Historically used to fend off vampires, garlic has earned its place in the culinary world as the single most-used ingredient in savory dishes.
Garlic is one of 700 species in the allium (onion) family. There are two different types of garlic: softneck (allium sativum) and hardneck (allium ophioscorodon, also known as stiffneck). Both types of garlic branch off to create many different varieties.
Garlic comes in many forms, that’s for sure. It’s almost a shape shifter of sorts. During the spring, you’ll see green garlic, which is essentially young garlic that is similar in appearance to scallions. As summer rolls around, you’ll notice wild tangles of garlic scapes at the farmers market. Garlic scapes are the stalks that grow from the bulbs of hardneck garlic plants. They are harvested before the garlic flower forms. This allows the plant energy to concentrate on the bulbs to produce garlic as we know it. Garlic scapes taste wonderful tossed in olive oil, salt and then grilled, by the way!
Then we have good ol’ garlic bulbs. The possibilities are endless when you find that perfect garlic bulb. We’ll touch on that a little later in the blog post. But for now, let’s talk about the types of garlic.
The two most common softneck varieties you’ll find at the farmers market are artichoke garlic and silverskin garlic.
Artichoke garlic, to no one’s surprise, resembles artichokes. They have multiple overlapping layers and can contain up to 20 cloves. They have a white or off-white color and a thick outer layer that is hard to peel. The beauty of this is their long shelf life — up to eight months. Some artichoke garlic varieties include:
• California Early
• California Late
• Polish Red
• Red Toch
• Early Red Italian
• Italian Purple
• Lorz Italian
• Inchelium Red
• Italian Late
Silverskins are plentiful in nature, adapting to many climates. They’re commonly used for garlic braids. If you’re looking to make the iconic garlic braid, look for these kinds:
• Polish White
• Chet’s Italian Red
• Kettle River Giant
The most common type of hardneck garlic is ‘rocambole,’ which has large cloves that are easy to peel. These have a more intense flavor than softnecks. The easy-to-peel, loose skin reduces the shelf life to just four to five months. Unlike softneck garlic, hardnecks send out a flowering stem, or scape, that turns woody. Some common hardneck varieties to look for include:
• Chesnok Red
• German White
• Polish Hardneck
• Persian Star
• Purple Stripe
Garlic…aka ”the stinking rose”
What gives garlic that punch? In reality, whole garlic has a very mild oniony scent and taste. However, once the cloves are crushed or pressed, it releases enzyme compounds that produce a sulfur-based molecule known as allicin. Allicin is responsible for garlic’s pungent aroma and flavor. The more you chop away at garlic, the stronger the smell. So yes, if you think back to Goodfellas, wise-guy Paulie’s technique of thinly slicing garlic with a razor blade before letting it liquify in a pan of hot oil is is a clever move to keep the stinking punch of allicin away.
The long history of garlic
Garlic started its journey when is was domesticated during Neolithic times in Central Asia. A group of Indian traders then brought garlic to the Middle East in 3000 B.C. There, it was introduced to the mighty Babylonian and Assyrian empires. They, of course, loved garlic. Not many people can resist the allure of it — especially since it was used for medicinal reasons as well back then.
The most plentiful records about garlic came from Ancient Egypt, where garlic was a staple of everyone’s pantry, from nobility to common people and slaves. It was used as a food seasoning, medicinal ingredient and religious ingredient (they believed it could prolong life). It was known as a powerful wound antiseptic and was even said to prevent gangrene. They also consumed it directly, believing it to be a source of strength. Inside Tutankhamen’s tomb in Ancient Egypt, garlic was placed in various clay pots, several of which were modeled in the shape of garlic bulbs.
It didn’t take long for the Europeans to get a whiff of garlic’s lure. Greeks and Romans were among the first to catch on. By this time, garlic was used for nearly everything. They claimed garlic was a scorpion repellent, and that if you hung it above your door, it would cure smallpox. The keyword here is “claimed”. Garlic may be amazing, but much of the hype was just that.
One of the most influential moments in garlic’s history happened during the expansion of the Muslim rule across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This introduced garlic to Central and Western Europe, where it was greeted as an excellent medical remedy. Medical books from the 1660s described it as a cure for both the plague and smallpox.
Today, garlic is a staple in almost every cuisine in the world.
Garlic, the shape shifter of ingredients
Garlic comes in many forms. There is raw garlic, garlic powder, roasted garlic, confit garlic, black garlic, smoked garlic and aioli (garlic mayonnaise, “ail” is the French word for garlic), just to name a few.
Garlic is so versatile that you can even boil cloves with aromatic vegetables and herbs to make an aigo broth, which is said to help cure the common cold, or “ail”ment. See what I did there? Garlic (ail) has been used as medicine for thousands of years.
Roasting garlic is particularly delicious. This concentrates the sugars. The process is super simple. Just cut the top off the bulb, drizzle it with loads of olive oil, wrap the bulb in foil (still in its paper shell) and place it in a 350F degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes. Squeeze out the goodness from the bulb once it’s cool enough to handle.
If you want to try something new with a deeper flavor, turn your attention to black garlic. Black garlic is often misidentified as “fermented garlic”. Really, it’s just aged garlic. Traditionally, black garlic is made by holding it at a warm, controlled temperature for up to 30 days or longer. Black garlic’s history is a bit of a mystery, but Korea and Japan have made a great deal of innovations by making black garlic cloves with the same jellied texture as freshly dried fruit.
Black garlic is very chewy when consumed raw, and does not carry heat. It has a mild, sweet and syrupy taste with a molasses undertone and nuances of tamarind and soy sauce. Black garlic is a little on the pricey side and can be hard to find, but with a little research you can find it online.
If you’re down to make it yourself, all you need is a crock pot and 10 to14 days of just letting it do it’s thing. Set your crock pot to medium (around 135 to 140 degrees). Then, place the whole garlic heads inside the crock pot, set it and forget it. This is a wonderful way to preserve the bounty of garlic we have in late summer.
You can make garlic powder by drying your own garlic cloves. All you need is a dehydrator. Remove the cloves of garlic from the paper, smash them, place them in your dehydrator, then set it and forget it until the garlic is dry and brittle. All you need to do after that is grind the dried garlic into a fine powder and sprinkle on your favorite dish!
What to look for when buying garlic
First thing, never buy that pre-chopped garlic in a jar. Why? It’s just odd. What is that liquid the garlic is sitting in? If you can’t answer that question, then surely it isn’t good for you. And if you absolutely must buy pre-peeled garlic, be sure to buy it from a local farmer. Most pre-peeled garlic is imported and peeled without ethics for the humans doing the peeling.
Now, that we have got that out of the way…
Buy garlic from a local farmer first. The garlic bulb should feel heavy for its size. It should also feel tight and compact. The looser the cloves, the longer it has sat. That means it is more than likely past its prime. Look for garlic that is thoroughly dry without damp spots. The aroma should smell fresh, but not overly pungent. If it smells too pungent, that is a sign the garlic is bruised.
I like to store whole garlic bulbs in a cool, dry, dark place, not in the refrigerator. It’s best to put peeled garlic in a small container with a dry towel on top of the cloves, then place it in the refrigerator. This helps the peeled cloves breathe so they won’t get slimy and damp.