growing and storing a year of garlic
MY HOMEGROWN CROP OF GARLIC gets me to almost February, and then it’s just not what it used to be. You know how it goes—you’ve bought late-winter cloves that start to sprout and just don’t feel as firm or weigh what they did before time took its toll. I don’t have a perfect storage spot; considering that, I do quite well. But these days I lay in a supply in the freezer, too, following safe, sane methods—no, you cannot just pack it in oil and refrigerate! My tactics for growing, harvesting and enjoying a year of garlic. Both softneck and hardneck types are welcome here, by the way—dare I ask which camp you’re in?
Like any bulb, garlic is a little particular about above-ground storage conditions. Once it’s fully cured, commercially grown garlic is stored in the dark at about 32 degrees and 65 percent humidity, and depending on the species and variety, may last six months or even longer. (The ideal range often recommended for garlic storage is cool and dry, from 32-50 and 60-70 percent humidity.)
My very primitive basement—an old stone foundation, no heat except what’s given off by the furnace—is a bit too warm and can be damp, but I have tried hanging the garlic heads in mesh bags from the rafters (as I have with onions). Even better, though, is a barely heated room above my garage, which stays around 40. Don’t put all your harvest in one spot if you’re not sure how it will fare; experiment with your two or three best possible spots.
into the deep freeze
IN RECENT YEARS I’VE FROZEN a portion of my harvest, trying a few methods gathered from university extension services and my collection of preserving books. Important note:
Even at below 40 degrees, such as in the refrigerator, you run the risk of harmful bacteria forming after about a week, including spores of Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism. Oil-packed peeled garlic sold in the market contains a preservative, such as citric acid. Achieving safe preservation this way is best left to commercial packers.
(Ditto with your oil-packed sun- or oven-dried tomatoes—something I shudder when I think I did for many years. Better to dry the tomatoes, pack them crisp in airtight bags, then soften a week’s worth at a time in oil before using. Herb-infused oils, particularly those with garlic, run the same risk.)
The trouble: bacteria can form in water droplets trapped within the oil, says the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Plus garlic is a low-acid food (therefore more prone to bacteria formation), and the low-oxygen conditions that bacteria loves are ideal thanks to the oil packing. A perfect storm.
- Whole, unpeeled cloves can be frozen as-is at harvest time, then thawed and used as needed. But I prefer to peel each batch, toss them lightly in oil and freeze them in bags or jars (above). I don’t thaw my whole cloves before cooking with them, but roast or slowly saute them, or drop them into things like soups then locate and kind of mash them against the side of the pot with a fork or back of a spoon once they soften.
- Some people prefer the convenience of making a log or small brick of chopped garlic—not unlike my parsley logs—and slicing off just what is needed for a recipe.
- Likewise, a puree of garlic and olive oil can be frozen like my other pestos, in cubes or small containers. (The University of California at Davis recommends 1 part garlic to 2 parts oil, for a sauté mixture that remains safely frozen but is soft enough to scrape the needed amount off at any time.)
- With all freezer methods, freeze immediately after preparation; do not refrigerate or store at room temperature even briefly first.
- Sometimes in midwinter, if I see that I have too much garlic and onions still in storage and worry they won’t last, I freeze them in bags or jars, as whole unpeeled cloves, this way.
the cultivation of allium sativum
GARLIC COULDN’T BE EASIER TO GROW: Plant like any bulb in fall; topdress with organic fertilizer when shoots start really growing in spring; keep it well-watered during active growth; weed well. The details:
hardneck versus softneck: which to grow?
SOFTNECK GARLIC (Allium sativum), the common type of supermarket familiarity, has a row of largish outer cloves and a row or two of inner small ones. It would keep better than what I grow, but I like the bigger (though fewer-per-head) cloves of the hardneck kind (shown above), which also has the bonus of producing scapes (flower stalks that you cut off and eat before bloom) in May or thereabouts.
My reason: Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) is better-adapted to Northern winters (its long roots–or at least before I trimmed them after curing–hold it in the heave-and-thaw ground especially well), and frankly I just hate all those tiny inner cloves of softneck at peeling time. Nor does comparatively puny softneck make as nice a roasted head of garlic as the bigger-cloved kind.
time to order: garlic sources
OCTOBER IS PLANTING TIME in my Zone 5B, late in the month, since about a month before frost is in the ground is perfect timing. Order early, though, for best selection. Eventually, if all goes well, you’ll achieve garlic independence (where you have enough heads for eating and to supply your own “seed” cloves). Some sources of organic “seed” garlic, meaning bulbs to divide up into cloves for planting.