Growing black garlic
Just this week, I was able to finally experience the umami bomb that is black garlic. Of course, I had to report my delicious discovery, which led my incredibly funny friend Christina to ask “Where can I find some black garlic to plant?” At least, I think she is being funny. Sometimes, she is so dry, it is hard to tell.
The bad news, is that black garlic is a processed food product, and planting it would only make me sad. I’m sure I’ve planted numerous bulbs that have looked something like black garlic:
Few have sprouted. And none have lived to tell the tale.
What I can do is plant garlic. Like now. Actually, last week might have been better, but I would have had to shovel. Some will tell you that last fall would have been better still, but they don’t have critters like I do. And yes, they eat hot peppers. They probably use the garlic and make their own sambal body shots, but I digress…
So, if you are able to get garlic NOW, git planting. If you are a Midwest or yankee gardener, your window is almost closed. Make sure you only plant a clove, which is a section of the entire bulb. I had a friend mess that up once with 40-clove chicken, and gave up after 15 HEADS because she couldn’t stuff any more in there. Seriously. That bird was toxic.
Garlic originated in Central Asia, like so many great foods. We divide them into a couple of types, because we are human and this is what we neurotically do. There are hard-neck (aka stiffneck), soft-neck (aka artichoke garlic), and elephant, which isn’t a garlic anymore than garlic- chives, but whatever. For those of us not living in the Elysian Fields, also called California, we should stick with the softneck–no stiffies for us. Sorry. There are mild garlics, strong garlics, and keepers. Softnecks aren’t in general, the best keepers. I don’t like descriptors about mild or strong tasting because I found growing them in different conditions profoundly changes the flavor. Garlic I grew when I lived on the Anoka sandplain was smaller and more pungent than garlic grown in my ridiculously fertile loam of a garden here in Indiana (I worked my ass off to get it that way, too). So, don’t worry too much about which one to get. Just get. And go plant.
The one thing you should worry about is white mold, though. This is a really cool fungus, except when it is in my garden (But it is very cool in yours!). White mold has a variety of mechanisms to get into your garden, but one of the bests is on sunflower seeds. So, buy hulled sunflowers for your feathered friends, and keep the feeder away from the garden. Trust me on this. I’ll write more about white mold later. Hopefully not about the garlic, although there is something very Ansel Adams-y about ‘White Mold-Black Garlic’ that needs exploring.
Back to black garlic. You planted your garlic, and it is summer (let’s hold off to July since we were late in planting). Don’t stress about not planting in the fall. Yes, they may be bigger, but this 5’1″ person reminds you that bigger isn’t better. Harvest your garlic. Admire it. Because now we are going to torture it. Or at least, I am sharing my plans for garlic torture.
First, contrary to internet misinformation, black garlic is not fermented. That would involve microbes, my little friends, and would make for a pretty stinky mess. Think about it for a moment–if yeast (or bacteria) got in there, how bad do you think it would smell? Think rotting potatoes and rotting onions. And then think of all the others really great microbes that would get in there. There’s a reason when we ferment that we use scrupulously clean bottles and jars, not a sheave of barley, or a bunch of grapes. So, no to fermentation.
What about pickling? Is black garlic pickled? Again, the answer is no. Pickling is all about dropping the pH to preserve something. Pickled garlic is amazing stuff, but it is not black garlic. Sometimes, in my experience, it can be blue garlic. Which is admittedly weird. But I ate it and lived to write this blog.
So, what the hell makes garlic black? Maillard!!! No, Maillard. Not mallard. Ducks have nothing to do with this. Maillard is the reaction that makes bread toast, the lovely sear on a steak, and the crispy skin on bird well-roasted. It is the lovely browning of carmelization, which is the ‘simple’ reaction between amino acids and sugars that give food more flavor. In this case, though, it is the lovely blackening of carmelization, over low heat (60 degrees C=140F). They say for a month. I will be testing this. I think I can pull it off in 2 weeks, plus a week or two to sit. My plan of attack is to vacuum seal each head of garlic and incubate in a dehydrator (no lab materials) and begin checking at day 14. As a scientist, I’ll compare this to the careful wrapping in tin foil. I hope to keep you posted!
Gourmetgarlics dot com has a nice explanation of varieties and rating. I get nothing from them other than the satisfaction that people who know what they are talking about are actually getting business