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  • Andrea K. Marcinkus

Ramp "Kimchee"

If you have been a regular reader of my blog, you know that every spring i write a post or flood social media with praises of ramps (Allium tricoccum var. Burdickii). These tasty wild leeks are available for a very short time each spring, typically a 3-week window, around early April, just before the morel mushrooms start to appear.

Ramps in the foreground and background with May-apples just beginning to pop up
Ramps in the foreground and background with May-apples just beginning to pop up

Ramps can be found in moist, but well-drained soils in hardwood forests that grow a thick canopy. They like undisturbed rich soil. And this where harvesting them gets a little tricky - you want to be a god steward to the environment you are harvesting in, so before I talk about how I make a ramp kimchee-style naturally fermented pickle, I'm going to spend a little time discussing how to harvest them so we have them in the future.

Ramps have recently been entered on the "at risk" list by United Plant Savers, and some states have outright bans on collecting them at all. Ramps are slow to grow, and depending on how they are harvested, can take 7 to 20 years to grow back. Most ramps reproduce asexually, by dividing at the bulb, but they also can produce seeds. Ramps need to be 7 years old in order to flower and produce seeds. Because of this long life-cycle, they are prone to over-harvest. Please check with your local laws before you can harvest them. Ramps are legal to harvest in Illinois and Wisconsin, as of the date I am writing this blog entry. But sustainable harvest is a a must even in areas that are prolific to ensure that we have a sustainable crop in the future.

A good guideline to follow for any wild harvesting is to take less than 10% of what you find, but given the long reproduction cycle of the ramp, you should take less than that if you harvest the full plant. Ramp are also sensitive to disturbed soil, so you should take care to only dug or cut around a small area of the plant. Also, try to take ramps from several clusters, spreading out your harvest area so that fewer plants are harvested from growing clusters.

The BEST practice is to only take one leaf, cut near the base of the plant. This is the least destructive method of harvest. I use this method for areas where there might be a few feet-wide clusters, and I would never take enough to pickle or preserve if I decide to take any at all from an area like this. However, in some areas in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, I have found acres of forest floor covered with ramps.

In full-coverage areas like these, I use the "cut in the soil" method. Ramps are more likely to come back if you cut the bulb off above the roots, leaving the white roots in the soil. You will need a long sharp knife. This technique disturbs the ground less, but you need to have a good idea of how deeply the bulbs are growing. The area I forage in Illinois has very deep roots (5 inches), while the area in Wisconsin the roots are relatively shallow (3 inches). If you get to know your local ramp growing patches, you will know how deep to cut. While this method takes a little more time out in the forest, you take less soil with you (if you were digging up the whole plant), and you save time on cleaning. The ramps I harvested this year were in an area where they were growing prolifically, and I felt comfortable taking part of the bulbs. This is what they look like if you harvest in this method:

Ramps before cleaning
Ramps before cleaning

Please make sure you consult with an identification guide book or a knowledgeable local forager. Ramps are pretty easy to identify with their distinctive green - red - white coloration and sharp onion smell, but they have been confused with lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) or false hellebore (Veratrum genus).

Once you get the ramps home, give them a good rinse in cool water to get off the dirt and any slugs or other critters that came along for the ride. Typically, if you harvest ramps earlier in the season, you will have fewer bugs. You will also notice that the bulb base has a slimy paper-like covering. I like to have a bowl of water and remove the paper sheath under the surface. The photo below shows what the cleaned ramps look like. (There are a few here that came up with the roots - these came from an area with extremely soft soil. I would cut one ramp and a few others would come up with it because of how densely packed they were in some areas. These come home with me because I was in a 5+ acre forest of nothing but ramps, and I didn't want to disturb the soil by digging a hole to replant.)

Cleaned ramps
Cleaned ramps

This was a great year for ramps, and so in about 1 hour of sustainable harvesting, I had enough for 2 jars of naturally fermented ramp "kimchee." I'm using kimchee here in quotes, for two reasons: 1. this is not a traditional style of Korean kimchee (the fermented condiment ubiquitous to Korean cuisine), and 2. I do not use shrimp paste or fish sauce in my ferment.

I don't have a recipe for you to follow because you just put the ramps into a jar with layers of salt and chilli pepper, compress, and wait. And if you don't want spicy, just make ramp pickles by only using the salt. I'll walk you through the steps. One ingredient you will need that might be difficult to find is the Korean chili flakes. I go to Super H Mart, a Korean grocery store, to get mine, but a search on Amazon will also bring them up. They come in mild, medium, and hot. This is the brand that I like to use, in medium. For the salt, you should use kosher, canning, or sea salt. You don't want iodine or anti-clumping agents in your salt for this preservation method.

To get started, you will want to have everything set up and within reach. You can wear gloves if you are concerned about getting chili on your hands (don't touch your eyes!), but with the long-style jars I was using a long-handled wooden spoon worked well. Make sure everything is clean. I normally like to boil my jars and utensils just like you would before canning, but that might not be necessary.

You can leave your ramps whole, cut them in half if they are a little longer, or just use the leaves. I decided to cut mine since they were a little long.

Next, add a little salt (about a 1/4 tsp) and chili (1/4 to 1/2 tsp) to the bottom of the jar, stuff in 5-6 ramps, layer with more salt and chili. Repeat until you fill the jar. Once it is filled it should look something like this:

If you have used a canning jar, cut a piece of thin fabric (this is an old, worn-out tea towel that I use for covering fermentation jars) and the metal ring. A rubber band would also work. You want to let this breathe a little until it starts fermenting.

I let the jarred ramps sit overnight, and then determine how much water to add. I'm adding water here, and not brine because I've added salt to the ramps already. Sometimes, you don't need to add any water at all. Or, if you mix the ramps with cut cabbage or other brassicas, you might not need to add any either. This time, I needed to add a little. Please only use distilled water (or boiled water allowed to cool to room temp) to add. Chlorine and softeners in water can harm the bacterial action about to take place, and you could end up with rotting, instead of fermenting ramps. You also want to make sure that the leaves stay submerged below the brine. This will prevent mold from forming. You can use purpose-made glass weights that fit inside canning jars, but with ramps, I've found that as long as you densely pack them down, weights are not necessary.

Jars after 24 hrs - they need more moisture.
After filling with distilled water

Now, let the helpful bacteria do its work! During fermentation, the starches and sugars in the ramps are converted into lactic acid by the bacteria, lactobacilli. The lactic acid production is what gives fermented foods their unique sourness and flavor along with making them nutritious and incredibly beneficial for digestion. If you are interested in learning more about naturally fermented foods of all types, please check out the books by Sandor Katz.

I will warn you: because the ramps are strongly scented, this will fill your kitchen with powerful smells for the next few days. If your kitchen is warm, it might only take 2-4 days, but if it is cooler or varies in temperature, it can take up to 7 days. If you are worried about the smell (or your husband complains) put the jars into an empty cooler. This will at least keep them smells in the cooler until you check on them. Check your ramps fermentation process each day. Make sure they are still submerged - add more water or brine, or poke the leaves down. Taste your ferment after 2-3 days and keep tasting until you get to a level of tartness that you enjoy. Then cap loosely with a lid and place in your refrigerator. This will slow the fermentation process, but not stop it entirely. They will have a shelf-life in your fridge for about 6-9 months.

Finally, you can enjoy your "kimchee"! Use it as a condiment for Korean food, garnish for a bloody mary, add to a stir-fry, top sausages (like you might do with sauerkraut), or eat it straight out of the jar! I had some this morning for breakfast on a bed of brown rice with a fried egg. Delicious!

Let me know how yours turned out!

If you want to see my other post about ramps, check out this page.

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