Mini garlic cloves do not really keep vampires away as well
January 20, 2011 7:04 PM   Subscribe

How do you select garlic?

This may seem like a weird question, but I have had a streak of terrible luck selecting garlic lately, and I feel like I must be missing something.

Every head of garlic I have purchased in the past six months or so has minuscule cloves. They look like they're big, normal garlic cloves when I select them in the store, but after pulling the papery shell off, I find that all the cloves are broken into tiny, tiny cloves, each with its own papery shell. It's as if every clove is coming from the center of the garlic (where you tend to find smaller cloves, in my experience).

This is a new problem. I used to buy garlic, tear off a meaty looking clove or two, and chop away. Now, it's a real hassle.

So, what am I doing wrong? Is it the selection process? (I typically am careful - I select medium-sized heads of garlic with no brown spots and no soft spots - because I hate this problem, but you can't really tell in the store.) Is it just the brand of garlic my particular grocery store carries? Should I switch to elephant garlic? Powdered garlic (shudder)? What should I do?
posted by k8lin to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There's not much keeping you from removing enough of the "papery shell" in the store....
posted by HuronBob at 7:11 PM on January 20, 2011

I have a hard time picking out fresh garlic too. I found that they sell already peeled and minced garlic in a jar. My grocery store puts it in some out of the way hard to find place, so i usually have to ask where they've hidden it this time.. but it saves me some time and i can just use as much or little as I want and then pop the jar in the fridge.

Only time it really isn't useful is when you need whole cloves for like 40 clove chicken.
posted by royalsong at 7:15 PM on January 20, 2011

Response by poster: Not to moderate the thread, but in order to find out if the cloves are the mini-cloves I'm talking about, I'd have to physically remove an entire clove of garlic from the head and break it apart to see if it was actually one clove with integrity or a bunch of mini-cloves. That seems like opening up a banana to see if it's really ripe in the store, since it's beyond just removing a bit of the shell.
posted by k8lin at 7:15 PM on January 20, 2011

Best answer: You can actually tell by feel and looks. A good head of garlic is firm to the touch, not papery, is a nice white color, and has what I can best describe as a tight profile.

I think your store is selling aged garlic heads. I'd switch stores. Also, try to buy garlic that is sourced as locally as possible.

Finally, I highly recommend using a garlic keeper. They really work. (For reasonable amounts of time, of course.)
posted by bearwife at 7:22 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

It is possible that they have begun to stock a different variety of garlic from a different producer. You could talk to your store's produce department about this, and see what's up, if they know what you're talking about, and if they might be carrying a larger cloved variety in the future.

Do you try to find heads of garlic that are nice and heavy? I tend to pick them like I do with oranges - smooth & fairly unblemished, weighs a little more than it seems like it should.

When you're preparing your garlic, what do you do? I cut off the root end of the cloves and smash them with the side of my knife. That pops the cloves right out of the paper and is no hassle at all.

Don't bother with elephant garlic, it tastes of nothing.
posted by Mizu at 7:23 PM on January 20, 2011

Dorot crushed garlic is not quite as good as the fresh stuff, but much better than garlic salt (plus it's pre-crushed). Trader Joe's has it in the frozen aisle.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:25 PM on January 20, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I was interested to see in a seed catalog that there are lots of different strains of garlic, with different claims for number and size of cloves. Your store is evidently getting a lesser strain just now. Maybe you can find another store in the area that has different sources and a better strain of garlic, or maybe you'll just have to wait for another strain to appear in your store.

The one thing I always check for is the presence of roots, supposedly a sign of whether the garlic was grown locally or imported from China. Garlic from China has the roots cut off. I like the idea of non-imported garlic, and it might be fresher, too.

Prepared garlic products never taste as good as fresh garlic, even if all you can find are small cloves of imported garlic.
posted by Ery at 7:27 PM on January 20, 2011

An epidemic of small cloves is among us! This makes me crazy, and I've only seen the problem this year and it's pissing me off, all this B grade garlic. You can barely use those mini cloves! I have switched to buying organic, locally grown (Quebec) garlic and have stopped having this problem. It's way more expensive, but totally totally worth it.
posted by gillianr at 7:49 PM on January 20, 2011

I think most of the garlic in typical US supermarkets is of the same variety, much like almost all lemons are Eureka lemons and all yellow bananas are Cavendish bananas. Occasionally, you can find garlic in red or purple-tinged papers: those are reliably fresh. They're probably sourced relatively locally and don't sit in storage for long.

But any head of garlic will get paperier and subdivide as it sits around. Garlic does actually have a season, and you can certainly get great, fresh garlic at farmers' markets. If it's supermarket garlic, it's not even clear whether it's last year's or this year's, or what the season is where it came from, or anything.

FWIW, I've had very good luck buying "gigantic" garlic from Trader Joe's. I think it's just their way of marketing garlic that's been grown under favorable conditions and hasn't sat in storage for months. Do not confuse "colossal" or "elephant" garlic with actual garlic, they are entirely different.
posted by Nomyte at 8:09 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had the same problem, and it is indeed maddening.
I cook with garlic every day and from the outside I simply can't tell if a clove will be one large one, or many, tiny useless ones.

This happened buying garlic recently, a couple of weeks in a row, and then stopped. It must have been the batch that my grocery store had.

If anyone actually knows a way of identifying the tiny cloves I'd also love to know.
posted by breakfast! at 8:14 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Although this probably doesn't help the OP, the type of garlic known as hardneck doesn't usually make the itty bitty cloves. The hardneck varieties have a tough dry stem in the center of the head when it gets to the supermarket. You can feel it and see it among all the papery layers.

Naturally, the most common varieties of garlic found in markets are softnecks, which lack the hard central stem. They tend to make the itty bitty cloves. It sounds like your supermarket started carrying a variety of softneck garlic that makes tiny cloves (and it drives me nuts too).

If you can find hardneck garlic, you'll be happier when peeling it. But your store may not carry it - it's definitely not as common as the softneck types. Sometimes Asian markets carry it, or you can ask at your local farmer's market.

Elephant "garlic" is almost flavorless, so I'd avoid it, even at the price of peeling a whole bunch of itty bitty cloves. Peel off most of the tough paper, then lay the clove on the cutting board and crack it slightly with the flat of a knife. The skin will come off relatively easily after it's split open.
posted by Quietgal at 8:39 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've also found that locally-sourced garlic is way larger, more garlicky, flavourful than any store-bought clove. I don't always buy into the produce at farmers' markets, but I would look there for really good garlic.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 9:13 PM on January 20, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, thanks everyone! I am extremely cheap and pressed for time, and don't really like going out of my way for groceries, but I think I'll switch stores for garlic. I suspect that my local Food Lion is just selling old garlic; I had no idea that it subdivided as it sat around. That is crazy! I'll try the fancier grocer in town and also Trader Joe's if I have to.

The mini cloves are usable, but a pain. I smash them with the side of my knife but they are seriously so tiny that it's not even worth it. The skin seems a lot tougher, too - doesn't slide off of the meat as easily as with larger cloves. It drives me insane, and I'm sort of glad to see that I'm not the only one who feels this way. (Although I would not wish small-cloved garlic on anyone, friend or foe.)
posted by k8lin at 9:50 PM on January 20, 2011

Asian markets often sell pre-peeled garlic for small amounts of money.
posted by asphericalcow at 11:29 PM on January 20, 2011

any head of garlic will ... subdivide as it sits around

I grow and store my own garlic, and I'm fairly certain the above claim is incorrect. The cloves do shrink over time as they dry out, and this makes the head looser and more papery, but in my experience the cloves don't divide in storage.
posted by jon1270 at 4:17 AM on January 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

I commiserate. Garlic is such a hit-or-miss thing where I live. Doubly-so in the winter. It's often near-impossible to pick bulbs that haven't begun to sprout, even if it a (supposedly) fresh shipment. And much of the time, we get the bulbs with a gagillion tiny cloves. I hate using those things. I've also noted on occasion that the garlic we get appears to have come from China. I kid you not.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:06 AM on January 21, 2011

Best answer: The Food Lion reference made me realize you lived near me. I have not had this problem with garlic at the Harris Teeter stores nearby, and it may be cheaper there than at Trader Joe's (though I've not made the comparison).
posted by Jorus at 6:49 AM on January 21, 2011

Could it be a time-of-year thing? Even with modern shipping, there are still better months for some kinds of produce. It looks like the best garlic has yet to be planted this year.
posted by sarling at 7:34 AM on January 21, 2011

Good garlic isn't necessarily white.
posted by louigi at 9:17 AM on January 21, 2011

Louqui is right. But even if pink or purple it is smooth and tight profiled and firm to the touch if it is fresh.
posted by bearwife at 9:47 AM on January 21, 2011

Best answer: Wow, thanks everyone! I am extremely cheap and pressed for time, and don't really like going out of my way for groceries, but I think I'll switch stores for garlic. I suspect that my local Food Lion is just selling old garlic; I had no idea that it subdivided as it sat around. That is crazy!

It is crazy, and is emphatically NOT TRUE. The cloves are each nodes of budding little plants, and are divided as they develop. When they age, they lose water and become lighter and more papery, but they do not divide into more little potential plantlets.
Quietgal has the right answer: the difference is soft neck garlic versus hard neck. Different varieties are grown in different places and are available at different times. Your store is not getting old garlic, it is getting a different type.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:10 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you can find it, get hardneck/hardstem garlic (personally, my best bet for it has always been open-air farmers markets). It is a million miles different in quality. Usually rosy purple or deeper brown than normal. Those practically bleach white bulbs at the supermarket aren't (cough) worth shit. I could use a whole bulb of it and not have as much good garlic flavor as a single toe of hardneck. Hardneck's usually much easier to peel too (an added bonus).
posted by ifjuly at 12:25 PM on January 21, 2011

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