The Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is not from Jerusalem and it's not an artichoke. It's actually a wild perennial sunflower, native to the central United States, otherwise known as sunchoke.
Through hundreds of years of trading and cultivation by Native Americans, sunchokes have made their way throughout much of North America and they've put down tenacious roots.
So tenacious, in fact, that they're considered invasive in much of their modern range.
That invasive tenacity is due in part to the trait that makes them such a prodigious food source; extreme tuber production.
According to the University of Winsconsin-Extension, a single sunchoke plant can produce three to six pounds of tubers, which quickly spawn new plants the following season.
And the leaves and stems of sunchokes are alleopathic, which means they produce phytotoxins that prevent some competitive species from germinating.
The sunchoke's alleopathic properties also make it a good candidate for cultivation, since it may fend off weeds more easily than other species.
Native Americans introduced Jerusalem artichokes to early European settlers in the 16 and 1700s, which brings us to the name, Jerusalem artichoke.
The "Jerusalem" in "Jerusalem artichoke" is probably a corruption of "girasole" (the Italian word for sunflower), which is what European settlers called Helianthus tuberosus.
Another theory says "Jerusalem" was intentional, named by Puritans as they colonized their New Jerusalem in New England.
The "artichoke" in "Jerusalem artichoke" is derived from the tuber's similarity in flavor, as described by French explorer Samuel de Champlain when he sent samples to France in the seventeenth century.
And here's something weird about the name "sunchoke." Sunchoke is actually a registered trademark, coined by Frieda Caplan in 1965 as a name to market the "new" food through her wholesale specialty produce company.
It must have been an effective gimmick because sunchoke became synonymous with Jerusalem artichoke like Kleenex with facial tissue.
Sunchokes are large sunflowers that grow up to 12 feet tall.
Jerusalem artichoke leaves are ovate and can grow up to eight inches long and three inches wide. Both leaves and stems have a rough, sandpaper-like texture.
The yellow flowers are generally between 1.5 and four inches in diameter with 10 to 20 petals.
Sunchoke flowers bloom in August and September.
The roots are edible knobby reddish to white tubers with white flesh. They look a little like ginger roots but knobbier.
Unlike most root vegetables, Jerusalem artichoke tubers consist mainly of inulin (7 to 30% by weight) instead of starch and sucrose.
Inulin is prebiotic, which essentially means it's not actually digestible but it provides food for microbes in the intestines, so it encourages good gut flora.
Too much inulin also encourages flatulance, hence the common name "Jerusalem fartichoke."
The inulin in Jerusalem artichokes is converted to fructose after several frosts, which makes it more easily digestible for humans.
Fermenting (pickling) and cooking also helps convert the inulin to fructose.
Sunchokes also have a number of vitamins and minerals including niacine, thiamine, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. See nutritionvalue.org for more info on Jerusalem artichoke nutrition.
Sunchokes can grow in almost any kind of dirt, but well-drained alkaline (pH 7 to 7.5) fertile soil with lots of organic matter is best for maximum tuber production.
According to the USDA range map, Jerusalem artichokes occur in all of the lower 48 states of the U.S. except Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The best time to harvest sunchokes is around mid to late fall.
Do yourself a favor and mark the plants while they're blooming in late summer to early fall. Then, after a few frosts, dig the roots with a shovel or hori hori knife.
If you're gathering sunchokes from a garden or in similarly fluffy soil, use a digging fork to pry and loosen the tubers. Then sift through and pull them out with your hands.
Make sure to go deep, as you may find tubers as much as a foot or so down in the dirt.
Freezing weather converts the sunchoke's inulin to fructose which means waiting for a frost is key to ensuring a pleasant eating experience.
If you dig them too soon, they'll be harder to digest and you'll likely be treated to lots of unwelcome gas.
You can harvest Jerusalem artichokes through the winter until early spring.
Waiting until later in the season to dig will result in sweeter tubers.
Be careful not to gash the tubers when you dig unless you plan to use them right away. Bruised or cut tubers won't keep long and won't be good for eating or replanting later.
If possible, leave Jerusalem artichokes in the ground until you're ready to use them. This is easiest and best method of storing.
Where to buy
Jerusalem artichokes are fairly common in the produce section of grocery stores usually during the winter months.
You can also order them for planting from seed companies like Peaceful Valley.
If it's not convenient to leave them in the ground, you can keep Jerusalem artichokes in a paper bag in your fridge's crisper drawer for a week or two.
They'll last for months in ideal conditions of 95% humidity and temperatures just above freezing.
Clean sunchokes by rinsing off the dirt and scrubbing with a vegetable brush.
Cutting them up will make it easier to get the dirt out of all the folds and curves of the tubers.
The peel is perfectly edible but adds a bit of an earthy flavor, so peel them with a spoon if that doesn't appeal to you. :)
After cutting or peeling, the tuber flesh will darken, so eat or cook as soon as possible.
Cooking and eating
You can eat sunchokes raw or cooked. Be aware that it's really easy to overcook them and turn them into mush.
But cooking may be the way to go if have early-harvested tubers that are more inulin-rich and prone to producing flatulance.
The easiest way to eat sunchokes is to simply grate them raw onto a salad.
Or cut them into slices like water chestnuts. They actually taste a lot like water chestnuts and they have a similar crunchiness.
Sunchokes are also great for pickling.
Use your favorite refrigerator or fermented pickle recipe. Fermenting the tubers will help reduce the gas that can be common with eating Jerusalem artichokes, especially when they're harvested earlier in the season.
Slice a pound of cleaned tubers about 1/4 inch thick, cover with water, and boil for about ten minutes.
Then drain, let them cool a bit, and mash like potatoes. The longer you boil them, the sweeter they will get to a point. But keep in mind longer cook times will also reduce them to mush.
Then season with salt, butter, sour cream, and/or whatever you like in your potatoes.
You can also boil in lemon juice instead of water, which will help with the inulin gas issue.
We haven't tried making sunchoke flour but it's on our list. Here's an interesting article about making it and using it in pizza dough.
There are lots of other ways to cook them, like roasting, so just use your imagination. Once you find a good place to forage sunchokes, you'll have plenty of tubers to experiment with!