How to Eat Cattail

This post is a follow-up to the The Fantastic Four – 4 Essential Wild Edible Plants that May Just Save Your Life article. In this post I demonstrate how to process and eat one of the core four essential plants: Cattail.

Since I want to demonstrate it to you guys, I can only show you what’s available from the cattail in the fall/winter time (since right now it’s the fall/winter time…duh). I plan on adding to this article in the upcoming seasons to fully complete the food availability of this marvelous plant.

While there are a few other edible parts of the cattail in the fall and winter, the cattail’s best source of food during this time is the nutritious and calorie-dense starch found in the rhizomes (roots) underground. In today’s post I’ll be demonstrating how you collect, process, and consume the nutritious parts of this readily available wild plant.

Collecting the Cattail

Cattail is found throughout all of North America and much of the western hemisphere worldwide. It prefers to grow in wetland areas but you may as likely find it on the side of the road in a moist ditch. As I mentioned in the Fantastic Four: 4 Plants that can save your life article, it is often referred to as the supermarket of the swamp — and for good reason — as it provides nutritious (and may I add tasty) food through all four seasons.

During the colder seasons, be prepared to get a bit wet and cold. If you don’t mind the cold like me, you can go in barefoot, however it’s just as acceptable to strap on a pair of large waterproof boots and gloves and trudge through the muck to collect the cattail. Here’s the process:

  1. Correctly identify cattail: In the late seasons, cattail is pretty easy to identify. You’ll want to look for what looks like a hotdog on a stick. Sometimes that ‘hotdog’ or seed head will begin breaking apart looking like a bunch of fuzz at the end of a stick. Here’s some pictures for examples:

    Notice the hotdog on a stick

    cattail fuzz starting to form

    cattail fuzz starting to form

  2. Loosen up and pull out the rhizomes: Now that you’ve identified cattail, it’s time to march out into the muck to pull out the food. Most of the time you can’t just simply pull at the base of the cattail and out pops out a perfect rhizome. Instead, your best bet is to first loosen up the rhizomes before pulling the plant out.

    To do this, follow your hand down the stalk of the cattail until you reach the base. Then begin to guide your hand down from the base into the mud until you can feel one of the rhizome branches shooting out to one side. Here’s where you’ll pull and push the rhizome until it loosens up a bit. Do this with the other side and then grab the base of the stalk and puuullll. You should be able to pull out a good length of rhizome on each side of the base.

  3. Separate the rhizomes from the stalk: his is simply just cutting off the stalk so you’re only left with the rhizomes. Keep in mind that there are edible corms (the beginnings of next year’s growth) growing on the rhizomes and near the base. You’ll want to make sure to keep these as well since they are a good food source.
    Rhizomes (shown w/ cut stalk)

    Rhizomes (shown w/ cut stalk)

    Edible corm

    Edible corm

    Another example of the corms after the base of the stalk is clean

    Another example of the corms after the base of the stalk is clean

  4. Clean the rhizomes: After remove the rhizomes, try to clean them as best as possible before bringing them home (or to camp), since they are covered in mud. Most areas where you collect the cattail will have a body of water nearby. Just take the muddy rhizomes and clean them as best as possible in the water (you don’t have to be perfect here).
  5. Preparing the Cattail

    Now that you have a bunch of cattail rhizomes in hand, it’s time to process them into something that you can eat. Here are the steps:

    1. Clean thoroughly: You’ll want to do a thorough cleaning job making sure all the mud is off of the cattails. If the rhizomes look dirty even after the mud is off, it’s alright since they will be peeled in an upcoming step.
      Looks like giant insect legs huh?

      Looks like giant insect legs huh?

    2. Remove and peel the corms: The corms are the small shoots and stubs that are near the base of the cattail and on the rhizomes. These should be removed and peeled by hand to reveal the tender centers. If you want you can eat these raw at this stage or cook them.
      Fried in a little butter or olive oil, the corms taste great

      Fried in a little butter or olive oil, the corms taste great

      Here's a picture of the rhizomes (right), corms (lower left) and older corms/new shoots (upper left) - all edible an all very tasty

      Here's a picture of the rhizomes (right), corms (lower left) and older corms/new shoots (upper left) - all edible an all very tasty

    3. Peel the rhizomes: I like to use a sharp knife or a potato peeler. Peel it just like you would a potato to reveal the starchy center.peeled_rhizome

    Removing the Starch and Making the Flour

    The next step is to extract the starch from the peeled rhizomes. There are two ways of doing this:

    Rhizome breaking method

    The first and most common way is to break apart the rhizome in a big bowl of water, working it in your hands until the starch is removed.

    The water will soon turn a milky white and when left to settle for around 3 hours, you’ll be left with the thick saturated starch at the bottom and the light debris floating on the top.


    Milky water

    Starch settled to the bottom (after pouring off some water)

    Starch settled to the bottom (after pouring off some water)

    After pouring off the water and debris, take the white ‘pasty’ starch and lay it out on a flat surface to dry outside or in your oven (at the lowest temp) or in a dehydrator.

    Knife/Rock scraping method

    The second way (my favorite) is to scrape a sharp rock or a knife along the rhizome in a similar manner to squeezing a toothpaste tube from the bottom up. This will force the starch to be drawn out and it will collect on the knife or rock.

    You can either take this starch and lay it out to dry or stir it in a container of water so that the small fibrous ‘threads’ from the rhizomes float and separate from the starch.

    In the same manner as the previous method, after a few hours you can pour the water and debris off and lay out the remaining starch to be dried.

    Making the flour

    After the starch has dried sufficiently you can now grind it in a mortar and pestle or put it through a wheat grinder to get a finer flour-like consistency. This flour can be used in place of wheat or used in conjunction with wheat and other flours. See one of my favorite recipes below.

    Cattail flour after grinding and sifting

    Cattail flour after grinding and sifting

    Cattail Acorn Bread

    One of my favorite recipes is cattail/acorn bread. The cattail flour combined with the acorn flour from the How to Make Acorn Flour article make a tasty combination with a typical bread recipe:

    Water 1/2 cup
    Milk 1 cup
    Unsalted butter or vegetable oil 2 tablespoons
    Salt 1 1/2 teaspoons
    Sugar 2 tablespoons
    Wheat flour 2 cups
    Acorn flour 1 cup
    Cattail flour 1 cup
    Dry yeast 2 1/4 teaspoon

    To make the bread pictured below I used the above ingredients and threw it in a bread machine, set it to ‘basic bread’ mode and voila! 3 hours later I had some great tasting cattail/acorn bread.

    In a survival/primitive situation it’s a simple matter of taking the dough and throwing it on some hot coals from your fire for ash cakes — also surprisingly tasty!

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