Wild garlic is a bulbous, perennial plant and a relative of chives that grows wild in damp woodlands, and is often found in marshlands (fenlands) or near water drainage ditches in Britain and throughout Europe. It can be used in many of the same ways you'd use ramps, leeks, or green garlic, but especially as garlic itself, with some minor alterations and imagination: scrambled into eggs or frittatas, tossed into pasta dishes and stir-fries, or simmered in soups or added to soups.
What Is Wild Garlic?
Wild garlic is made up of a bulb, stem, leaves, and white, star-shaped flowers. The botanical name is Allium ursinum. It goes by any number of names, including ramsons, buckrams, bear's garlic, devil's garlic, gypsy's onions, and stinking Jenny. (This plant is believed to be a favorite of bears; hence "bear's garlic" nickname and its botanical name.) You can eat any part of the plant and use it any way you would use garlic or some of its other allium cousins. They are one of the first spring greens to pop up.
In addition to being found in Europe, wild garlic grows in the United States, specifically in the eastern half, Ohio, and the westernmost parts of the Pacific Northwest. It's believed to be a European transplant and can easily be foraged—some folks consider this a weed. If you are foraging for wild garlic, keep in mind it resembles lily of the valley plants, which are poisonous, but one rub of the leaves (and a quick sniff) will identify which it is, so there is no chance you'd mix them up.
How to Cook With Wild Garlic
All parts of the plant—bulb, leaves, and flowers—are edible. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and they make a useful addition to basic foods such as a cream or cottage cheese and are delicious when added to salad, or in soups toward the end of cooking. They can also be used in a pesto in place of basil or other herbs, or in a sauce for a background hint of garlic.
You may want to add finely chopped wild garlic to mashed potatoes and serve them with roast lamb or other meats. Basically, wild garlic can be used in a similar way to garlic cloves but just keep in mind the flavor will be less pronounced. Cooking depletes the garlic taste, so add it at the end of cooking time to retain more flavor.
Once the leaves are starting to lose their pungency, the flowers will appear in the later part of spring—these are edible, too. You can use the flowers as a decoration or add to a salad. Make sure you have cleaned them thoroughly to remove any insects which may have made their home inside the flower.
What Does It Taste Like?
Wild garlic has a distinctive flavor of garlic, though it is not as heavy or pungent as garlic cloves. Pick a leaf and gently squeeze it, then take a sniff—it will smell garlicky. The leaves smell pungent, but when you cook with them, their taste is delicate and sweeter than you might be expecting.
Wild Garlic Recipes
You can use wild garlic in some of the same ways that you'd use ramps, which are a kind of wild leek. You can also use them in recipes that call for leeks, scallions, or garlic scapes—with some adaptations. Wild garlic can be fermented, pickled, or used as is. You can also use this as an ingredient in compound butter. Several of these recipes can be used with wild garlic.
Where to Buy Wild Garlic
You can find wild garlic during a walk in the woods—perhaps by a river or stream—from late winter to late spring where the ground is damp. On even a mildly sunny day, when the sun will have warmed the leaves, sometimes there will be an aroma of garlic; you may smell it before you see it. Just look down and around you and it will not be hard to spot wild garlic's glossy, green leaves.
Barring such an encounter with garlic in the wild, you may be able to find this item at farmers' markets in the spring and summer, depending on where you live.
It is important you store wild garlic properly to keep it from drying out. The best method to keep wild garlic fresh is to place in a glass of water—bulb-side down—and store it in the refrigerator, where it will last for at least a week. Otherwise, you can wrap them, if the leaves and flowers are still intact, in a damp paper towel, and put them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, where they will keep for several days.
The leaves can be frozen. Blanch the leaves and then submerge them in an ice water bath. Then, let them air dry and freeze them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Once they're frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag or another freezer-safe container.