Let me start by saying that even though spruce tips are a springtime treat in my neck of the woods, I’ve harvested them as late as August at 12,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. It’s less important what the calendar says and more important what the spruce tree says. If the tips of the branches are light green, soft, and flexible, they’re at the right stage for eating.
All spruce trees produce edible tips, as long as they haven’t been sprayed with something humans shouldn’t eat, like an insecticide. History tells of explorers staving off scurvy by drinking spruce needle tea, but most people seem to have forgotten that many evergreens are tasty as well as nutritious.
In early spring, spruce trees produce feathery new growth covered in brown, papery sheaths. If you pull off one of the sheathes, you’ll see young needles, just beginning to expand. Young spruce tips can be harvested from the time they emerge until they begin to stiffen. You’ll get more to work with if you wait until the tips expand a little, but the flavor is more intense when the tips are compact. As long as the dividing line between old and new growth is clear, both visually and texturally, you’re ok to harvest.
You’ll be able to pinch off the new growth with your fingers, no special tools required. Since harvesting the tips removes the current year’s growth, try not to take all your tips from one part of the tree. Walk around the tree, taking just a few tips from each section of the spruce.
Young spruce tips have a citrus-like flavor that complements both sweet and savory dishes. Use spruce tips to stuff chicken or trout; they add a unique, refreshing flavor to meat or fish. But don’t eat the needles whole; even young ones are tough to chew. Finely chop the spruce tips to use them in food or macerate them in water or alcohol to extract their flavor.
To make spruce sugar or spruce salt, add equal parts sugar (or salt) and spruce tips to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until the mix is finely chopped and thoroughly combined. Spread it out on a cookie sheet and allow it to dry at room temperature, then store your mixture in a jar. Sprinkle the spruce tip salt on root vegetables before roasting, and use the spruce tip sugar in spruce tip shortbread cookies.
Simmer a cup of spruce tips in simple syrup, then use the infused syrup to make a refreshing jelly, sorbet, or cocktail mixer. Infused in cream, spruce tips make a flavorful panna cotta or ice cream. Or, make your own spruce tip infused vodka or gin as a base for a woodsy cocktail.