Garlic is one of the most popular and widely used seasonings on the planet, and while most people don’t realize it there are over 600 different types of garlic out there to choose from – and more being added to this number regularly. Garlic is quite versatile and has been used in culinary, medicinal and religious applications for thousands of years. It is even rumored to ward off vampires and ‘the evil eye’.
Although many people will tell you that it is an herb, technically speaking garlic is a vegetable. The garlic you will normally find fresh at the market is the bulb of the Alluim sativum plant in the Amaryllidaceae family of flowering plants and is closely related to the onion, shallot, and chive. The garlic bulb grows beneath the ground, is covered in a paper-like skin or ‘wrapper’, and is made up of individual sections referred to as cloves; these bulbs produce shoots above the ground that are often also edible. The garlic plant will normally grow to around three feet in height, and will usually produce white or pinkish flowers. Having some tolerance for cold, garlic is a relatively easy plant to grow and today is grown by home gardeners throughout the world.
Garlic is believed to have originated in Central Asia and what is now Northeastern Iran and has been used as a flavoring vegetable since before the dawn of recorded history. There is archeological evidence showing that it was used in China dating back to 4,000 BC, while records indicate that it was used by the ancient Egyptians as both a flavoring and a medicinal ‘herb’ almost 5,000 years ago; clay pots in the shape of garlic bulbs were placed in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, indicating its religious significance in that culture. Both the Ancient Romans and Greeks were fond of garlic, and it was widely used – particularly by the poor – throughout Europe in Medieval times. Over the centuries garlic made its way across the globe and became an important part of literally hundreds of cuisines worldwide.
Today over 26 million metric tons of garlic are commercially cultivated worldwide each year with China by far the world’s leading producer and accounting for roughly 80 percent of production. India is a distant second followed by Bangladesh, the European Union, Egypt, and South Korea. Production in the United States – which ranks 10th – are mostly located around Gilroy, California, which calls itself ‘the garlic capital of the world’.
There are two basic types of garlic – hard neck and softneck – and, depending on who you ask, there are a further 8 to 10 groups (many of which are discussed in depth below) within these general classifications. Virtually all types of garlic are edible and are considered by some to be one of the healthiest foods out there. Garlic is high in most of the B vitamins (particularly B6) as well as vitamin C, calcium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc. Garlic has been used for thousands of years in traditional medicines to treat intestinal ailments and the common cold and is being studied by researchers today for possible use in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer.
So, what are the main types of garlic out there today?
Softneck garlic cultivars are the most widely commercially cultivated garlic, both for fresh and industrial (powder, salt, paste, etc.) use. So named for the soft, pliable stalk (or neck) to the top of the bulb – which makes them very popular for braiding – softnecks will generally be less cold-hardy than their hardneck cousins, and also have a milder, less intense flavor.
Artichoke garlic – aptly named for their resemblance to small artichokes – are the most popular and widely grown varieties in the world, and what you will usually find for sale at your local grocery store or farmers market if you live in the US, Canada, or European Union. Very adaptable to many different soil conditions, this garlic is also a favorite with home gardeners as they require very little maintenance and the bulbs of some varieties will last for up to 7 or 8 months after they are picked, particularly when braided.
Artichoke garlic generally produces relatively large – normally between 2 to 3 inches in diameter – white to off-white bulbs, although some varieties may have light purple patches. Depending on the variety, Artichoke garlic will produce anywhere from 15 to 20 white or white with red-streaked cloves per bulb. The outer layer of the bulb will generally be quite thick, making it hard to peel but contributing to their longer than average shelf life. All Artichoke garlic are classified as softnecks and have the standard and familiar spicy, slightly sweet garlic flavor although they will differ in intensity depending on the cultivar. They are suitable for all fresh applications calling for garlic and are often used in fresh sauces, pestos, and as a fresh seasoning on cooked dishes. They are also often roasted or braised. Artichoke garlic is also widely used for making garlic powder and salt.
Popular Artichoke garlic cultivars include Applegate, California Late, Early Red Italian, Polish White, Italian Late, Kettle River, and Thermadrone.
The other major softneck garlic classification, Silverskin garlics are generally late-season varieties, and usually the last to mature each year in the fall. They are the longest-lasting garlic on the market (often lasting up to a year when braided) and also the easiest to braid, due to their long stalks. Slightly more cold-hardy than Artichokes, Silverskin varieties grow well throughout most of the US, Canada, and Europe.
Most Silverskin varieties will have quite thick, creamy white skins although, like Artichokes, some will have a pink or reddish blush. The bulbs tend to be a bit smaller than the Artichoke varieties although they will often produces as many – and sometimes more – cloves per bulb, in some cases over 20. The cloves will range from pink to an almost mahogany color – as in the case with the very popular Nootka Rose cultivar. Silverskins will generally have an earthy, almost musky flavor that will range from quite mild to surprisingly spicy and hot. They are appropriate for use in all fresh and cooked garlic applications, and some varieties are particularly prized by chefs for their decorative qualities in dishes.
Popular Silverskin varieties include the aforementioned Nootka Rose, Red Toch, Rose du Var, Silver White, Chet’s Italian Red, Baja Morado and Mount St. Helens.
Hardneck garlic varieties – while not as widely commercially cultivated as softnecks – are generally more durable plants and most stand up to cold exceedingly well, making them some of the favorite cultivars of gardeners and small farmers in colder climates. They are characterized by a hard edible stem (or neck) called a scrape, which is considered a delicacy in some cuisines. Generally, hardneck varieties will be slightly larger than softnecks, but will have fewer cloves.
Perhaps the most popular of the hardneck garlic varieties, Rocambole garlic plants are generally among the hardiest varieties and are quite popular with small farmers and gardeners in the Northern United States, Canada, Central and Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia. Most Rocamboles have a very thin brownish-white skin with purple blushing or striping – some of it quite vivid. The hard stalk will often form a double loop, while the large bulb will usually have 8 to 10 cloves that are easy to peel, usually arranged in a circle around the central scrape. They are a favorite of some chefs due to their complex, earthy, sometimes sweet, often quite hot flavors. Generally (but not always) the more purple the variety, the hotter it will be. Rocamboles have the shortest shelf life of all major garlic varieties, with some cultivars starting to sprout after about 3 to 4 months.
Popular Rocambole varieties include Bavarian Purple, Spanish Roja, German Giant, Ukrainian Red, Killarney Red, and Amish.
Another quite popular hardneck variety – particularly in the Western world – Creole garlic is believed to have been brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadores in the early 16th century, and are some of the most visually appealing garlic around. Creoles tend to grow larger in warmer climates that have long growing seasons and lots of sunshine, although they can tolerate some cold, and in the US are very popular with gardeners in California, Texas, and the Southern States. Their outer ‘paper’ skins tend to be a bright white, while the cloves will range from a rose red to a darker purple, depending on the variety; each bulb will usually produce between 8 and 12 cloves. Most Creole varieties have a fairly pungent aroma and a sweet, mildly spicy flavor that is not as hot as many other types. They will generally store for 4 to 5 months.
Popular Creole varieties include Ajo Rojo, Rose du Lautrec, Pescadero Red, Creole Red, and Burgundy.
Very popular with gourmet chefs and home growers in colder parts of the world (they are particularly popular in Canada), Porcelain garlic comprises some of the most visually appealing and most expensive garlic commonly found on the market today. Routinely growing to over 3 inches in diameter, the outer wrappers will usually be white or light tan – sometimes with purple striping. The bulbs tend to produce 4 to 7 very large, fat, light purple or purple striped cloves with a quite spicy, pungent and medium-hot flavor; due to both its size and strength, one clove is often enough to flavor a large, multi-serving dish. Porcelain varieties are very often roasted, stuffed, and used with game meats. They are also the densest of all garlic varieties and are considered by some to be the best for use in medicinal applications. They can normally be stored for 8 to 9 months.
Popular Porcelain varieties include Music, Wild Buff, Rosewood, Georgian Crystal, Romanian Red, and Majestic.
Asiatic garlic is (not surprisingly) native to Asia, although are today grown (on a limited basis in the US) throughout the world. The most popular varieties of Asiatic garlic tend to be quite early maturing – getting quite large quite quickly – and are very adaptable to adverse growing conditions, doing well in both hot and cold climates. Most varieties produce 2 to 3-inch bulbs (although some varieties produce bulbs of only an inch or so) with an onion-like shape, white or purple-striped skins, and between 8 and 12 large cloves. Most Asiatic varieties will tend to be on the hotter and spicier side when used raw, although it will become milder and sweeter when cooked. They do not store particularly well, and will usually only last for between 4 and 5 months.
Popular Asiatic garlic includes Asian Rose, Korean Red, Asian Tempest, Russian Red, Pyong Vang, and Sonoran.
Along with where they are most widely grown (Asia), Turban garlic shares a number of characteristics with Asiatic varieties including being both early maturing and not having a particularly long shelf life (normally less than 5 months). Turban varieties do best in warmer climates and normally produce large bulbs with white wrappers featuring a variety of shades of purple blotching and striping. The bulbs will contain between 5 and 8 very large cloves that can seem quite mild at first taste, but which will often increase in hotness quickly. Like Asiatics, many Turbans will have a sweeter, milder taste when cooked, as the heat releases their natural sugars. More popular in other parts of the world, Turbans are most frequently grown in the US in the South and Southwest.
Popular Turban varieties include Shandong, Tzan, Red Janice, and China Dawn.
While not widely commercially cultivated, the aptly named Purple Stripe garlic is quite popular with home growers throughout the world. Characterized (not surprisingly) by bold purple or lilac stripes and blotching on their otherwise very white, thick skins, the bulbs are generally medium-size and will usually produce between 7 and 10 medium cloves. Their taste is generally mild and sweeter than most other garlic types with mild to moderate hotness. They tend to increase in sweetness and decrease in hotness when cooked. There are two popular sub-categories of Purple Stripe garlic:
- Glazed Purple Stripe – will generally be milder and have an almost glossy-looking skin.
- Marbled Purple Stripe – will usually be darker in color with a spicier flavor.
Purple Stripe varieties tend to grow well in all temperate climates, and will usually store for 6 to 7 months. There is some genetic research which indicates that a variety of Purple Stripe garlic may be the original garlic from which all other types eventually evolved.
Popular Purple Stripe varieties include Chesnok Red, Belarus, Bogatyr, Persian Star, Siberian, and Purple Glazer.
Also known as wood garlic, ransom, bear’s garlic, bear leek, and Gypsy onion, Wild garlic is actually a member of the onion family and not a ‘true’ garlic. Normally producing a very small bulb (that is not generally eaten), the lower portion of the plant’s leaves and upper parts of the stem – as well as the small white flowers – are widely used in some European and Asian cuisines as a herb. Wild garlic has a mild, grassy garlic flavor that is sometimes used in place of more potent dried garlic bulbs.
Though it looks, smells and even tastes like a very mild type of garlic, Elephant garlic is actually a type of leek. Growing to over 4 inches in diameter (about the size of a softball) and weighing up to a pound each, Elephant garlic bulbs will usually have white skin and 5 or 6 massive yellow cloves with a very mild and sweet flavor with hints of garlic, onions, and leeks. They are sometimes used fresh in salads, roasted and stuffed, or served as a complementary vegetable. Not a member of the sturdy and long-lasting garlic family, Elephant garlic will usually only store for a month or two.