By Jennifer Muck Dietrich
As a relative of the onion, shallot, leek and chive, garlic is the oldest known cultivated crop. Garlic is believed to be derived from central Asian or Southwestern Siberia. Why it’s called The Stinking Rose is up for debate as it is more closely related to the lily family. It could be because when you turn over a head of garlic, it does resemble a white rose. Another theory is that it’s sourced from its ancient Greek name, “scorodon”, roughly translated as “skaion rodon”, or stinking rose.
Garlic is an essential ingredient in many foods, and has been used traditionally for thousands of years as medicine and in cultural rituals. There are hundreds of varieties but just two subspecies—hardneck and softneck.
What’s the difference?
Producing a hermaphrodite flower called a “scape” which is lovingly pollinated by bees and butterflies, hardneck garlic can be propagated through the bulbils which form within the terminal pod at the end of the flower stalk. Harvesting this stalk in the spring, before it has a chance to bloom, is the key to producing larger heads. It lets all the energy go back into the plant and increases the bulb size. The scape is an amazing treat in the spring. Eaten raw or sautéed, it has a delicate garlic flavor prized by all who love garlic. Nearly all garlic in cultivation is propagated asexually by planting the individual cloves in late fall for a summer crop the following season. Typically grown in the north, hardneck garlic requires a period of cold and moist conditions followed by warm moist, called vernalization. The heads of this garlic tends to be much larger and are made up of 4-6 cloves surrounding the central stalk. Once cured, they are individually wrapped in dry, thick skin which makes them easy to peel. The flavors of hardneck garlic are complex, rich and spicy. The main downfall of hardneck garlic is that it does not store as well as softneck. They need to be kept in a moderately cool and humid environment with ample air flow. They typically begin to deteriorate within 4-6 months, so use them up quickly! Some popular varieties are: German White, Porcelain, Rocambole, Spanish Roja, Chesnok Red and Purple Stripe.
From the outside, it’s tough to tell a hardneck from a softneck garlic. But when cracked open, softneck heads don’t have a hard core at the center because they do not form a flower stalk. They have many cloves of different sizes surrounding a soft stem making the leaves ideal for braiding. Softneck garlic grows best in warmer climates as they are not generally hardy. However, softneck varieties store very well, making them ideal for mass production. The heads will last for 9-12 months under ideal storage conditions. The flavor tends to be much more mild and less spicy than the hardneck. There are fewer varieties of this garlic, some which will grown in the Northeast are: Silverskin and Artichoke.
Elephant garlic is a perennial plant belonging to the onion genus. It is not a true garlic, but actually a variant of the leek. It has a tall, solid flowering stalk and broad, flat leaves much like those of a leek, but forms a bulb consisting of very large, garlic-like cloves. It has a mild flavor in-between those of both garlic and onion. It’s latin name is Amaryllidaceae, commonly known as the amaryllis family.
80% of the world’s garlic comes from China, making it the largest producer in the world. Ranking in 10th place, the United States grows less than 1% of China’s production. China also leads in consuming the most garlic at about 22 pounds per capita per year. In comparison, the average American consumes roughly 2 pounds. Renowned for its health benefits, garlic is considered a treatment for many conditions. From high blood pressure and high cholesterol, to treating colds and flu, acne, as well as being an antifungal. During WWI and WWII, garlic was used medically as a treatment for smallpox, dropsie and even an antiseptic against gangrene.
Pass the tic-tacs
The phytochemicals responsible for the sharp taste of garlic are produced when the plants cells are damaged. When broken by chopping, chewing or crushing, enzymes stored in the cell vacuoles trigger the breakdown of sulfur containing compounds stored in the cell fluids. These compounds are believed to have evolved over time as a defense mechanism for deterring animals and insects. The strong smelling sulfur compounds are metabolized, forming allyl methyl sulfide (AMS). When consumed, AMS can not be digested, so it is passed into the bloodstream. It is then carried to the lungs and the skin where it is excreted. Hence, garlic breath. The best way to neutralize the effects of AMS is to drink milk while consuming garlic. There is a compound in milk which counteracts AMS, the higher the fat content, the better.
Despite the negative side effect, garlic has been revered as an offering fit for the gods for over 5000 years. It was believed to ward off the evil eye, was hung in doorways to protect medieval occupants from bad spirits and vampires, it gave courage and strength to Greek athletes and warriors and kept away the black plague. It was also celebrated as an aphrodisiac and prescribed by Chinese doctors for erectile dysfunction, as well as believed to help with infertility. The ancient Egyptians used garlic as currency to both pay, and feed slaves and workers building the pyramids. Clay garlic bulbs were placed in Egyptian tombs as offerings to the gods in the dearly departeds’ afterlife. In England, garlic breath was deemed entirely unsuitable for the refined upper class. Americans adopted this attitude and didn’t embrace garlic until the 1940’s. Until then it was considered an ethnic ingredient and known by slang terms such as “Italian perfume”. Garlic consumption in the United States has tripled since this time with more and more people discovering its healthful, and tasty properties.
With this recipe you can use any variety of garlic you please—hardneck, softneck or even elephant.
Preheat your oven to 350
Choose 2 or 3 large, firm bulbs of garlic, cut the very top of the bulb off exposing the tops of the individual cloves. Wrap in aluminum foil or parchment paper, but before you close it tight, drizzle with olive oil. Roast until soft. Squeeze or spoon out the soft, garlic paste and spread on bread, add to mashed potatoes, swirl in pasta, put on your scrambled eggs…. It is a rich, savory, mild garlic flavor that makes anything delicious.
2 pounds of garlic (approximately 20 bulbs),
peeled and trimmed
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 1/2 cups water
2 1/2 cups white or apple vinegar
4 teaspoons red pepper flakes
4 teaspoons dill seed
4 clean, sterilized pint canning jars
Combine salt, water and vinegar in saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes & dill seed to each jar, then pack with the garlic cloves leaving 1/2 inch of headspace.
Using a ladle, divide hot pickling brine between each jar leaving that 1/2 inch headspace. Remove any air bubbles, wipe jar rims and carefully place the lids and rings onto the jars, fingertip tight.
Process jars in water bath, boiling for 10 minutes. The jars must be covered by at least 1 inch of water. Turn off heat, let cool for 5 minutes. Remove from jars and let cool for 12 hours. Check seals. Store in refrigerator for up to 4 months.
*If your garlic turns blue or turquoise, don’t worry. This is perfectly normal and does not mean there is anything wrong. It is a reaction from the sulfur in the garlic reacting with minerals that occur naturally in your water or from your pot. To avoid this from happening, you can use distilled water.
Illustration by Kevin Kobasic