Milkweed pods are one of the stranger looking fruits out there. Milkweed itself pops out of the grass looking pretty typical, but as the season progresses, it takes on something of an extraterrestrial quality. It begins with the flowers. Milkweed flowers come in large clusters, like an over-sized Martian broccoli, the flowers popping into little pink stars. And then the pods are even stranger looking.
The seed pods of the milkweed plant, as seen below, look something like a fuzzy little squash, with appendages coming out at all angles. And then you split one open to find the tender seeds developing within that strange husk.
It is a bit of a strange plant, but it is a very versatile wild edible, able to work in the kitchen in place of all sorts of vegetables (e.g. asparagus, broccoli, and okra). And those pods are especially delicious fried.
Milkweed is best known as the food source of monarch butterfly caterpillars. It is also often considered to be toxic. I remember learning as a child that it was a clever adaptation of the monarch butterfly caterpillars to eat only this plant, as its toxic sap made them unpalatable to predators. We were taught to stay away from it as children. But it seems that there may have been some confusion there.
In fact, it seems that milkweed has really been the target of one person’s mistake and a massive smear campaign. Milkweed looks very similar to a plant called dogbane, which IS toxic. It appears that in the past there was a single guidebook in which dogbane was misidentified as milkweed and considered toxic, and its reputation just never recovered.
The opinions about the consumption of milkweed vary greatly, but it seems that those fears are greatly overblown. Some folks will tell you that to eat milkweed you need to boil it in several changes of water, but that seems to be a debunked idea. I can tell you from experience that I’ve munched in a number of ways without any trouble.
Some folks will tell you that it is good to eat so long as it is cooked, and that has been true with my experience. Be it steamed buds, milkweed capers, or these fried pods, no cooked preparation has given me any trouble.
But, like any foraging, you are responsible for your own decisions. Read up on the matter, make up your mind, and pay careful attention to your plant ID before eating anything wild. And if you have any doubts, try only a little bit at first–everyone responds to foods differently.
But I’ve served these fried milkweed pods to a number of folks who all loved them, so they can’t be too bad, right?
Fried Milkweed Pods
3 cups milkweed pods
¾ cup buttermilk
¼ cup cornmeal
½ cup flour
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
2-4 cups neutral oil for frying
Trim the stems from the milkweed pods and slice them crosswise into 1” segments, like okra.
When the pods are trimmed, you can start your oil over medium-high heat, while you are prepping the breading. You will fry at 350 degrees, so set a thermometer in your oil and keep an eye on it. You don’t need more than about 1-2” of oil in your pot/pan. And you can always add more oil midway through if you are making a big batch and need to reup.
Mix the flour, cornmeal, and spices in a bowl. Pour the buttermilk into another bowl, and set this all up next to the stove. I would also suggest putting out a plate with paper towels right now to drain the pods when they are done frying. Having your mise en place set up will make the whole process smooth.
When the oil gets close to 350 degrees, you can start prepping the first batch. Grab a bunch of milkweed pods, dip them in the buttermilk and toss them in the breading. Throw these immediately into the oil, being careful not to splash yourself. Add as many as you can without overcrowding the pan.
Fry the milkweed pods until they are crunchy and golden brown. When done, scoop them out of the oil and drain them on a plate covered with paper towels. Add a bit more salt when they are fresh out of the pan.
If you need to fry in multiple batches, just make sure you wait until the oil gets back up to 350 degrees before adding the second batch. Frying at too low a temperature can lead to a soggy, oily finished product.
Serve them with whatever you like to dip in, but you can’t go wrong with a classic ranch dipping sauce.