I’m currently keeping my mouth shut pretty tight. I just ate 10 cloves of garlic in the name of science, and while I have exciting results to share from this experiment, I believe those around me (especially the vampires) are not amused. The inspiration for my experiment sprouted from a gift of garlic, given to me by my boyfriend’s parents, who recently visited The Hudson Valley Garlic Festival. Yes, apparently garlic festivals exist, and I’m really jealous I wasn’t there. They were kind enough to return with 3 heads of garlic in tow: an Oregon Blue, a Polish Medium, and a German Red Medium from Piedmont Garlic Farms, NY. Naturally, I thought a taste test was in order. My goal? To (a) determine if I could really taste the difference between varieties, and (b) find a new favorite garlic.
For background, I adore garlic. I think almost any savory dish can benefit from more of it. A friend and I once joked that homeowners should sauté onions and garlic at open houses. What home-buyer can resist the aroma? As partial to garlic as I am, I can’t say I was interested in just taking a bite of it raw. Fine, I admit I did try some minced bits out of curiosity, but the flavor descriptions ranged from “my mouth is on fire” to “only burns a little”. No, raw garlic is perhaps not where it’s at.
So I took 2 routes: I roasted several cloves of each variety to spread on fresh bread, and then I also minced a few cloves of each to sauté with mushrooms, because it’s a great combination. Mushrooms are earthy and meaty and much mellower in flavor than garlic is, so they’re good background for a garlic tasting experiment. Everything was executed very scientifically, from the choosing of an average garlic for comparison (“the stuff from across the street”), to the separate dishes of each variety, to the palate cleanser (the classic Sierra Nevada pale ale) between samples.
Here is an overview of my findings, in 3 categories: appearance/ease of peeling, taste when roasted, and taste when sautéed with mushrooms:
Stuff from across the street:
- huge cloves in comparison to all the garlic festival cloves
- roasted: sweet
- mushrooms: mild, didn’t offer much flavor
- easy to peel
- roasted: milky, the most mellow
- mushrooms: mild, a little spicy
- very easy to peel, reddish tint
- roasted: creamy like butter, mellow, smooth
- mushrooms: not much taste
- very tightly packed cloves, brownish tint
- roasted: creamy, flavorful, very earthy
- mushrooms: not spicy, but very present
Just out of curiosity, I decided to see what the experts (er, internets) had to say about each variety:
Stuff from across the street: based on some Googling, it seems like most grocery store garlic is softneck silverskin garlic because it’s easier to grow in bulk
Oregon Blue: nice hot flavor, dark green leaves, and a purple cast on the skin; stores well
Polish Medium: rich, musky, earthy flavor and a little bite
German Red: strong flavored, easily peeled, red-brown-skinned; “the spice of life”
Hm, the spice of life, eh? In fact, the German Red was my favorite, both roasted and sautéed with mushrooms. The Polish Medium was a close second when roasted. To be clear, I liked all of them, but these two were the most clearly unique. In describing the flavors I found myself drawing on vocabulary I typically reserve for wine tasting: words like grassy, buttery, and earthy. And, like a good wine, not everyone will agree on what they taste in a garlic clove. Just because I like the German Red doesn’t mean you will.
But the point of this whole experiment ties in to my whole perspective on food: it’s better to know where it came from. I like to know where my berries were grown and how my chickens were raised, so why should garlic be any different? I don’t know for sure what variety the stuff from across the street is, but my guess is that it isn’t German Red or Oregon Blue. The more you know about where your food comes from, the more deliberate you can be in your choosing your ingredients and cooking methods. After all, not all garlics are created equal.
Freya Bellin writes weekly for Mark Bittman’s web site and alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Make Your Grandma Proud, You Say ToMAYto, I Say ToMAHto, and Your New Favorite Brunch.