You’ve probably already heard about the billions of Brood X cicadas that will soon emerge from the ground across the eastern US. Even if you haven’t, you’ll definitely hear these loud bugs trying to find mates. Now hear us out: Eat them.
We’re serious. People who’ve tried them say cicadas are an extremely versatile and tasty ingredient. You can fry them, roast them, pulverize them, or even eat them raw, as if they were oysters.
If you’re new to entomophagy—also known as eating bugs—you can inconspicuously add chopped-up cicadas to your favorite dish, or grind them and add them to your smoothies for some extra protein.
There’s a lot to explore when dinner is served right in your backyard.
Why eat cicadas
The meat industry is known for being utterly inefficient and harmful to the environment. Raising cattle requires a lot of space, water, and other resources that make this business responsible for at least 20 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Finding alternative protein sources is a challenge we need to face as a species, especially in the context of climate change, and insects can help us. Depending on the species, bugs can have up to twice the amount of protein as beef (by weight) and 1.5 times the amount as fish and poultry. Also, they don’t need as much space, food, or water as cattle, making them way more efficient.
In every sense, insect protein seems to be a better alternative to animal protein. But even though people around the world have been adding bugs to their meals for centuries, there’s still a huge cultural hurdle many of us must overcome before we normalize entomophagy. That’s especially true in western countries where insects are seen as pests, not food.
How to collect cicadas
These thumb-sized insects will come up for air as soon as ground temperatures reach around 64 degrees Fahrenheit, which is due to happen in mid-May, depending on where you are. The up-to-100-decibel buzzing will follow shortly thereafter, likely lasting through late June.
During that time, you can roll up your sleeves and pick up some cicadas for a nutritious snack.
Location, location, location
If you live in one of the 15 states where Brood X will emerge, you’ll probably see these insects flying around anywhere vegetation has found space to grow. But if you’re looking to eat them, you’ll have to be a little more discerning.
“If I’m walking down Main Street and there’s a bunch of cicadas, I probably won’t feel so good about collecting them there,” says Joseph Yoon, a chef, the founder of Brooklyn Bugs, and an entomophagy advocate. If you’re not careful, you could end up eating pesticides, dirt, small bits of litter, or even someone else’s spit.
The best places to pick up cicadas are more secluded areas that have not been treated with pesticides, fertilizers, or other chemicals. These could include your own backyard or a spot in the countryside you have access to. You don’t need a perfectly organic piece of land, though. Gardening chemicals are not automatically bad, so asking somebody who knows about any such substances in the soil will help you decide if you feel comfortable eating from that area.
[Related: You should start eating bugs. Here’s how.]
You should also consider that cicadas molt. When they first emerge as nymphs, cicadas are soft and have no exoskeleton. This changes as they climb trees, turn into adults, and shed their casing. This also means that any external part of the cicada that might have been in contact with polluted soil is discarded, minimizing the risk you might ingest something toxic.
Finally, if you’re thinking about hitting your local park to get dinner, make sure it’s not against the law. In most public green areas throughout the country, you’ll need a permit to harvest, forage, or collect anything from plants to bugs.
Timing is everything
The different stages of a cicada’s life cycle will determine what type of food you get and how you can prepare it. Think of it as the difference between eating an egg or a chicken thigh.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot some cicadas as they emerge from the ground. But don’t pick them up just yet, says Yoon.
“If you wait a day or hours after, they’re going to molt. And yum! They’re going to be a delicacy,” he says.
Freshly molted cicadas will be clean, smooth, and soft. At this stage, the earlier you catch them, the better, as they’ll lose muscle mass the older they get. The window of opportunity to get fat, juicy cicadas at this stage is narrow though, so you’ll need to monitor the ground temperature regularly, and observe what these red-eyed bugs are up to.
If you miss your chance, you can always collect adult cicadas. They’ll be flying around, singing, and calling for mates. It’ll just be a matter of catching them mid-flight or waiting for them to bump into you.
After they mate, male cicadas will die and fall to the ground. You might think this is the best time to pick them up, as they have already fulfilled their destiny and are literally just lying there, looking like a snack.
Unfortunately, unless you actually witness a cicada’s last chirp, there’s no way to know how long the bug has been dead, and therefore, how decomposed it is. Just as you would not eat a flattened squirrel off the roadside or a dead deer you found in the woods, it’s a good idea to stick to living insects.
Cicadas are harmless, so there’s no need to cover your face or hands for safety. If you feel uncomfortable handling them with your bare skin, though, latex gloves are a good choice, as you won’t lose any dexterity and will be able to easily pick up your bugs.
The main risk cicadas pose is to your ears. They’re loud. So loud, in fact, that the sheer volume of their song is comparable to that of a lawn mower. Ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones will help, and will hopefully prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by the swarm of bugs.
You should also be aware of other crawlers out there. Tick season seems to have come early in some parts of the east, so make sure to wear your socks over your pants and cover your arms to prevent these bloodsuckers from digging into you.
Mosquitoes may also be an issue where you live. If you choose to fight them with bug repellent, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly and wear gloves when you hunt your cicadas. You are, after all, handling food. The last thing you want is for any of that chemical bug spray to make it to your plate.
Whether you’re picking cicadas off tree trunks or using a butterfly net to catch them, you’ll want to stash them in a paper or fabric bag. This will prevent them from suffocating, which causes unnecessary stress and the release of chemicals that may affect their flavor, explains Yoon.
You’ve got your cicadas. Now what?
This is the hard part. Now that you’ve collected your cicadas, you’ll have to kill them. Just as you would with any other animal, you should respect the life that you’re taking and be as quick and gentle as possible to give the insects a humane death.
In the field, Yoon suggests bringing a cooler filled with ice to store cicadas. The temperature probably won’t be low enough to kill the insects, but it will numb them enough so you can easily handle them.
Once you’re home, take them out of the cooler and put them in a row over a baking sheet. Then store them in the freezer for a couple of hours. This, according to Yoon, is one of the best ways to euthanize an insect, and it’s used by cricket farmers all the time.
[Related: Why aren’t we eating more bugs?]
If you’re wary about having loose cicadas in your freezer, you can put them in a plastic container. Don’t wash them before you do, though. If they move, they will clump up.
An alternative to this is to blanch them as you would a lobster. This means killing your cicadas by submerging them in boiling water for two minutes. After you’re done, place your cicadas in rows on a baking sheet and let them cool down to room temperature.
The upside to boiling is that once your insects are dry, they’ll be good to go, as the heat will have also killed any undesirable bacteria.
From here on out, what you do with your cicadas is up to your imagination. Yoon says the best way to try them is to incorporate them into your favorite food.
“Sometimes people think they should make a completely new dish using a completely new ingredient. Why not just go for the low-hanging fruit?” he says. Make sure you create a lot of flavor using ingredients you’re already comfortable with. This can make the difference between a dull snack and a meal that will blow your mind.
If you love lasagna bolognese, for example, chop up your fresh cicadas and make a bolognese sauce with insect protein. If you feel weird about eating insects, you can pluck their wings and legs and chop off their heads for a smoother texture.
Yoon suggests adding a lot of aromatics, including herbs, onions, garlic, and butter. If you’re using veggies, sweat them in some fat, lower the heat, and add the cicadas at the end. No matter the technique you’re using, high temperatures for long periods of time will give the bugs a bitter burnt-toast flavor. You definitely want to avoid that.
If you’re not afraid of a little crunch, you can fry your cicadas just as you would fry shrimp. Set up your oil of choice and carefully drop your bugs in for a couple of minutes. Make sure not to overdo it.
You’ll also need to be careful when you’re roasting them. Put your cicadas on a baking sheet and in the oven at 225 degrees Fahrenheit, for 10 to 15 minutes, Yoon says. When they’re done, get them out and wait until they cool off. You can eat them fresh from the oven as a snack, or you can chop them and integrate them into your favorite dish. You can also grind them and combine them with coarse salt and herbs to make your own spice mix.
The best part about this technique is that once they’re roasted, your cicadas are shelf-stable. This means you can put them in a jar and store them for more than a year without them going bad.
Finally, if you prefer to eat insects without noticing you’re eating insects (which is totally OK), you can use a blender to turn your roasted cicadas into protein powder. You can bake with it, add it to soup bases, or even put it in a smoothie for some extra nutrition.
If you need more inspiration, visit a site like the University of Maryland’s Cicada Crew, which has a lot of resources, including a cookbook. And once you get a taste, you have 13 to 17 years to figure out what you like and plan your next cicada-centric meal.