Sometimes my desire not to waste ingredients is at odds with my desire to cook the best-tasting food possible. I’ll try use up a stale heel of bread, then kick myself for not just buying a fresh loaf to soak up my soup. But what about garlic cloves that are sporting some green sprouts? Will using them have any effect on the flavor of my final dish?
Jason Hovell, owner of Tamarack Garlic Farm in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, tells me this is an especially relevant question in the spring, because the gourmet garlic that is sitting on kitchen counters right now was probably harvested last June or July. Come spring, the clove thinks it’s time to grow.
Hovell says he detects a slight bitter taste in the green portion of the sprout but not the rest of the clove about two weeks after first noticing sprouting on hard-neck garlic.
“If I see some sprouting and am thinking of using that bulb for culinary purposes, I usually cut a tad off and give it the smell/taste test, just like you would with a jug of milk you find in the back of the refrigerator. Nine out of 10 times, it’s good,” he tells me. “Cloves that I reject tend to be mushy at this stage of its life cycle, and I will definitely discard those.”
He suggests storing garlic in a cool, dry place—not the refrigerator—to keep it fresher longer. A brown paper bag in a pantry is ideal.
Andrea Geary, deputy food editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, also finds sprouted garlic to be more bitter than normal. The magazine advises people to cut a sprouted clove in half lengthwise to remove the sprout with the tip of a knife before cooking with it. This method is chef-approved; chef Sarah Grueneberg of Chicago’s Monteverde tells me that while she doesn’t like using sprouted garlic—“it loses its sticky-spicy garlic notes”—she’ll use the sprout-removal method if she’s cooking at home and in a pinch.
“It would be especially important to do so in a recipe where the garlic is raw and a major flavor component, in a garlic vinaigrette, for instance,” Geary says. “But if the sprout is really tiny, and you’re cooking the garlic, in spaghetti sauce for example, I think you can get away with leaving it in.”
There is, however, a threshold at which you should just toss the garlic. Geary says if the sprout is three inches or longer, just chuck the head. That’s because the sprout’s used up most of the sugar in the garlic to grow, leaving the entire clove bitter.