Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to Cook Camas

"I never have met with a white person who was not fond of baked cammass [sic], and I do not know any vegetable, except fried bananas, so delicious."
-James Swan 1857, 19th Century ethnographer and naturalist

The Onion-like bulbs of Common Camas
Camas was a principle root vegetable for the Salish and many other Native Americans everywhere it grows in Western North America.  The bulbs were collected in massive quantities in May or June, pit roasted for up to 24-48 hours, dried, and eaten or traded throughout the rest of the year.  With proper cooking, Camas bulbs were so sweet that they were used to sweeten other foods.

Over the last 5 years I have cooked both Giant Camas (Camassia leichtlinii) and Common Camas (C. quamash) about 8 times.  My first attempts involved either baking or pressure cooking the bulbs for a mere 4-6 hours and the results were all similarly tasteless.  Further experiments yielded much better results and I am sharing my most successful method in the hopes that others can fully realize the potential of this wonderfully sweet and nutritious indigenous root vegetable.

Digging stick (or garden trowel), collection bag, expandable steamer, slow cooker, food dehydrator (optional)

Easily distinguished flowers of Camas (left) and Death Camas (right)
Harvest and Conservation:
Using a digging stick or garden trowel, unearth bulbs that are bigger than the last digit of your thumb and replant all the rest.  I used to harvest Camas with a shovel but found that I was always cutting them in half.  Now I harvest with a wooden digging stick and rarely damage bulbs.  As you dig, weed out the grass, Scotch Broom, and Snowberry from your Camas garden.  Mid-June is an excellent time to harvest for several reasons:  First, the Death Camas* (Toxicoscordion venenosum syn. Zygadenus venenosus) is still flowering so it can easily be avoided.  Second, the ground is still soft and easy to dig up.  Camas ground can get VERY hard when it dries out later in the summer.  Third, the Camas is starting to go to seed so you can sprinkle some seeds over the bare soil that you create by digging for the bulbs and weeding out the grasses.  If the seeds aren't ripe (black) yet, then return when they are to sprinkle seeds over the bare soil.  In addition to replanting small bulbs, it is a good practice to leave a few of the largest flowering Camas plants alone every few feet so that their seeds can mature and scatter into the surrounding soil.  Finally, I have a suspicion that as the Camas goes into dormancy it locks its sugars away into more complex carbohydrates which takes a lot longer to cook. 

Virtually identical bulbs of Camas (left 2) and Death Camas (right)
Be very sure of your identification before eating Camas.  The bulbs of Death Camas are deadly poisonous and look very similar to the edible varieties (Camassia quamash and Camassia leichtlinii).  Death Camas has white flowers, tighter flower clusters, and flowers that mature later in the Season (usually June).  If you have any Death Camas in the plot you are harvesting from, I recommend only eating bulbs that are attached to a flowering stalk that you can positively ID as a Camassia species.

Clean the bulbs:
Peel off the dirty outer skin and break off the basal root crown.  Leave the inner layers of skin so that the bulbs will remain intact as they cook.  Rinse the dirt from the bulbs

Steam for 36 hours:
Place an expandable vegetable steamer inside of a slow cooker and fill the slow cooker with water to just below the level of the steamer.  Put the Camas bulbs in the steamer and cover the slow cooker.  Set the slow cooker at a moderate to high temperature and steam the bulbs for 36 hours (yes, you read that right).  Check the water level every 2-4 hours and refill as necessary.  The bulbs will begin to brown and smell like molasses after 12-24 hours.  Cook until they are a very dark brown.
24 hour time-lapse of Camas bulbs steamed at 212 degrees F.
Camas has a similar, but more complex carbohydrate structure than Onions.  Prolonged cooking of Camas breaks long (indigestible) inulins down into simple (sweet) fructans in exactly the same way that caramelizing Onions sweetens them.  If your cooked Camas is not brown, it will not be sweet and will probably give you indigestion.
Dehydrate overnight:
Squish the bulbs flat with the bottom of a water glass and place them in a food dehydrator or oven on very low heat until they are dried.  Then seal them in a plastic bag and place them in the freezer until you are ready to eat them.

A meal that takes 2 days to prepare will challenge the patience of even a Slow Foodist.  For that reason, an entire year’s worth of Camas was traditionally cooked and dried so that it could quickly be rehydrated and eaten.  Most of us won’t harvest the several bushels of Camas bulbs that it would take to make a large pit-cook worthwhile.  My slow cooker method is intended to provide a safe, energy efficient and relatively convenient alternative for smaller quantities of Camas bulbs.

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  1. Thank you for a thorough and clear discussion. I really appreciate people taking the time to really figure things out, not relying on hearsay, and not perpetuating myths and stereotypes. And definitely thanks for the critical points about distinguishing death camas.

  2. why 36 hours? SOO LOOOONG

  3. ^ because originally harvested by aboriginals, they would cook Camas bulbs slowly in pits. It takes a long time of constant heat for the indigestible starches to break down into sugars... a special and worth while experience if you truly want to taste Camas

  4. Is there a difference in cooking time between great and common camas?

  5. Over the centuries of white man occupation on the land native grasslands have all but vanished.
    Camas that you harvest is part of that rapidly declining ecosystem.
    harvest? is it sustainable?
    Do you talk on your blog of seed collection, restoring the land?

    1. Thanks for your questions. I heartily share your sorrow for the loss of Camas prairies and Oak Woodlands that have resulted in the centuries since European and settler American colonization of the PNW. While much loss can be attributed to land conversion for purposes of farming, grazing of pigs, and timber production, I firmly believe that the interruption of Indigenous stewardship practices are a major factor contributing to this loss as well.

      Today, many people aren't aware of the tremendous capacity for these ecosystems to feed us in a sustainable manner. Through my blog I try to create more awareness about these and other resources and strive to engender a sense of stewardship, responsibility, and commitment to place. It is when people return to the same place year after year, and generation after generation, that they develop an awareness of their impacts on the land.

      I do encourage the cultivation of "wild" foods for use in restoring urban and damaged ecosystems. For example, these two posts: and
      cover the seed collection and propagation of Garry Oak and Camas.

      I harvest Camas in a sustainable manner. I leave the largest bulbs that are capable of producing the most seed, replant the small bulbs and weed shrubs and invasive species that are encroaching on the meadows. Provided that all the bulbs are not wantonly removed, I believe that the very act of harvesting Camas produces soil conditions that favor Camas and discourage both turf forming grasses and woody perennial vegetation that crowd Camas. It has been experimentally shown that Camas bulbs grown in loose cultivated soil grow much faster and larger than those in compacted, neglected, out competed conditions. My techniques are informed by seven years of personal experience harvesting the bulbs and tending patches, along with careful study and personal communication with the authors of the major ethnobotanical papers on Camas, as well as conversations with elders that have first hand experience with Camas.

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  7. Would you just eat these on their own or with some other food?

  8. I still would like to hammer down a few things on death camas. What amount would be deadly for example could a person cautiously taste test to see if there is a bad reaction--or is a tiny amount deadly? Also they usually show the flower difference but that leaves a huge part of the year without the flowers--are the 2 or 3 different types totally indistinguishable no matter how close you look and study???

  9. I still would like to hammer down a few things on death camas. What amount would be deadly for example could a person cautiously taste test to see if there is a bad reaction--or is a tiny amount deadly? Also they usually show the flower difference but that leaves a huge part of the year without the flowers--are the 2 or 3 different types totally indistinguishable no matter how close you look and study???

    1. I DO NOT advocate EATING any amount of Death Camas, but I will say that I have cut the edge of a raw Meadow Death Camas (Zigadenus venenosus) bulb and touched it to my tongue and immediately experienced a burning sensation, so I spit out the infinitesimal amount of juice that touched my tongue. My conclusion: Death Camas tastes very different than common camas (which is tasteless when raw). I have dug up a few Foothill Death Camas (Zigadenus paniculatus), and have no experience with other Death Camas species, and have not tried to make detailed comparisons of Z. paniculatus with Camassia species.

      Zigadenus species flower just as regularly (or sporadically) as Camassia species. Native American Camas harvesters targeted patches that had no Death Camas and at one time probably weeded them out to avoid mistakenly eating the poisonous bulbs.

    2. I must try this method. Have only baked it in the ground. When I first learned to bake it we didn't steam it, we just baked it. We baked for three days. Came out nice and black. Later we had a neighboring tribe show us how to steam. This year I've decided to go back to just baking without the steam. It should come out black. I would post a picture of some jarred black camas, so you could see how black it should come out. But this method in the oven, I think I shall try. But I would probably bake it for three days.

  10. Yes, I agree about their being no flowers on all the camas a lot of the time of the year, and sometimes they don't flower for 4 or 5 years. Does anyone know then if we then only harvest when the death camas flowers ? Does death-camas flower ever year or bi-annually ?

  11. The cooking method sounds like how "Jerusalem Artichokes" were prepared, they also have long chain sugars that need to be broken down by slow cooking as well, otherwise they make you toot!

  12. We have a small wet farm near Portland and are thinking about growing camas as a food crop. Any suggestions?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. We have very good luck with dense plantings in fenced raised beds, well weeded, and mulched to both keep weeds down and conserve moisture (we mulch with straw). Cutting the flower heads before they go to seed also helps with producing slightly larger bulbs. Wait to harvest until after the leaves have fully died back. We are now experimenting with moderate fertilization to see if it increases yield or improves flavor, as well as sampling different varieties--happy to share what we find ( can reach me at madrona at kwiaht dot org)

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I have both blue and white camus flowers growing in my garden in North Vancouver. They look exactly the same and bloom at the same time. Occasionaly, I have even had pink blooms. I do not think any of the white or pink flowers are death camus, but rather a product of genetic drift from seed propogation. Just to be sure I will stick to eating the bulbs from the blue flowers, which are the most common anyways.

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