Why Ramps Are So Prized and Pricey—Chefs and Foragers Explain This Spring Delicacy
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What Are Ramps?
When and Where to Find Them
Few wild edibles incite a frenzy like ramps. But what makes them so sought-after by chefs, foragers, and home cooks alike? Is it their flavor or their rarity? This wild wonder only makes a fleeting appearance in the spring, leaving ramps vegetable fans in a state of longing throughout winter, summer, and fall. We talked to foragers and chefs to learn more about ramps, including where they come from, why they are foraged, and what they taste like—plus, how to make the most of them during their brief season.
Related: The Best Ways to Prep and Cook Asparagus
What Are Ramps?
Ramps (botanical name Allium tricoccum) are a member of the allium family which includes garlic, onions, and leeks. Unlike these other alliums, ramps are not cultivated. Also known as wild garlic, ramsons, and wood leeks, these alliums are prized perennials that grow wild in patches in moist, deciduous forests in the eastern part of North America.
"Ramps are foraged and hyper-seasonal," says Alan Bergo, a Minnesota-based chef and author of The Forager Chef's Book of Flora and the foragerchef.com blog, and host of the foraging TV show, Field, Forest, Feast. He adds that ramps check off several boxes for culinary pros and enthusiasts. "With the increasing interest in seasonal local foods, chefs want them on their menus, and more and more home cooks look forward to them each spring, just like asparagus and morels," he says.
The plant's wide, smooth green leaves are sometimes tinged with purple and feature scallion-like stalks with small bulbs at the end—but you may smell them before you see them! The aroma of ramps is notoriously pungent, powerful, and garlicky.
What Do Ramps Taste Like?
Ramps are distinctive. Ellen Zachos, foraging expert and author of The Forager's Pantry, The Wildcrafted Cocktail, and Backyard Foraging, says their flavor is "strong and delicious, like a combination of onion and garlic."
How to Store Ramps
Thankfully, ramps' signature scent can be contained in your fridge. "If you don't want the smell of ramps to take over your fridge, wash and dry them, then put them in a gallon Ziploc bag with a paper towel," says Bergo. They will last about three to four days—or longer if they were just foraged.
While ramp farms can be found in Europe, the primary mode for procuring ramps in the United States and Canada is foraging, says Tim Clemens, founder of Ironwood Foraging Co., which offers hands-on foraging workshops in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Still, you can't always plan that haul by your calendar. According to Clemens, the seasonality of many foraged foods relies on phenology or the timing of interrelated natural phenomena. "Ramps are a spring ephemeral, which means they thrive on the springtime forest floor before the tree canopy fully leafs out. So you'll have to gauge when this is in your area. In Minnesota, ramps are typically harvested in May and June, but in Ohio, you should look for them earlier in April," he says.
The Allure of Ramps
Ramps' foraged status underscores their allure, says Clemens. Foraged edibles, after all, are fresher, free of pesticides, and put you in closer touch with your food source. "If you're a forager, then you're harvesting food from the landscape like your ancestors, which is even more equitable than the popular farm-to-table movement," he says.
If you're not a forager, fear not: You can still get your hands on this green treasure at local farmers' markets and food co-ops.
How to Use Ramps in Recipes
When you are ready to cook ramps, clean them well, trim the ends, and strip off the outer layer (as you would with a scallion). Both the ramp bulb and the green leaves can be used. "I prefer the stronger flavor of the bulbs, but I also appreciate the flavor and color that the leaves bring to a dish," says Zachos. "I pickle the bulbs and use them as a garnish in a foraged martini. I dry the bulbs and leaves together, then grind them for a variegated wild garlic powder, and I use them in a skordalia, a Greek dish made with garlic and leftover bread or potatoes."
Bergo applauds this allium's versatility, adding that there's no substitute for the deep, earthy flavor. "Chefs love to cook with ramps because they taste incredible," he says. He sometimes makes the vegetable the main event, serving a plate of grilled ramps, or combines them with morels in spaghetti. "They're also easy to preserve if you make ramp pesto or ramp leaf butter. I also make them into condiments, like ramp Sriracha and vegan fish sauce," he says.
Safeguarding Wild Ramps
Like any wild thing, ramps need to be treated with respect. If the population of ramps is small in your foraging area, for example, consider taking one leaf from each plant and leaving the bulb intact in the ground. By definition, foraging is a responsible and sustainable practice, explains Clemens. "If your foraging isn't positively benefiting the areas you forage from, that's called poaching," he says.
Over-harvesting, a concern among some nature lovers, isn't necessarily an issue across the board. "In areas supplying metropolitan areas, ramps are being harvested at an unsustainable rate, but as a whole, the main threat to ramps is the destruction of their habitat through development," says Clemens. Still, with proper management, this allium proves to be hardy. "While they do have a long lifecycle, around seven years to set seed, they are capable of populating an area relatively quickly, especially with the assistance of knowledgeable foragers," he says. Thinning large patches by harvesting a few whole plants will also create open ground and improve the chances of seed germination and population growth, adds Zachos.
As alluring as ramps may be, there are tasty alternatives. Ramps lovers might consider making room on their plates for a close cousin, field garlic (Allium vineale), a rampant weed with a very similar flavor profile, says Zachos. "My guess is that most people couldn't tell the difference between a dish made with field garlic bulbs and a dish made with ramps bulbs," she says. Either allium is sure to deliver something we're all craving right now: a delightful taste of spring.