Did you know that 99% of garlic sold in stores is just one or two different cultivars among the numerous choices available? If you have ever had the pleasure of tasting a garden-fresh, heirloom tomato, rich with flavor, imagine what you've been missing in the world of garlic! A basic ingredient in most every cuisine, and homegrown garlic elevates dishes with its unique character.
Garlic is grown all over the world in just about every climate, and believe it or not, it is pretty easy. Plant garlic in the fall and wait for it to emerge in the spring and harvested in July or August.
Need help picking a cultivar? Choose the perfect garlic for your palate and climate.
Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) is more closely related to wild garlic (Allium sativum), which is thought to have originated in central Asia. Often preferred by garlic connoisseurs, hardneck garlic is recognized as having complex flavor, a short storage life, larger but fewer cloves and reliably forming a garlic-flavored, edible flower stalk, called a scape. Hardneck garlic requires a cold period (vernalization) to create a bulb. If growing in the south or milder coastal areas, you may need to utilize a pre-chilling treatment (see our Garlic: Planting and Growing Guide).
Creole garlic (formerly a subgroup of Silverskin garlic) was originally cultivated in and around Spain and was dispersed throughout the world by Conquistadores, in some reports reaching the Americas by the 1500s. This group has white bulbs, pink inner skins and glossy, rose to purple-speckled clove wrappers. In areas with cold winters, you can expect smaller bulbs and a scape to form, while in areas with mild winters, you can expect larger bulbs and no scapes. The heat and clove size of this group varies widely and as a whole, the flavor is considered to be prize winning and often described as earthy, sweet, or musky with some cultivars being excellent raw. Creoles thrive in heat, making them an excellent choice for southern gardeners. While the bulbs, which contain 4-10 cloves on average, may be on the petite side, this variety makes up for it in flavor and by storage ability of up to 12 months, depending on the cultivar.
Purple Stripe garlics include glazed purple stripe, marbled purple stripe, and standard purple striped subgroups. As the name implies, the off-white bulbs have some degree of purple striping or blotches, varying with growing conditions, and deeper purple to red clove wrappers. The glazed group's skins are glass-like and quite literally shimmer with hints of silver and gold. This group is well-regarded for its flavor as well as its beauty and wins hands-down when compared to others in the baked and roasted taste tests (Martha Stewart, Rodale, Sunset magazine among others). Its baked flavor is so sweet, it has even been used to flavor ice cream! Marbled types have 4–6 cloves per head, while the other two subgroups generally have 8–12. Purple Stripe garlic stores for 4 to 6 months.
Porcelain garlic, like the name indicates, most often has bright white, thick protective skin on the bulb; only a few varieties in this group have tan to red colored skin and wrappers.
While porcelain is considered fragile, these porcelain garlic cloves will give you the opposite impression—they are characteristically bold when raw, bold when cooked, and down-right huge with 4–7 cloves per bulb, with some rivaling elephant garlic's mass. This group is especially cold tolerant and recommended for high-altitude areas. Porcelain garlic stores for about 8 months.
Rocambole, sometimes called "fresh market gourmet garlic", are head-to-toe beautiful, with tightly curled scapes on more compact plants, and widely known for their complex, full, rich "true" garlic flavor. The elusiveness of this group at market (due to storage length) paired with its reputation for robust flavor makes this group a "must have" addition for garlic-gardening aficionados. This group grows best with cool spring weather. Clove skins are quite loose, which makes them very easy to peel, but also means the cloves may be discolored (this is harmless). This group stores for 4 to 6 months.
Turban garlic is named for its turban-shaped flower. Turban bulbs are heavily striped and the shiny clove wrappers are pink to brown or tan. The heat ranges from mild to hot, or mild and building to hot but are often described as having a unique, buttery, "vegetable" flavor that isn't at all garlicky. Turban plants are shorter than other types, but produce good-sized bulbs. This group is generally the first to mature and should, like Asiatic, be harvested at the first sign of browning. While this group is considered hardneck, the scapes are weak and may not be present in mild-winter climates. Turban bulbs contain around 5–9 large, fat cloves and store approximately 4 to 7 months.
From hardneck garlic came softneck garlic (Allium sativum var. sativum), the most widely grown, commercial garlic because of its long storage life, adaptability, and heavy yields. Softneck garlics have mild to hot flavors, often store for 9 months (and some up to a year), contain many layers of smaller but more numerous cloves, and rarely form a scape. Softneck garlic is preferred for braiding because it lacks the stiff stem that comes with hardnecks.
Artichoke garlics are named for their many layers of cloves that result in a resemblance to an artichoke. Their papery skins can range in color from white to red and the flavors are just as diverse—from mild to spicy. Each bulb usually has some smaller cloves within it, making adding just a touch of garlic to any dish easy. Artichoke garlics grow with ease in a wide range of growing conditions. This group produces 12–20 cloves per bulb on average and stores for 9 to 10 months.
Silverskin garlics, sometimes called Italian or Egyptian garlic, are similar to artichoke garlic with flavors from mild to spicy, but tend to have an even greater number of cloves per bulb and boast the longest storage of any garlic group. Most often, they have silver-white, smooth, bulb skins and their sturdy stems that lack a rigid scape are ideal for braiding. Silverskins store for up to a year.
Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum) is more closely related to leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) than garlic. Elephant garlic produces impressively large cloves with very mild flavor. Large, 4'–5' plants yield 2–6 yellowish cloves per bulb, but in some conditions, only 1 large, oval clove is produced. Bulbs often weigh near a pound and are as big as a softball. Excellent roasted. Stores for 4 to 6 months.
With so many intriguing choices, grocery store garlic seems passé! Which varieties will you grow this season?