The problem with buying garlic at the store is this: the varieties that growers like to produce are not the kinds of garlic that people would choose to cook with if they had a choice. But most people don’t realize they have a choice, because inferior garlic is all they’ve ever known.
The distinction between good and bad garlic comes down to a taxonomical division between hardneck garlic, which is the good kind, and softneck garlic, the kind that is most readily available.
The name hardneck refers to the presence of a flowering stalk, also called a scape, that each hardneck garlic plant will sprout in the weeks before harvest time. These delicious plant parts should be picked soon after they appear, so the plant doesn’t send energy to the developing flower at the expense of the bulb. Softneck garlic doesn’t send up a flower, which leaves the stalk less woody, making it a favorite among garlic braiders, as well as growers who would prefer to avoid the extra step of deflowering their crop.
But most cooks aren’t concerned with braiding garlic, and scapes are great for cooking. And if given a choice, most would prefer cooking with hardneck garlic, because it’s so much easier to work with. The cloves tend to be larger than softneck cloves, so big that a single one will often suffice for a meal. And a hardneck clove peels easily, with a hard shell that often comes off in one piece. All of these qualities make hardneck garlic a relative pleasure to work with.
Hardneck bulbs tend to be more orderly and symmetrical than softneck bulbs, while softneck bulbs are more chaotic. The cloves themselves are irregularly shaped as well, and some of them are so small they almost aren’t worth using. While hardneck peels are easily removed, softneck peels break apart into wisps as you pull them off the cloves. These wisps stick to your fingers, and make you utter certain four-letter words. It takes most of the day to peel enough softneck cloves for a single meal.
But many cooks have yet to experience the pleasures of good garlic, because despite all of its advantages in the kitchen, most growers plant softneck.
Their reasons are understandable. For one, the high number of cloves in a bulb of softneck garlic is an advantage when it comes to saving seed. When growing garlic, you plant the individual cloves, each one of which will grow into a bulb. Say you grew 2,000 garlic plants this year, and you want to grow the same amount next year. If you are using a softneck variety with 23 tiny, misshapen, generally annoying cloves in each head, you would only need to plant 83 bulbs-worth, or about 4 percent of your harvest, to get your 2,000 plants. But if you’re using a hardneck variety that averages four massive cloves per bulb, you’d need to plant 500 bulbs — or 25 percent of the harvest — in order to get your 2,000 plants. The poor multiple offered by those beefy hardneck cloves leaves growers with much less of their crop available for sale.
Another reason why growers prefer softneck is it tends to have a longer shelf life. Most consumers don’t care about this, because they are only buying a few bulbs at a time. Some gardeners have asked me if it makes sense to plant a few softneck cloves in the garlic patch in order to have some garlic to eat when the hardneck bulbs have gotten prohibitively soft. That that’s not necessary, because there are hardneck varieties, such as Romanian Red, that last long enough — at least until the scapes come out of next year’s crop. And I can happily subsist on scapes until the bulbs are ready for harvest.
So, now that I’ve explained to you that the garlic you thought you loved actually sucks, you might wonder where that leaves you.
Luckily, you have options. While much more softneck garlic is grown than hardneck — especially in China, the source of most U.S. garlic — it is nonetheless possible to find the good stuff if you know what to look for. Fancy stores that stock more than one variety of garlic will sometimes carry some hardneck. I see a lot of hardneck at the farmers’ market, too, as smaller operations tend to value its talents and can also sell the scapes. Hardneck garlic can be mail-ordered from boutique outfits as well.
When buying unknown garlic at a store, simply press down on the stalk in the center of the bulb. If it’s flimsy and bends over with ease, then it’s a softneck. If the cut end stands up to the pressure of your finger, then you have a hardneck bulb in your hands.
Because hardneck can be so difficult to find, and because growing garlic is so easy, fun and rewarding, your best option for using good garlic is to grow your own, save your seed and replant it.
Special seed garlic can be ordered. But this is often more expensive than garlic for eating, even though there is virtually no difference. Seed garlic is guaranteed to be disease-free, but for gardeners, the possibility of contaminating your garlic patch by planting retail garlic is very low.
Having said that, I have no regrets about biting the bullet a few years back and purchasing a large pile of hardneck Romanian Red seedstock. But if you aren’t as picky as me about which exact variety you want to grow, then you can do fine with whatever hardneck garlic looks good at the local farmers’ market. You’re assured that the variety, whatever that may be, can grow well in your region, because it just did.
Garlic is planted in the fall, and harvested the following summer. So if you’re interested in planting some, now is the time to get on it. Last year’s harvest is available for planting, and the time to do so is rapidly approaching.