What Is a Parsnip and How Do You Use It?

A cousin to the carrot, these overlooked root vegetables are seriously sweet. 

parsnips on white cloth background
Photo: Jennifer Causey/Meredith

What Is a Parsnip?

Parsnips are root vegetables closely related to carrots and parsley, all of which belong to the Apiaceae family. It has a cream-colored skin and flesh and a long, tapered taproot like that of a carrot.

Native to Eurasia, Parsnips have been cultivated since the time of the Romans. Like many root vegetables, they are harvested from fall through spring. Those harvested in the spring tend to be the sweetest because the starches convert to sugars during their winter hibernation.

Parsnips vs. Turnips vs. Carrots

carrots, parsnips, beet, and turnips on white background
Andy Lyons/Meredith

Turns out the difference between parsnips and carrots has been a source of confusion for thousands of years. It is believed that the Romans were the first to cultivate parsnips, but they were classified as carrots, making their origin a little murky.

Both parsnips and carrots come from the same family, but where they differ most is their flavor. Parsnips have a sweeter, licorice-like taste with a hint of spice to them, as opposed to the carrot's sweetness that is more reminiscent of other types of winter squash.

Turnips are another root vegetable that is often compared to parsnips, but the two are from completely different families. Turnips come from the Brassicaceae family, which also includes cabbage and mustard greens. They have a much more round, squatty shape and a pinkish-purple crown. In terms of flavor, turnips have a more bitter, spicy flavor as opposed to the sweetness of parsnips.

Parsnip Taste

So just how sweet are parsnips? Before sugarcane became widely available, Europeans used parsnip as a sweetener. It has a sweet, nutty flavor with some peppery and earthy notes, and it only becomes sweeter when cooked.

Parsnip Benefits

Parsnips are rich in vitamins and minerals, specifically vitamin K, vitamin C, and folate, as well as antioxidants, all of which can add in immune support, digestive health, and weight loss. Plus, they're low in calories and a great source of fiber — they actually contain more than twice the amount of fiber of turnips!

How to Cook Parsnips

cast iron skillet with roasted parsnips on marble countertop

Let's start in the produce aisle: You should avoid large parsnips, as these have a woodier core that can be tough and fibrous. Go for straight, small parsnips instead.

To prepare parsnips, start by cutting off the tops and bottoms as you would with carrots. The best flavor is right below the skin, so if you choose to peel, be careful not to remove too much. Otherwise, just give them a good scrub.

Like most root vegetables, parsnips take well to so many cooking methods, including roasting, sautéing, braising, mashing, and pureeing for soup.

Favorite Parsnip Recipes

Looking for some recipe inspiration? These parsnip recipes have been vetted and approved by home cooks.

What Is a Good Substitute for Parsnip?

Parsnips can usually be found at supermarkets or farmers' markets, particularly during the fall and winter months. But if you find yourself without, I bet you can already guess what the best substitute is: carrots! Although the two have a slightly different flavor, they are still cousins and have a similar size, shape, and texture, as well as a mild sweetness.

How to Store Parsnips

Remove the tops from the parsnips and discard before storing. If you don't have a root cellar, store unwashed parsnips in a cool, dark place such as an unheated basement or garage. If those aren't viable options either, wrap them loosely in a plastic bag and store in the fridge for 2 to 3 weeks.


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