The stinking rose

Not all garlic is the same

December 11, 2007

At my local supermarket, there are at least six types of mushrooms, three colors of onions, even two varieties of kale. But garlic is garlic: a basket of indistinguishable white heads, 50 cents apiece.

After talking to some of the nation’s top garlic growers, I’ve learned that (a) garlic isn’t just garlic, and (b) you can’t get two garlic fans to agree on anything. And America has a lot of garlic fans; our annual per-capita garlic consumption, according to the USDA, doubled between 1990 and 2004 and currently sits at around 2.6 pounds (about 12 large heads of garlic) per person.

Are there different varieties of garlic?
Like apples, squash, and tomatoes, there are loads of heirloom garlic varieties with catchy names like Zeno, Georgian Fire, De Vivo, and Music Pink. But all garlic falls into two basic categories: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum, variety ophioscorodon) has a few large cloves arranged around a firm central stalk. Softneck garlic (Allium sativum, variety sativum) has several rings of cloves with smaller cloves in the center, and no central stalk.

Standard supermarket garlic is softneck. Other names for hardneck garlic include ophio, Korean, and rocambole; the latter is technically one type of hardneck garlic, but the name gets applied indiscriminately to all hardneck garlic.

Fresh heads of garlic for sale at an outdoor market.

Other than the neck, what’s the difference between softneck and hardneck garlics?
A lot. Most connoisseurs consider hardneck to be superior. “It’s just a richer, fuller, more complex flavor,” said Tom Cloud, the office manager at Filaree Farm, Washington state’s premier organic-garlic grower. Hardneck garlic is lower in allicin, the compound that makes garlic taste “hot,” so you can get more garlic flavor with hardneck — even when using it raw — without the heat becoming overpowering. Hardneck garlic is easier to peel, and you don’t get stuck with a bunch of tiny central cloves.

On the other hand, Bill Christopher is a softneck garlic partisan. His company, Christopher Ranch of Gilroy, California, is the largest garlic grower in the U.S., and grows almost entirely softneck garlic. His take on hardneck? “It’s not as big, it’s not as flavorful, and it doesn’t last as long. So commercially it’s not something that we would grow.”

Kay Rentschler of Cook's Illustrated takes the hardneck hard line. As she wrote in a 2001 article about pasta with garlic and oil:

The garlic I was using — the standard supermarket variety — produced both some ethereal flavors and some that were rather fishy. My entire orientation to this subject was to change the moment I bought some farmers’ market garlic just one month out of the ground: its waxy firm, pearly opaque cloves made improvements in flavor that none of us had anticipated.

Cook’s followed up with a garlic tasting, and a hardneck variety from Filaree Farm was their overall favorite.

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“The local stuff’s just good garlic,” said Ethan Stowell, the chef-owner of Tavolata, a hugely popular Italian restaurant in Seattle. “I like the hardneck; the flavor’s just more developed. It’s more sweet, it’s more subtle, it’s more elegant.”

Cloud, Rentschler, and Stowell would argue with Christopher about the flavor of hardneck garlic, but one thing can’t be denied: Softneck garlic can be cured (hung to dry) and stored for months with little deterioration. Hardneck garlic, for all its charms, has a short season (here in the Pacific Northwest, the season runs from August to around December), stores for only a few weeks, and is finicky about curing.

So good softneck garlic is available year-round?
Depends what you mean by “good.” Softneck garlic can handle controlled-atmosphere storage, which is the kind of low-temperature, low-oxygen environment used to store apples over the winter. Christopher markets his California garlic year-round. However, I find that by midwinter, most of the bulk California garlic in my area supermarkets is in poor shape; it’s often sprouted, and sometimes it’s even moldy.

Filaree Farm had some initial successes with controlled-atmosphere storage of hardneck garlic in the 1990s. “But I don’t believe that ever panned out at all,” said Cloud.

What should I do if my midwinter garlic clove is growing a green sprout?
Slice the clove lengthwise down the middle and pull out and discard the sprout. It won’t hurt you, but it’s not very tasty, either. And buy some new garlic.

Where does garlic come from?
Garlic can grow almost anywhere, which is why it’s a staple of world cuisines from the tropics to the frozen north. But if you’re buying garlic anywhere other than a farmers’ market, it probably came from California or China. (China grows 75 percent of the world’s garlic.) If you’re buying whole heads, it’s easy to tell the difference between the domestic and the import. “If it has the roots on it, 99 percent chance it’s from California,” said Christopher. “Chinese garlic, the whole root plate is cut out, so you won’t see any roots on it at all.”

Wait, are you saying we should buy the Californian garlic or the Chinese?
That’s up to you. But a few weeks ago, I heard Eric Gower, the author of The Breakaway Cook, talking about making garlic confit with lots of olive oil and dozens of garlic cloves. Gower buys his garlic, peeled and refrigerated, at a Korean grocery. It comes from China and the cloves are peeled with compressed air. (California’s Christopher Ranch also sells peeled garlic. The Chinese is predictably cheaper.)

I’d long dismissed pre-peeled garlic cloves as being in the same category as those jars of minced garlic, which are pretty bad. But I was intrigued for two reasons. First, Gower is a great cook. Second, you don’t argue about garlic with Koreans. South Korea eats more garlic per capita than any other country. I found many estimates of Korean garlic consumption and they were all over the map, but everyone agrees that Korea is number one; Koreans eat many times more garlic than Americans. Korea is also one of the world’s top garlic producers (the country grows mostly hardneck garlic), but doesn’t grow enough to meet national demand. Like the U.S., Korea imports most of the rest from China.

A hardneck head of garlic has a firm central stalk.

So I headed to my local Korean supermarket and picked up half a pound (two cups) of peeled Chinese garlic cloves for $1.50. (Meanwhile, I saw other people buying five-pound bags of the same garlic.) Are the peeled cloves as good as the local hardneck garlic I was buying in late summer? Not even close. Are they as good as overwintered California garlic? Better. If fresh garlic and local (or at least domestic) produce are both important to you, you will have a shopper’s dilemma in winter and spring.

Stowell, the Seattle chef, thinks Gower and I are nuts. “Peeled garlic is just terrible,” he told me. “Don’t buy that stuff.” After the local season is over, he turns to heads of California softneck.

But Seattle’s favorite local pizza chain, Pagliacci, uses Christopher Ranch’s peeled cloves on their famous AGOG Primo pie (roasted garlic, kalamata olives, and goat cheese), and it’s hard to fault the AGOG’s garlic flavor. Pagliacci gets it through wholesale channels, however. When I bought some peeled Christopher Ranch garlic at my local supermarket, it was in lousy shape (moist and starting to sprout) despite being well shy of its printed freshness date.

The garlic press: Good or evil?
I like it. “Garlic crushed and forced through a press will be very strong because so many more of the garlic’s cells are broken, releasing the sulfurous chemicals,” warn Linda and Fred Griffith in their cookbook Garlic, Garlic, Garlic. “We press garlic when we want it to have a dramatic presence or when we want it to dissolve into a sauce.” I have the Zyliss jumbo, and it works well, but it’s a pain to clean, even with the included cleaner.

What about elephant garlic?
Botanically speaking, it’s neither garlic nor an elephant. It’s more closely related to leeks. I don’t bother with it.

Here in the Unexplained Bacon test kitchen (population: 3), I’m guessing we go through more than our allotted 7.8 pounds per year, but not enough to impress anyone from Korea. I like garlic best when it’s a reassuring platform for other ingredients: puréed in a Thai curry paste, smashed in a marinara sauce, or minced and thrown in at the end of a vegetable sauté so the garlic doesn’t burn.

Then again, I’ve been on a Korean food kick recently, and there’s Eric Gower’s garlic confit to think about. Save me a five-pounder.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

Also on Culinate: A quick look at the health benefits of garlic.

There are 9 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by anonymous on Dec 11, 2007 at 9:24 AM PST

If you have access to a farmer’s market, there’s one other advantage to hardneck: scapes.

2. by Liz Crain on Dec 11, 2007 at 1:51 PM PST

I usu. grow and cook with softneck varieties but this summer I decided to plant several hardneck varieties as well and I’m looking forward to taste testing them all.

I made a map of the beds so I don’t forget which is which. I also saved a few cloves from each type in hopes of cooking each up and trying them. But kitchen chaos got the best of me and I forgot which was which. Luckily, they were all tasty!

I think I’ll try the peeled this winter. I’ve always steered clear as well. Thanks for the great article Matthew.

3. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 11, 2007 at 4:24 PM PST

Hi, anonymous. I had a little bit about garlic scapes in there at one point, but I cut it for space. But I heartily agree.

4. by Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy on Dec 12, 2007 at 8:43 AM PST

I love garlic, though they don’t eat it as much in Italy as I did at home - I am from Gilroy, so you can say it hurts! Glad Christopher Ranch got a mention. Good writeup.

5. by Craig Camp on Dec 14, 2007 at 7:24 AM PST

What about the health benefits of eating garlic. Is one type better than the other?

6. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 14, 2007 at 9:49 AM PST

Craig, beats me. That hugely popular article on the NYT about the benefits of garlic implied that it’s the main sulfur compound in garlic that has a beneficial effect. Softneck garlic has more of that.

7. by cia007girl on Jan 9, 2008 at 2:51 PM PST

I remember going to a large market in Moscow as a kid and buying heads of pickled/marinated garlic with my grandmother. Oh the memories.

8. by mary-anne durkee on Jan 21, 2008 at 9:54 AM PST

Loved your article just gave you a plug on my tomato/gardening list of 1500 members around the world

and I am writing a blog on iFood.TV about garlic and will give your link as well.

Do you send out a newsletter?

BTW I am just a bit over an hour from Gilroy (Alamo is 25 miles east of SF) and I grow a lot of hard neck garlic love the flavour!

I also am buying those 3# bags of Christopher Ranch grown in Califonia garlic bulbs at Costco! We eat a lot of garlic-I grew up next to Italians, and I cook a lot of Thai food and I use GARLIC!

Mary-Anne, Bay Area Foodie

9. by anonymous on May 2, 2010 at 4:49 AM PDT

I used to be a garlic press guy. They work well, but you don’t have much choice about what size pieces the garlic ends up in. Cleaning them is also decidedly un-fun. I’ve given away both of my garlic presses and now almost exclusively use a granite mortar and pestle (occasionally a knife instead). Works great, easy to clean, and you can go all the way down to a smooth garlic “paste” when you need to, very easily.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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