What Are Ramps and What Can I Do with Them?

Also known as wild leeks, these onion family members are prized by cooks for their complex flavor. They're only available for a fleeting period during spring—here's how to make the most of them.

Photo: Elizabeth Gaubeka / Getty Images

If the word "ramp" only brings to mind a highway exit, it's time to learn about "wild ramps" (which by the way, have nothing to do with driving). Wild ramps are part of the onion family. (They're also known as wild leeks or wild onions.) Ramps have a sweet, earthy taste that's similar to both scallions and garlic. The flavor can be quite spicy—like garlic—when eaten raw, but cooking ramps greatly reduces their spiciness.

Ramps are native to the East Coast of North America, and can be found as far north as New England and as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee. In Appalachia, there are many festivals devoted to ramps, since their emergence is celebrated as a sign of spring. You can find them at farmers' markets, specialty grocers and sometimes at larger stores like Whole Foods.

Found in the wild, ramps prefer to grow in the damp soil under poplar, sugar maple and birch trees. The bulbs grow slowly—a patch size increases by less than 10% each year and it can take seven years for a plant to become mature enough to harvest. Because of this, ramp foraging has been outlawed in Quebec and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While not overly common, some forest farmers do cultivate them as well.

When are wild ramps in season?

Ramps season is short and runs only from around late March through late May, depending on the area. Their flavor tends to peak in mid-April after the bulb has gotten bigger. By June, when the flower stalk comes up, the leaves recede and the season is over.

Health benefits of wild ramps

Wild ramps may offer similar health benefits to onions and garlic, as all are part of the Allium family. People who consume high amounts of garlic, onions and leeks were shown to have a lower risk of colorectal cancer, and quercetin, a plant pigment found in onions, has been shown to help regulate blood pressure. Ramps are also high in vitamin C, which may help boost immunity and protect against cardiovascular disease.

How to choose, clean and store wild ramps

Select plants that have the roots intact. The bulbs should be firm and free of cracks and discoloration, and the leaves should look vibrant along with their purple-red stems. When you're ready to use your ramps, you can clean them by trimming the root ends, pulling off any limp leaves and holding them under cool running water, which will help dislodge gritty soil.

Ramps that haven't been cleaned can be stored with their bulbs submerged in water for three days at room temperature. Ramps will last five days in the refrigerator. It's best to wrap them in damp paper towels and place them into a sealed plastic bag.

How to cook with wild ramps

The entire ramp plant is edible. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads or gently sautéed like spinach, and the bulb can be chopped and used to flavor egg or potato dishes. Try using ramps in place of scallions, leeks or garlic in the spring when they're readily available. For long term ramp noshing, you can always pickle them. Pickled ramps make a great snack or may be used as a garnish for a variety dishes or even for some cocktails.

Bottom line

Ramps are delicious and versatile. They can be the main ingredient or a flavorful embellishment, and they can be eaten raw or cooked—just remember the flavor of raw ramps is much stronger than when they're cooked. Look for ramps in spring in farmers' markets, specialty grocers and possibly even in your backyard.

To get to know ramps better, try using them in this classic pesto recipe in place of the garlic, or in this delicious Spinach & Mushroom Quiche in place of the garlic and spinach. From then on out, you'll be impatiently awaiting ramp season.

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