Here in Germany, ramson is an undeniable herald of spring.
Only for a couple of weeks, this intense herb can be found fresh in grocery stores and farmers markets. Literally called “bear’s garlic” where I come from, it is a popular addition to soups, salads, and much more during its short season.
Therefore, I’m constantly on the lookout for new recipes, to include the rare ingredient in my dishes when it’s available in all different ways. And as part of this fancy pull-apart bread, it works just perfectly.
Let’s first take a look at what makes these green leaves so special, and what distinguishes the herb from other members of the onion family, to which it belongs.
Where Does it Come From & What Makes it Special?
The colloquial term “bear’s garlic” has an interesting story behind it. It is said that bears enjoyed the herb after hibernation, attracted by its strong smell.
Today, you can recreate the bears’ enthusiastic feeling yourself, when wandering through deciduous forests in the temperate zone where ramson naturally occurs, in shady places on humid soil, on the banks of creeks or rivers.
Ramson goes by other names as well – it’s also known as buckram, wild garlic, wood garlic, or bear leek. Its scientific botanical name is Allium ursinum. But it is closely related to A. tricoccum, or North American wild leeks, also known as ramps.
The plant can grow to between 4 and 20 inches in height with broad, bright green leaves. The blossoms are white and delicate, sitting on straight, single stems. Ramson is found more widely across Europe, whereas ramps are more commonly seen sprouting in the springtime in the U.S.
It has a more subtle flavor than regular garlic, though it shares the same intense smell. Sulfurous substances – which also occur in onions – are responsible for this very specific aroma.
The most dangerous problem that may occur while foraging is to confuse ramson with similar-looking but toxic plants. The most popular ones to mix it up with are:
• Lily of the valley
• Crocuses, especially before blossom
• Leaves of young arum lilies
However, there is one way to recognize real ramson. Take a leaf, roll it between your fingers, and see if it exudes the unmistakable aroma of garlic. If it does, you’ve found the right plant!
One other sign you should pay attention to is that ramson grows with long, single stems coming out of the ground rather than bundles.
A Note of Caution:
No matter how much you trust your senses, it’s always best to play it safe.
When you’re on your own, if you’ve had only a few experiences distinguishing plants in the wild, leave the plants where they are!
Please leave the foraging up to the experts, and never try to find the right one by tasting! Better to be safe than sorry.
Growing Your Own
Whether you’re already an expert in growing your own herbs or you would like to start doing it yourself, ramson is perfectly suited for this purpose.
It might not have the same intensity as the wild-grown variety when it’s planted at home, but it’s fun to do, and you can be sure that it’s 100 percent organic.
Even lazy gardeners can benefit from this wonderful herb, as it is undemanding, and only needs to be watered during persistent drought.
Plus, in the end, every part of the plant can be used. Pluck the aromatic leaves, cut the buds or blossoms, and pull out the bulb from the ground after the flowering period (unless you’d like your ramson to come back next year).
Picking the full plant is actually a growing problem in the U.S., where ramp foragers have begun to take more than their fair share. Snipping just a few leaves is recommended, rather than digging up whole clusters of the herb by its roots.
Not only does this leave less to share with other foraging animals and critters, it means the plant will become less likely to continue to grow and flourish in areas where it has thrived for ages.
If it isn’t possible for you to grow your own, you can sometimes find it in grocery stores or at local farmers markets. But how can you keep this sensitive herb fresh for use?
Eat Quickly for Best Results!
When collecting ramson on your own or even if you’re buying it, it’s best to get only as many – or few – leaves as you plan to consume. This is a delicate herb with a very short shelf life, and in some areas it is only available in limited supply.
If you aren’t able to use it right away and absolutely must store it instead, wrap the leaves in moist paper towels and keep in the vegetable drawer of your fridge. Use it up within two, maybe a maximum of three days.
The possibility of drying or freezing does exist, but you should be aware of the fact that this will have an impact on the fresh, spicy flavor, which will mostly be lost after this treatment.
If you’re freezing it, wash and dry the leaves, remove the stems, and chop. Stems can be added to a homemade vegetable stock or soup, for a touch of added flavor.
The very best way to enjoy it is fresh and raw. This way, you will also benefit from the highest level of vitamin C content in the leaves. If you’re looking for alternative healthy herbs to add to your menu, ramson is definitely a good choice.
One great tip is to either consume it directly (I like to sprinkle it on top of eggs or salads), or you could also make a spicy oil out of it.
For this, mix the chopped ramson with olive oil and salt, and keep it in a sealed jar in the refrigerator. Again, this is highly perishable. Though the flavor will develop a bit more with time, it is best to consume fresh herbal oils made with tender leaves quickly. Keep it completely covered with oil, like you do with pesto.
The overall aroma is also more intense right before the plant is in full bloom. After the flowering period, you will hardly recognize the taste.
Beyond these quick and easy fresh applications, what kind of recipes can you use it in? Let’s take a look!
Working With it in the Kitchen
Like I said, possibly the most fantastic aspect of ramson (besides its delicious flavor) is the fact that all parts of it are edible.
The leaves are just perfect for seasoning soups, dips, breads, meat, or vegetarian dishes. They pair well with all kinds of flavor profiles, and make a wonderful addition to fresh green salads.
Also, the leaves and the delicate blossoms make a fancy (and flavorful) garnish.
The roots can be prepared in the same way as the white portions of spring onions. Chop them up, add them to a sauté or stir fry, and you’ll get a burst of fresh, garlicky flavor.
A really fantastic idea, my favorite by far if I’m doing anything other than eating these fresh, is this recipe for pull-apart bread.
As I see it, this is the sophisticated older sister of common garlic bread. Its extravagant look makes a great impression on the table.
Plus, if ramson season is over, you don’t necessarily have to put the recipe away until next year (though it’s certainly fun to maintain seasonal cooking and baking traditions)! Simply substitute with other fresh herbs, like parsley, chives, or basil.
It won’t be exactly the same, but variations on this recipe are also delicious. This way, you can make use of the general dough recipe the whole year round. It is an amazing choice for picnics, and backyard barbecues, too.
The basic dough can also be used to make sweet pull-apart varieties. Just mix the butter with additions like cinnamon, vanilla, lemon or orange zest, or use fruit jam, or even chocolate spread to cover the dough.
The baking and resting times stay the same. It’s simply delicious in any way, sweet or savory!
Need a new gadget for your kitchen to zest that citrus? Check out Foodal’s review of the best microplanes and zesters.
Cooking by the Numbers…
Step 1 – Combine the dry ingredients
First, combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Set this aside.
Step 2 – Combine the yeast and sugar with warm milk
Place the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat, and heat until lukewarm, being careful not to scald it.
Remove from heat, and crumble the yeast into the milk. Add the sugar, and stir until completely dissolved.
Unfamiliar with working with yeast? Give Foodal’s Guide to Baking With Yeast a look now.
Step 3 – Combine the mixtures, and knead the dough
Add the warm mixture and two tablespoons of butter to the flour mixture, and stir to combine. Knead with a standing mixer or by hand until a smooth dough forms.
Need a few pointers on kneading? We have a guide for that, too! Check it out here.
Form the dough into a ball, place on a greased cutting board or baking sheet, and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Place in a warm place to rise (an oven with the light bulb on is usually a good spot) for about 45 minutes, or until doubled in size.
Step 4 – Make the ramson compound butter
While you wait, wash the ramson, and dry it carefully with paper towels, or in a salad spinner. Chop it fine. Then make a compound butter by stirring the chopped herbs into the remaining 10 tablespoons of softened butter, along with a pinch of salt.
If you want to do something different with this recipe, use whatever herbs you like to make the compound butter, add your favorite warming spices to the softened butter for a sweet version, or skip this step and allow your selection of jam or chocolate spread to warm to room temperature.
Step 5 – Preheat the oven and prepare your pan
Preheat the oven to 375°F, and place a rack on the lowest setting. Line your loaf pan with parchment paper.
Be sure to tear off a large enough piece that it leaves a bit of an overhang on either side of the pan – you will be able to use this as a sling to easily remove the bread from the pan once it’s done.
Step 6 – Knead the dough, and roll it out
Dust your butcher block, large cutting board, or clean countertop with some flour, and dust your hands and a wooden rolling pin as well.
When your dough has risen, punch it down and turn it onto your floured board. Knead the dough once more for about 10-20 seconds. Then roll it out into a large rectangle about 20 by 15 inches in size, sprinkling it with more flour as needed.
Step 7 – Spread with compound butter and slice
Spread the herb-butter mixture in an even layer on the dough, leaving a margin of about an inch at the edges. Slice the dough lengthwise into five strips of equal size, using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter.
Step 8 – Fold the dough and fill your pan
Carefully fold the strips accordian-style to create five squares of equal size.
Hold your loaf pan upright vertically, being careful not to let the parchment lining fall out. Stack the folded dough in the pan, then set back on the counter and cover it loosely. Allow the dough to rest for about 15 minutes.
Step 9 – Bake and enjoy!
Arrange the pieces in the loaf pan so they are evenly distributed. Bake in the lower part of the oven for 45-55 minutes, or until light brown and crispy.
Remove from the oven. Using the parchment paper, lift the bread out and serve immediately, or cool on a wire rack.
The information in this article is not intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or treat a disease. Please consult with your health care professional before making any dietary changes.
Except where otherwise indicated, Photos by Nina-Kristin Isensee, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details.
About Nina-Kristin Isensee
Nina lives in Iserlohn, Germany and holds an MA in Art History (Medieval and Renaissance Studies). She is currently working as a freelance writer in various fields. She enjoys travel, photography, cooking, and baking. Nina tries to cook from scratch every day when she has the time and enjoys trying out new spices and ingredients, as well as surprising her family with new cake creations.