For three years I lived just an hour outside of Australia’s ginger capital—Buderim, Queensland. My first trip there was not in pursuit of fresh ginger, however, but of wedding rings. The jeweler’s studio happened to be in a lush tropical setting, surrounded by groves of leafy ginger. My husband-to-be and I arrived to find out it was harvest season—and that the rings weren’t ready. To stave off disappointment, the jeweler sent us home with an enormous basket of ginger. Its fresh, lemony, pungent aroma wafted through the car, fueling my imagination with gingery possibilities.
Ginger isn’t just for Asian cooking
For years, fresh ginger was something I used in Asian cooking. Then I moved to Australia, where the highly creative, fusion style of cooking inspired me to think outside the proverbial box of Asian standards and discover new and innovative ways of using ginger. I was pleased to learn that ginger has few limitations.
Fresh ginger’s tangy freshness, light spiciness, warmth, and mellow sweetness complement a range of dishes, from sweet to savory. It can be a dominant flavoring, or it can work in conjunction with other flavors. Beyond the traditional Asian applications like stir-fries and dipping sauces, ginger is equally at home with such an everyday ingredient as maple syrup. I like to combine the two to make a glaze for meats and vegetables. Ginger can also be infused into milk and cream to make a tangy custard or ice cream. Even the unlikely combination of tomatoes and ginger works well. The sweetness of the tomatoes is a nice counterpoint to the sharp, spicy notes of the ginger. I can’t think of a fruit or vegetable that can’t be paired with fresh ginger. And ginger has a natural affinity to meats, poultry, and fish.
Preparing ginger for use in a recipe
Ginger can be sliced into planks or matchsticks, chopped, grated, puréed, and minced, depending on its final destination.
I use minced, chopped, or thin matchsticks of ginger when I want a textural component as well as flavor. The thin slivers of ginger roasted with root vegetables become irresistibly crisp and chewy, while the small bits of minced ginger in the couscous pilaf recipe provide occasional bursts of warm, spicy flavor. Planks or slices are perfect for infusing flavor into a broth.
When it’s just the flavor and essence of the ginger that I want to capture, I grate it. In the salmon recipe, I add grated ginger to the almost-finished tomato sauce, infusing it with a heady aroma and bright freshness. I also use grated ginger in salad dressings and dipping sauces, or whenever the ginger should have a smooth, nonfibrous consistency to readily blend in with other ingredients.
For less pungency and heat, choose the freshest ginger
Ginger’s aroma, texture, and flavor varies depending upon the timing of its harvest. Early-harvest or young ginger (harvested after six months) is tender and sweet, while older, more mature ginger (harvested between ten to twelve months) is more fibrous and spicy. The latter is usually all that’s available in American supermarkets, but young ginger can often be found in Asian markets. It’s easily identified by its thin, papery skin and pink-tinged tips. When I have the opportunity to cook with young ginger, I leave the skin on and use it in greater quantities.
At the supermarket, avoid ginger that looks wrinkled, discolored, or moldy. (Some stores leave ginger in the produce bins until it’s completely shriveled. Don’t buy it like this.) Look for ginger with a thin skin that’s smooth, unblemished, and almost translucent. If you break off a knob, the texture should be firm, crisp, and not overly fibrous (making it easier to slice). It should have a fresh, spicy fragrance. Keep in mind that, like many spices, ginger’s flavor fades as it cooks. So for more gingery oomph, add some or all of the ginger at the end of cooking.
I usually peel ginger unless I plan on discarding it before serving. Try using the edge of a metal spoon to scrape off the skin. It takes a bit more effort than a paring knife or a peeler, but it’s less wasteful—and it lets you maneuver around the knobs and gnarls.