Ginger is one of those ingredients that can be many things to many people. Not only is it used in cuisines around the world, but it also comes in a variety of forms—fresh, pickled, dried, and crystallized among them.
People who bake may immediately call to mind the ground ginger they use in gingerbread or the jewel-like crystallized ginger they add to holiday cookies and cakes. Others think first of ginger’s savory contributions: the brightness that minced fresh ginger adds to Chinese stir-fry, or the refreshing tang of pickled ginger served with sushi.
Rarely used as the sole flavoring in recipes, ginger combines particularly well with the warm spice notes of cumin and coriander in savory preparations. Garlic, mustard seed, turmeric, and the whole palette of Indian seasonings would shine less brightly without ginger’s glow. In sweets such as quick breads, muffins, and preserves, ginger is part of a classic triumvirate along with cinnamon and cloves.
In each of its incarnations, however, ginger makes its simultaneously hot and refreshing presence known.
Fresh ginger packs the most punch
Light tan with knobby, fingerlike branches, fresh ginger is available at most supermarkets, although I usually find better quality ginger at Asian markets, where it moves off the shelves faster.
The best fresh ginger has smooth, unblemished skin. It should be hard and break cleanly with a snap. Fresh ginger will keep for a week at room temperature and for a month in the fridge. Cutting pieces from it doesn’t ruin the integrity of the root; remove any of the cut edge that looks less than firm and use what you need of the rest, which remains in perfect condition.
I almost always peel ginger; the skin comes off easily with a vegetable peeler or a small paring knife. I make an exception if I’m using it in a marinade or sugar syrup from which it will be retrieved. In those cases, I simply slice the ginger and smash it slightly to release its aromatic oils. Young ginger, a real treat if you can find it, is less fibrous with a pale, thinner skin that doesn’t need to be peeled.
When slicing ginger for a julienne, trim the root into a rectangle and slice it lengthwise. Stack the slices and cut them into matchsticks. To dice the ginger, cut the matchsticks crosswise into cubes. You can also make ginger “coins” by slicing the root into rounds across the grain.
Pickled ginger is fresh ginger that’s been brined. More and more supermarkets are carrying pickled ginger, and markets. Pickled ginger is great with fish. I love to pair ginger, especially pickled ginger, with fatty fish like salmon because the ginger makes the fish feel less rich.
Pickled ginger is easy to make. Simply peel fresh ginger and slice it into thin ribbons. Cook the slices for a few minutes in lightly salted water, drain, and flavor to taste with sugar and a good-quality rice vinegar (I like a ratio of four parts vinegar to one part sugar). Allow the ginger to cool and store it with its brine in a canning jar with a good lid in the refrigerator.
I like to use the brine in vinaigrettes or as an intriguing base in place of vinegar in emulsified sauces like beurre blanc or hollandaise.
Dried and crystallized are best for baking
As with all aromatic flavorings, the dried version is an echo of the fresh form, and in the case of ginger, the dried can’t replace the fresh. But dried ginger has its merits, lending its warm, sweet aroma to cakes, cookies, and puddings. If the texture of the dessert allows, however, I add an equal amount of grated fresh ginger along with the ground; I find the resulting one-two punch of the fresh and dried is doubly delicious.
Look for crystallized ginger that isn’t rock hard, stuck together, or otherwise denuded of its sugar coating—signs of age or poor quality. The best crystallized ginger, which comes from Australia, is so good that I like to eat it out of hand as an after-dinner sweet.