Preserving Spring – Wild Leeks (or ramps)

As part of an ongoing series of posts following up our article on Preserving Spring in Edible Toronto, today`s post is a how-to preserve one of my all-time favourite spring ingredients: wild leeks or ramps. 

Update (May 15, 2012): you can now find quick access here to all of our wild leek/ ramp recipes (preserving and otherwise)

Wild leeks are much smaller than their big domestic brothers.  You can acquire them two ways: forage for them or purchase them, assuming you can find them.  Wild leeks need care when you harvest – once a leek is plucked from the ground, it will not grow back.

If you`re harvesting them yourself, guidelines suggest you should take 5% or less to allow that patch of wild leek to remain sustainable. The difficulty with such a guideline is pretty straightforward – if everyone took 5% from the same patch, the patch would disappear.  I know of several places in or near my house that I could harvest them which I avoid for this reason.  We are spoiled with a sustainable hunting cabin North of the city and the patch of ramps (aka wild leeks) I harvest from is 13 kilometers deep into the forest.

Leeks have appeared at more and more farmers markets and even some grocery stores.  The ethics of purchasing them can again be challenging; after all if the vendor picked 100% of a crop, you would have no way of knowing.  My advice for overcoming this is to simply talk and build relationships with the suppliers and purchase from trusted sources who have a strong reputation.  Examples in Toronto would include Forbes Wild Foods and Mark Trealout (Kawartha Ecological Growers).  Both are regulars at Farmers Markets across the city and visiting one of our many fine markets will likely yield some results.

Here’s a picture of a wild leek from last year:

There are two parts to the leek which are preserved differently.  The bulbs will  withstand (and adore) the acid of a pickling treatment while the leafy greens will be best (in my opinion) frozen for additions to stocks, soups and sauces.  We live in an apartment with a tiny freezer so we are very selective when it comes to freezing – and this is a must every year.

Here’s a few recipes:

Frozen Leek Pesto

Freezing is one of my all-time favourite preserving methods.  It’s so simple and there’s little to clean up.  The disadvantages are space, energy and the use of a plastic storage bag or two.

The highlights: quickly blanch the greens of the leeks (i.e. seconds in boiling water and then dipped in an ice bath to cool) before adding to your favourite pesto and freezing in muffin cups to be used as single-portions later.

I rarely follow a precise recipe for pestos (another advantage of freezing) and have even frozen the leek greens which have been touched by a bit of olive oil with nothing else added, in which case the term “pesto” would be pretty loose.  I like this alternative because it retains the flavor of the leek and allows grater options later.  If you were looking for something more traditional, try this type of idea:

1/2 cup wild leek greens
1/2 cup basil (could replace this by doubling your leeks – for a twist you could begin growing the basil now)
1 tablespoon olive oil (if concerned with local, try canola and add a teaspoon at a time checking flavor)
1 teaspoon lemon zest (again, the locavores may want to skip this)
1/4 cup pine nuts (toasted)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano (a local alternative could be a very old; i.e. 6 year white cheddar)

When it comes to freezing you can take a lot of liberties (this is not the case when canning) so have some fun.

Pickled Leeks

On to the bulbs!  Our friend Tigress is running a 12-month canning challenge where 120+ people (mostly armed with blogs) are preserving a mystery ingredient every month.  Last month was Alliums (onions, garlic, leeks)  and you’ll find a lot of onion/ leek recipes there.

The most important thing to know about preserving leeks is that they are a vegetable and are low-acid.  This means that our options for canning become somewhat limited (although the term is completely relative) – generally this means we can pickle or pressure can (more on that later in this series when we tackle asparagus).

You want o use a tested recipe here – if you`re looking for help on how the process works, we`ve put a very comprehensive case study (grab a coffee or a beverage of your choice because it`s wordy) in the preserving section you can access through the top of the page.

Most pickling recipes are larger than what one would often need for wild leeks.  Consider reducing the quantity of brine or doing a small batch of pearl onions if you can get your hand on them this time of year (I have seen some from cellars):

8 cups of onions (loose packed; this is a guideline)
5.5 cups of white vinegar (must be 5% as most is – if your vinegar doesn`t say, move on)
1 cup water (purists would use distilled)
2 teaspoons of canning salt (you can use kosher salt; canning salt can be tougher to find and it`s only advantage is a potentially clearer brine)
2 cups sugar (this isn`t local but adds a sweetness that makes these pickles sing with cheese and other savouries)
8 teaspoons mustard seed
4 teaspoons celery seed

We also find that coriander seed can be a secret weapon; you can add hot pepper flakes if you`d like as well.  So much for secret.  🙂

Simmer vinegar, water, salt and sugar for 3-minutes before adding the leeks (if you are doing leeks and onions, do the two separately).

Once you`ve simmered for 3-minutes, add the leeks and bring back to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes (start timing once you`r back at a boil).  Add into hot sterilized pint jars (leaving a half inch of headspace), remove any air bubbles and place in a hot water bath under a full boil for 10 minutes (the case study will help newcomers with this – if your`re looking for further help feel free to leave questions below).

You`re off to the races!

Leek Party

If you want to celebrate the wild leek to it`s extreme, there`s a legendary picnic at Eigensinn Farm each spring.  It`s not for the faint of wallet but was one of our major food events last year.  15 of Toronto`s best chefs cooked wild leeks and maple syrup dishes in the middle of the forest for a 4-hour feast.  We detailed our experience in 5-posts here.

More ideas

Find quick access here to all of our wild leek/ ramp recipes (preserving and otherwise).

  1. Pickled leeks as a cocktail garnish are awesome: we had some late last summer at BlueHill at StoneBarns and I’ve been waiting impatiently for lee season to put up some of my own!

  2. thanks for this!! Wild leek grows abundantly at my cottage and I have been looking for recipes for them constantly. I may sound like the poor lobster fisherman’s children when I say, I’ve been growing tired of them, so it’ll be nice to try something different!

  3. a neighbor gave me 9 wild ramps 4 years ago to replant. i planted them in an area on my property that he said was a prime ramp growing spot. every year since exactly 9 wild ramps come up – so of course i can’t eat them. someday my ramps will come! 🙂

    • I have planted ramps for about 10 years now and what my experience has been is that if you transplant the ramps or after cleaning them you transplant the roots it will take 6-7 years for them to start seeding on there own. If you plant seeds they will bare there own seeds the first year that you plant them. To collect seeds I have found,in W.Va. , that the last week in august or the first week in september is the best time . To get them started certainly is a labor of love . Hope this will help.Good luck.

      • Donn,

        THis is news to me – we’ve planted from bulb and shared your experience. Really good advice. We have several patches in a very remote forest – planting them closer to our (still remote) cabin would change things… Going to try this this year, thanks! Will also make sure Tigress (a freind) is aware of this…! Thanks so much,


  4. Hi from England. We don’t have wild leeks here where I live but loads of ramsoms or wild garlic which is just beginning to come into flower. Do you think this would work well as a pesto?
    allium ursinum I think is the latin name.

    I will be back and hope to join in some day soon, this looks like a wonderful place ! Joanna

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  8. This method is unclear to me. When simmering the vinegar and other ingredients for 3 minutes, then again for 5 minutes, does this mean to add the leeks to simmer for 5 minutes, or just add the liquid to jars packed with leeks after it has simmered for 5 minutes?

    • Mark, I have clarified above – thanks for pointing that out…

      Long story short – boil for 3 minutes and then add the leeks. Things will stop boiling so bring back to a boil and boil for an additional 5 minutes (i.e. cook the leeks in boiling solution for 5 minutes).

      Hope that helps – if not, let me know. 🙂

  9. Thanks Joel – another question, headspace in the jars, do you recommend leaving 1/2 or 1/4 inch or none?

    • Mark – appreciate these as they help me clarify. I would leave a halh inch – will ammend as well 🙂

  10. Thanks for the clarification Joel. Going to give your pickled leeks recipe a go tomorrow. Tiring day – been out picking leeks this afternoon, cleaning them, got some in the dehydrator for salads, stews etc. Going to grind some of the dried ones to make leek salt. 😉

    • Brenda, I haven`t tried and don`t have enough experience with preserving in oil (there`s a lot of dramatically different opinions on it`s safety) to comment with any intelligence I`m afraid…share what you learn if you do look it up. 🙂

  11. A buncha wild onions came up in our garden this summer – not ramps, but I’m going to treat ’em the same way. Thankful once again for your blog and its good ideas!

    • Elizabeth, oh that is awesome!

      Excited to see/ hear about your results – most welcome; you are one who also inspires me in return so a giant thanks to you!


  12. I live about two and a half hours northwest of Toronto. At my fingertips are fiddleheads and wild leeks all over if you know where to go. I gather every year and also have been known to sell both at cheap prices.($3 a pound for fiddleheads. Please feel free to contact me. The wild leeks are all through my property and I have started new patches from the seeds every year so there is no shortage.Conservation is the key to these types of plants so certain locations will remain a secret but all are grown where there is no pesticide or any other sprays put on these plants. All organic.

    • hanks Karen,

      That’s very sweet!

      We are fortunate to have a cabin up in Hunstville that we forage from (it’s extremley remote) but I’ll leave this up in case others are close! It’s a very nice offer!


  13. We pickled 6 cups yesterday in small jars. We are waiting for more to mature. How long should we allow them to sit (cool place) until they can be enjoyed? Thanks.

    • Denny,

      Any time will do but I like to wait 6 weeks for them to really soak up your brine.

      Note that if you shill them before serving they will be completely different than room temperature – it’s fun to experiment!

    • Mike,

      The magic of heat does a few things: the jars can’t truly be sterile when they are filled (the air in your kitchen could contaminate) so the purpose of heat is to bring everything in the jar up to temperature which, in theory, should eliminate any bad bacteria (assuming you have followed a tested recipe and cleanliness). It also facilitates the xit of oxygen from the jar and the cooling process creates the seal as well… There may be a more accurate scientific explanation and I’d be willing to be corrected but that’s the general gist…



  14. Hi Joel,

    Just back from picking a bunch of leeks and going to try your recipe. Could you please clarify at point you add the spice to the brine….ie) mustard seed celery seed and hot pepper flakes etc.?

    • Peter,

      Sorry about that! You can add them direct to the jars in portions or add all to the simmer with the other dry ingredients. I generally add them direct to the jar. Let us know what you think! J