What Are Ramps? How Do You Cook Them?
Southern states are home to dozens, even hundreds, of indigenous plants that have fed the people who call these rolling hills, expansive plains, and marshy bottoms home for centuries. Whether out of necessity or curiosity, many plants that might look otherwise mundane are deeply entrenched in the region's food traditions.
One such example is ramps. Ramps are native to the woodlands of North America, including the U.S. and Canada. They grow in shady spots beneath the towering pines, oaks, and maples and in mountainous nooks and crannies.
Ramps have become a bit of a culinary darling in recent years. Chefs in cities far from the quiet hollers where they're harvested seek out these humble plants for a splashy restaurant presentation. Unfortunately, this attention is having a big impact on ramps' availability and future.
Here, learn from a forager why ramps are so delicious, why they're worth seeking out, and what can be done to make sure future generations can try this food for themselves.
What Are Ramps?
Ramps are a wild onion. They are part of the allium family, which includes garlic and onions. That makes them a cousin to leeks, scallions, and shallots.
Ramps look a bit like scallions, with green shoots that come up from the ground, but they often have purplish stems and wide, broad leaves. The stalks and leaves are edible, and they're versatile across a number of recipes and dishes.
"Ramps are a native plant found in moist, rich woods in the Appalachian mountains from North Georgia to Maine and in parts of the Midwest," says Chris Bennett, a forager in Brevard, North Carolina, and author of Southeast Foraging.
The leafy onions are considered a spring delicacy, as they are typically among the first green shoots of life after winter. In some places they will show in early to late March, with the season peaking in May.
Harvesting ramps has been a tradition in many parts of the South, especially in Appalachian regions like Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia. There are several ramp festivals held in West Virginia in early spring.
In some places, ramps are called wild leeks, ramsons, or wood leeks. They may also be called spring onions, but be sure to clarify if what you're buying is scallions or ramps, as that name is often used to describe both plants.
What Do Ramps Taste Like?
As their food relations might suggest, ramps taste like a cross between onions and garlic. Some say they are more pungent than garlic, which has earned them the name "little stinkers."
Bennett suggests another interpretation: "They taste like a garlicky leek."
If you're averse to these strong flavors, cooking the ramps will help mellow out the plant slightly, and the green leafy tops are milder than the purple or white stems and bulbs.
How to Cook Ramps
With ramps, the secret to cooking success is in simplicity. In other words, you don't need to fuss too much.
Ramps can be eaten raw, like green onions or scallions, but they're frequently cooked down, like leeks. While they aren't as hardy as leeks, the leaves are much more resilient to heat than the delicate shoots of chives or scallions, so don't be afraid to add some to a stir-fry or side of sautéed greens.
Sliced or chopped ramps would also be delicious in pasta dishes or rice recipes. Stir some into scrambled eggs, or serve over top a baked potato or fried potatoes.
Killed lettuce, another springtime Appalachian favorite, calls for ramps. The hot bacon grease dressing will delicately wilt the stems and leaves for a special dish you'll grave for the 49 weeks of the year you can't eat it.
"There are so many different ways of cooking ramps, but I love to chop the leaves like chives and add to cornbread," Bennett says.
When in doubt, use ramps as you would scallions or chives. The extra-strong kick of flavor will be a welcome change from those milder green toppers.
Where to Buy Ramps
Some foragers and farmers will harvest wild ramps and sell them at farmers' markets, but you can expect to pay a high price tag. You may also have to compete with local restaurants who want the prized picks for their menus.
Ramps can sometimes be found through specialty produce markets or online retailers. They're sold in small bundles, and you can expect to pay $10 or more per bundle in most places.
Before you plop down an Alexander Hamilton, however, be sure the ramps you are buying are fresh and vibrant. Check for wilted leaves and a rich, dark green color. If you see any wilted or black spots, those ramps are too old.
Commercial growers are a better alternative if you can locate one. These producers now grow ramps in cultivated farms or specialty growing houses so they can be sustainably produced season after season. These, too, will fetch a pretty penny, but you can rest assured your plate of greens won't have killed off an entire ramps patch.
Why Are Ramps so Scarce?
"Ramps are becoming harder and harder to find because people will wipe out patches of ramps by pulling up every ramp they find," Bennett says. "They take seven years to grow, and that's why sustainability is paramount. In many areas of the country, ramps were once rampant, but not anymore because of overharvesting."
Conservationists encourage foragers and ramp hunters to leave the ramp bulbs and roots in the ground. The roots run deep and are intertwined, so pulling up just a handful of ramps could have an impact on a large area of the plants.
Instead of pulling the whole plant from the ground, they ask you to use a sharp knife or shears to cut the ramp just at the ground, leaving behind most of the bulb and the attached roots. This will allow the the plant to grow back, and the ramps patch will be able to continue producing perennially.
The growing season for ramps ends as quickly as it begins. Most patches will spring up and fade within three weeks, so the hunt for these spring blooms is often fast and furious. Not everyone approaches ramp harvesting with the necessary care and caution.
What to Know Before You Forage for Ramps
If you'd like to harvest ramps, it's important you understand what you're looking for Some look-alike plants, like Lily of the Valley, may fool you.
"Always be one hundred percent sure of what you are eating before you eat it, and know what poison ivy looks like," adds Bennett, who shares his foraging experiences on Instagram @foragerman.
When in doubt, ask local guides for tips on spotting and finding healthy ramps patches. They may also be able to instruct you on the correct way to harvest so the ramps will be able to grow back.
How to Store Ramps
If you are lucky enough to score a bundle of ramps or happen to find some on a walk in the woods, keep them as fresh and vibrant as you can for the best flavor and texture. Plan to use them within a few days of bringing the greens home.
Wet a paper towel or tea towel, and wring out most of the water. Wrap the stems in the paper towel, and store the bundle in your refrigerator's crisper drawer.
If you have extra ramps, don't let them wilt and fade. Instead, chop them and freeze for later. To do that, wash the ramps well under cool, running water. Dry them well with a towel. Then, chop the ramps, and place them in an air-tight container. Freeze them in the container for up to three months.
Have the time for some pickling? Pickled ramps are a delicious treat that will help you stretch spring well into the rest of the year. You can save and pickle the stems and bulbs, not the leaves.