Hunting for Dinner: Foraging for ramps, and the best onion dip recipe ever

ramp onion dip

After a long winter like the one we just suffered through, most of us here in Minnesota are anxious to get outside and enjoy some nice weather. Last week, I had the opportunity to get out trout fishing with my 2-year-old son. We walked along a river bank south of Rochester and didn’t catch a thing but we were outside and it was wonderful. As we went along, I couldn’t help but notice all the broad green leaves sticking up out of the ground. They were instantly recognizable as ramps and my trout-fishing day turned into a ramp-picking day.


Ramps are a form of wild onion that grows in most parts of the east and central parts of the United State. Here in Minnesota, they are one of the first spring plants to pop up out of the ground and if you can find them early enough they are tender and packed with a magnificent garlic and onion flavor that you won’t find in anything else.


They're very easy to identify by their broad, smooth green leaves. The leaves fade into a reddish-to-purple stalk and then end underground in white. That white end can sometimes resemble a bulb although it is not a true bulb, more of an underground swelling. They grow in clumps and are usually found in very moist, sandy soil, often near rivers and stream and on hillsides.


The easiest way to identify a ramp is to rip a piece off and smell it. If it smells like a powerful combination of onions and garlic you have the right plant. Gathering ramps is fairly easy, I like to bring along a small kid's shovel to help dig the earth. Put the blade of the shovel next to the ramp and push it straight down then lever the soil up to loosen it.


At this point, you can just grab the ramp at the base and give it a little shake and it should come free. The roots of the ramp can grow deep and the whole plant is edible so you don’t want to waste any of it by breaking off the plant. The broad green leaves will eventually fall off and rot but a single flower will stick up from the ground. The white portion of the ramp is edible all year round but can get very tough as the summer goes on. 


My son and I picked about five pounds of ramps and took them home. I live in Burnsville so we had about two hours in the car with the ramps and they are very potent smelling.


Washing and preparing ramps can be a tedious process but it is pretty easy. It all depends on how many you have picked. I like to cut the root end off and then peel a few layers off because they can hold dirt and sand as they grow. You can see little dark spots on the stalk if there is dirt under a layer or two. Rinse the ramps well and they are ready to be used. 


If you are going to use the ramps within a week or so you can just wrap them in a damp paper towel and put them in a one-gallon Ziploc bag, then keep them in the fridge. I've never frozen ramps but I've heard they freeze well if you blanch them first. This year, I'm trying a couple of new recipes for preserving ramps. Using the green leaves only, I am trying to ferment some and make a ramp kraut. It will take three to four weeks to see if it turns out, but I am excited to taste the result. 

I also pickled a pound of ramps using a recipe from a cookbook, Ramps: Cooking with the Best Kept Secret of the Appalachian Trail. The book is full of useful information about ramps and has some great recipes, including one for a shaved asparagus and ramp salad.


When I got home that night, I made fried ramps and ring bologna for dinner and my son loved them. I pickled and canned the majority of the ramps, and used about a pound of green tops to make the kraut. I was left with a pile of stems and bulbs that I wanted to use right away. I had made a fried onion dip using a recipe by Amy Thielen that was really good so I figured I would try it with ramps and see what happened.


The end rest was hands down the best onion dip I have ever eaten. The ramps were fried in clarified butter until golden brown and then I added maple sugar and rice cooking wine. I pretty much ate an entire bag of chips in one sitting. 


Fried Ramp Dip 

Adapted from a recipe By Amy Thielen from her book The New Midwestern Table

Makes about 2 cups of dip

5 tablespoons butter

8 ounces of ramp stems and bulbs

3 ounces cream cheese

8 ounces sour cream

2 tablespoons maple sugar

1/4 cup rice cooking wine

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Melt the butter in a sauté pan, using a spoon scrape off the white foam that rises to the top and clarify the butter.


2. Cut the ramps into 2-3 inch pieces and sauté over medium high heat until golden brown and soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


3. Cream together the sour cream and cream cheese until smooth and well incorporated.


4. When the ramps are soft and golden brown and little dark bits have formed add the sugar and wine and stir together. Cook until the majority of the wine is burned off.


5. When the ramps are done cooking pour them out onto a cutting board and chopped them finely.


6. Add the ramps to the sour cream mixture and stir to combine, add all the dripping and butter as well.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and enjoy with your favorite chips.


Jamie Carlson lives in Burnsville with his wife, Amanda, and their two kids, Eleanor and Charlie. He works as an RN at the Minneapolis VA hospital and enjoys hunting, fishing, foraging, and of course, cooking. He believes that all food can be tasty if it's prepared with care, and he writes about his adventures cooking everything from pickled venison heart to roasted dove on his food blog, You Have to Cook it Right. Follow him on Twitter at @youcookitright.