE SKIN?
Yes, sunchoke skin is edible, like potato skin. Don’t bother peeling and save yourself a ton of prep work, while keeping the additional nutrition.
Like many root vegetables, sunchokes are excellent storage veggies. They can keep for months in the fridge if you leave the dirt on and store them in a plastic bag. Some sources recommend using paper towels as well, though mine have always kept well through the winter in nothing but a bag.
Washed Jerusalem artichokes will not last as long and should be used within a week or two.
They will store best in high humidity and low temperatures (32 to 34 Fahrenheit). If you live somewhere where the ground doesn’t freeze (lucky you!), you can harvest them as needed throughout the winter.
Save this info on Jerusalem artichokes for later!
What is a sunchoke photo credits: chengyuzheng, electricspace, Mykola Lunov
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.
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