Few items at the grocery store look remotely as mysterious as black garlic. Its cloves are dark, wrinkly, and soft, and bulbs of the stuff are usually pretty pricey. Black garlic also has a funky, slightly sweet smell, and in general it just doesn’t look like something you’d ordinarily want to consume. What is black garlic, and what the hell are you supposed to do with it?
Black garlic, explained
Black garlic begins life as your run-of-the-mill white garlic. The bulbs are heated gently in a humidity-controlled environment, typically for a long period of time, from three weeks onward. During that time, not only do the cloves grow dark brown or black, but the sharp, nearly spicy flavor of the garlic you’re used to transforms into something much mellower, with notes of what some people liken to molasses. I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description, as it has an earthy sweetness to it, and nearly none of the allium punch we associate with garlic.
The darker color is a result of the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that occurs between the garlic’s amino acids and sugar during the aging process. The Maillard reaction also lends the black garlic a distinctly savory flavor, which makes it such an interesting and complex ingredient. It’s been an on-and-off trendy ingredient among chefs over the years, prized for its gentle flavors of garlic, sweetness, and umami.
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How do you use black garlic?
A lot of people seem to be intimidated by black garlic. It’s not visually friendly (yes, I know what you’re thinking it looks like), and since it’s not a household staple, you may not know what to do with it right away. I promise it’s not scary. In fact, it’s pretty damn delicious.
Thankfully, it’s a really easy ingredient to use, since it’s edible right out of the package, and the cloves are very soft, ready to spread onto stuff like toast. One of my favorite things to do is mash it into a paste and simply mix it into some mayonnaise. You can use this black garlic mayo on sandwiches or as a sweet-and-savory component in a dipping or finishing sauce. Black garlic is also a great addition to homemade salad dressings.
You have to be careful, though: black garlic’s delicate flavor can easily be overwhelmed by other ingredients. Since it’s relatively expensive, you don’t want it getting lost in a dish by combining it with more aggressive seasoning. Starches and meat make great blank canvases for black garlic to shine. It also comes in powdered form, which you can use a little more aggressively to season sauces, soups, stews, and rubs, adding a natural boost of umami flavor.
If you ever see it at the grocery store, don’t shrink away from it. I have a feeling you’ll find a good use for this versatile ingredient in some of your favorite dishes. Don’t forget to let me know how it turns out.