A Great Addition to Your Spice Cabinet

Words and Photos by Anna Marija Helt

Left: Young subalpine firs. Right: Subalpine fir needles.

You might have juniper berries and pine nuts in your culinary repertoire, but have you tried using fir needles? The scent and flavor are a crisp combination of citrus, mint, and, well, forest.

Related to pines, firs are distinguished by soft, flat needles that sprout individually from the stem and by cones that stick up rather than hang down. New Mexican species include white fir (Abies concolor), subalpine fir (A. lasiocarpa), and grand fir (A. grandis). Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menzii) also grows in New Mexico but is not a true fir. The botanical name Abies is from the Latin abire, to rise up. Indeed, some species of fir reach over two hundred feet. Firs are symmetrical like a classic Christmas tree, though those growing at tree line tend to be shorter and more crooked.

Indigenous cultures throughout the West value fir for food, medicine, ceremony, and household uses. For example, fir is employed for support during cold and flu season—a traditional use in multiple parts of the world. (For the nerdy among you, the needles contain vitamin C and other goodies such as apigenin, limonene, and polyprenols that may underlie—at least in part—this traditional usage.) Around the globe, fir and other evergreens represent everlasting life. In fact, Christmas trees, garlands, and wreaths evolved from the ancient use of fir and other evergreens on the longest night of the year to symbolize the approaching return of spring life.

Fir needles brighten savory or sweet seasonal recipes and can be enjoyed simply as tea. A few cautionary notes: Don’t ingest fir if you have conifer allergies. Don’t inadvertently harvest yew, a toxic evergreen commonly grown as a shrubby ornamental. Yew needles are similar in shape to fir needles but don’t share the distinctive Christmas tree / citrus scent of fir. And don’t use the needles from commercial Christmas trees, which might be sprayed with pesticides.

Without further ado, here are three ways to prepare fir needles.

Left: Fir-infused olive oil. Middle: Fir-infused sugar.
Right: Orange and fir needles for a fir-citrus cordial.

Fir-Infused Sugar

Fir-infused sugar can be substituted for regular sugar in holiday—or any day—baking. It’s also delicious in coffee or hot cocoa; in an icing, glaze, custard, or pudding; and as the topping for crème brûlée. A coating of fir sugar around the rim of the glass adds pizazz to seasonal cocktails.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh fir needles coarsely chopped

Instructions

  • Stir chopped fir needles into the sugar in a canning jar. Place a paper towel over the jar and secure it with the canning ring. This allows water from the needles to evaporate while preventing anything “extra” from landing in the jar. Infuse for 1 week, stirring daily to break up clumps. Strain the sugar through a fine mesh strainer to remove the needles. Store in a clean jar with a lid. Some folks like to blend the needles in for a lovely green color, but this results in the bitter components of the needles becoming part of the flavor.

Fir-Infused Olive Oil

Fir-infused olive oil is delicious drizzled on salmon, pork, lamb, chicken, and roasted vegetables. Try it in dishes for which mint is normally used, or combine it with vinegar and honey for a festive salad dressing.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces by volume fir needles
  • 8 ounces extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

  • Dry fresh fir needles out of direct sunlight for 1–2 days. Blend the needles and olive oil on medium high in a blender or food processor for 4 minutes. Pour the mix into a stainless steel bowl. Meanwhile, boil a pot of water, then turn off the heat before floating the bowl in the water for 30 minutes. After this warm infusion, remove the bowl from the water, cover the top with a paper towel, and let sit overnight. Strain through a coffee filter or paper towel and transfer the infused oil to a clean jar. Let it sit covered overnight to allow any residual water and debris from the needles to settle to the bottom. Carefully decant the oil or use a small baster to transfer it to a clean jar or glass bottle; don’t transfer any sediment. The oil is now ready to use and should smell pleasantly of fir and olive oil. Any off odors or excess cloudiness indicates spoilage.
  • If not using within two weeks, store the oil in the fridge, where it should last for a few months. To use, set it out of the refrigerator ahead of time to allow the solidified oil to liquify.

Fir-Citrus Cordial

A cordial is an alcohol extract of medicinal plants that is sweetened, usually with honey. Fruits and spices may also be added for flavor. For dosing, 1–3 teaspoons of the finished cordial are usually taken as is, in hot water as a “tea,” or even added to sparkling water in a fancy glass. Cordials can enhance marinades, bisques, baked fruit recipes, and many other dishes. For cocktails, this fir-citrus cordial is a great addition to such standards as the old fashioned, sidecar, gin and tonic, white russian, and—a seasonal favorite—eggnog. If cocktails aren’t your thing, consider adding a teaspoon of the cordial to hot cocoa.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup fresh fir needles chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh orange peel chopped
  • 2 cups vodka
  • 1/4 –1/2 cup honey

Instructions

  • Combine fir needles, orange peel, and vodka in a new jar washed with soap and hot water. Steep for 2–4 weeks in a cool spot (not the refrigerator). To improve extraction and prevent microbial growth, shake the jar daily. Strain, and add honey to taste. The cordial should last up to a year if stored properly in a cool, dark spot—though it’s usually used up long before then!

Enjoy your kitchen adventures with fir!

Anna Marija Helt

Anna Marija Helt, PhD, is a writer, microbiologist, and practicing herbalist in the Four Corners area. Through Osadha Natural Health and other organizations, she engages people with the natural world for their own well-being and that of the planet.