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Choosing a Good Head of Garlic

Fine Cooking Issue 41
Photos: Amy Albert
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Although you tend to see one or two basic varieties of garlic at the supermarket, hundreds of strains exist, some of which you might see at a farmers’ market or a garlic farm near you. They have differences in strength and nuance, and all are wonderfully pungent.

Here’s how garlic is cultivated, how to choose a good bulb at the market, and how to keep it fresh once you get it home.

Hardneck and soft

Garlic farmers cultivate two kinds of garlic: hardneck and softneck.

Hardneck garlic grows in northern regions with harsh winters. Bulbs (also called heads) normally have six to eight uniform cloves growing around a hard center shaft, and their size is more regular than the cloves found in many softneck strains. There are three types of hardneck: Rocambole (roh-cam-BOH-lee) garlic, which has tan or white skin around the bulb and various amounts of purple streaking; porcelain garlic, which has white outer skin with little or no purple coloration; and purplestriped garlic.

The cloves of hardneck garlic have a brownish skin with varying amounts of purple, depending on the variety. The skins are thick and easy to peel.

Hardneck garlic grows until the ground freezes and then rests until the mild weather returns.

Garlic scapes grow from the stalk of hardneck garlic. Scapes come in at the beginning of June. Garlic scapes have a fresh flavor that’s milder than a garlic clove; they’re delicious used just as you would garlic cloves.
If you like strong garlic, Spanish Roja, a Rocambole, is for you. It also contains high amounts of allicin, the compound in garlic believed to be an immune-system booster.
Marino, a Rocambole, is milder than Spanish Roja and slightly sweet. I think it goes especially well with basil; Marino is a great garlic for pesto.
Music, which we call Prussian White, is a porcelain garlic. A little sweeter than other porcelains, it’s very good with fish and chicken.

Softneck garlic grows year-round in climates where the winters are mild, such as southern California, Florida, and the southeastern U.S., as well as Israel, Italy, and parts of Asia. Cloves grow in a cluster, with anywhere from 12 to 24 cloves per bulb. There are two types of softneck: artichoke and silverskin. In many varieties of softneck, cloves are irregularly shaped. The bulbs have a covering of thin, pale skin, while the cloves’ skin can range in color from rusty red to pale brown. As with hardneck, the flavor of softneck garlic can run from mild to very hot.

Inchelium Red Artichoke is a softneck variety. Milder than silverskin, it’s good in salads and other dishes that call for raw garlic.
Nootka Rose Silverskin, another softneck variety, has small, overlapping cloves. Nootka Rose is on the full-flavored side. Its small cloves are good in stir-fries and for studding roasts.

Garlic is a hardy plant

A garlic plant can thrive just about anywhere except very extreme conditions. I’ve dropped garlic cloves in my back yard and found healthy garlic growing there the following year.

In the harsher climates where hardneck garlic grows best, planting is usually done in late September or October. In regions with mild winters, which is where softneck thrives, planting and harvesting are done almost year-round.

One garlic clove spawns a bulb. Cloves are planted about three inches deep into the ground with the root end set into the soil. When planting, garlic farmers save the healthiest, best cloves—those with no mutations—for planting next year’s crop. 

Garlic needs curing

At harvest, garlic is hung in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place to cure for three to five weeks before going to market. Curing dries the bulb and brings out additional flavor. As a bulb of garlic cures and matures, the cloves’ papery skin turns darker. At our farm, we hang the whole plant bulb side down so that juices from the stalk travel to the bulb, bringing the best flavor. (Many growers cut off the tops and lay the garlic on screens; although this speeds curing, I believe there’s a sacrifice in flavor, and I think our method is why our garlic tastes so good.)  

When the first skin can be removed by sliding your thumb over the bulb, the garlic is cured.

At the market, look for garlic with a very firm head. Avoid bulbs that are dried out or have soft spots or mold. Green shoots in a bulb are a sign of internal growth in the clove; it’s an indication of old garlic. And as with other produce, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Varieties vary in size, and many people find that a smaller bulb of garlic has more flavor than a larger one.

Store garlic in a cool, dry place. For just a few heads, a ventilated ceramic container or garlic keeper is perfect. If you buy a large amount of garlic, hang it in a mesh sack in your basement or garage—as long as it’s cool and dry there. Never store garlic in a plastic bag, and keep it out of the fridge, unless you have a low-humidity drawer.

Elephant garlic isn’t really a garlic at all, but a member of the leek family. Mild-flavored with a hint of onion, it’s best roasted and makes great soup.

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