When a user on the popular discussion board Reddit asked professional chefs for their favourite ingredient, the top-rated reply – of more than 8,000 – was surprisingly mundane: garlic.
The spice of the world
Garlic is so ubiquitous that we tend to associate it with our own cuisines. For Westerners, that might mean Mediterranean-inspired sauces and herb-stuffed meatballs.
But the vast majority of garlic is grown in Asia, particularly China, which had already been cultivating and cooking with garlic for possibly thousands of years before the bulb migrated to the Middle East and then ancient Greece and Rome.
While garlic is a staple ingredient of almost every culture’s cuisine, one notable holdout was America, whose Protestant Puritan compunctions made people suspicious of the aromatic bulb. (Still, those same sensibilities are responsible for breakfast cereal, so we can’t blame them too much.)
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the United States finally embraced garlic; today the town of Gilroy in California declares itself the “Garlic capital of the world.”
Grow garlic yourself
Garlic is surprisingly easy to grow, and can be planted any time of the year in temperate climates. For colder locales, a month or two before the ground usually freezes is the optimal planting time.
Other than that, growing garlic is merely a matter of planting the bulbs in decent soil and providing them with water. Here is a beginners guide to producing your own garlic and a more advanced post by the Royal Horticultural Society.
But first, you have to decide what sort of garlic you want to grow and eventually cook with. Broadly, there are two types.
Softneck: most popular in grocery chains because its bulbs tend to have more cloves).
Hardneck: a purple or reddish skinned variety that has fewer cloves, but tends to be hardier.
These are a few examples of common varieties of each (although be aware that even these can have dozens of sub-varieties, so consult your local grower or seed supplier):
Silverskin (softneck): The standard, white-skinned garlic of the grocery store shelf with a thin, loose skin and numerous bulbs. It’s easy to peel and crush and will last months when kept dry.
Artichoke (softneck): Another common off-the-shelf variety with fewer but plumper cloves than silverskin. It has a milder flavour, making it perfect for dishes that call for garlic undertones without overwhelming the palette.
Purple stripe (hardneck): A particularly sweet and aromatic garlic variety popular for baking. It has smaller, hardier bulbs with purple spots or stripes on its skin.
Rocambole (hardneck): A somewhat more difficult garlic to grow (they prefer cooler temperatures than other varieties) that pays off with a powerful, rich flavour. Their thin-skinned bulbs have purple splotches or stripes and overall brownish earthy colour.
Happy garlic growing!