Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Limits of Garlic

This year I harvested about 11 pounds of garlic from my backyard garden. After it had cured for a few weeks, we started eating it in the latter part of July. This week I had to finally admit that all the remaining three varieties were reaching the limits of storage. Each time I cut into a bulb, a slender yellow-green shoot was visible in the center, getting ready to bust out of the bulb and sprout. So, with a somewhat sad heart, I decided it was time to process the rest of the bulbs before the sprouting went any further.

I used three different methods to process the garlic. All of them rendered the stinking rose suitable for long term storage. The first method requires some specialized equipment, but the other two do not.

Method the first: I peeled and thinly sliced three heads of garlic, then arranged the slices on a tray of my dehydrator. It took about six hours or so to remove the moisture and render the slices into tough dry garlic chips. These will store at room temperature indefinitely, though they won't last all that long. I'll keep them tightly sealed in clean glass jar in the cupboard, where it'll be fairly dark. In this form, the garlic can be used in soups or stews. If I grind the chips up, I'll have homemade garlic powder, which might be nice on pizza.

The second method was making compound butter. I processed the majority of my remaining garlic in this way. All I had to do was allow butter to soften, and finely mince the garlic. I mixed these two ingredients together until the garlic was evenly blended into the butter. Then I formed the compound butter into little logs, wrapped them up in plastic wrap, and froze them. This will probably prove to be the most versatile form of processed garlic. And it's got more garlic than I would normally use for the amount of butter in there, which means it's highly concentrated. I'll get a lot of garlic for just a little added butter, though I can always add more butter if I want to. There are numerous ways of using this garlic compound butter: on toast, in sauces, on pasta, in mashed potatoes, and as a dollop of decadence on servings of soup. I could even fry my eggs in it. It will keep in the freezer for about three months.

Lastly, I roasted a few heads of garlic when I prepared a whole chicken for dinner. This is a very simple way of processing garlic. I simply removed as many of the papery layers around the bulbs as I could, and then cut off the top of the head so that a portion of each bulb was exposed. Some people add a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt to heads of garlic before roasting. I don't bother, because the roasted garlic tastes great without this extra step. I just wrap each head in a small piece of aluminum foil and toss it in the oven for about an hour. The temperature doesn't matter too much. Anything from 300F to 400F could work, with the total roasting time varying accordingly. Roasted garlic won't keep as easily or as long as the other methods of processing. But on the other hand, it's also the most ready to eat form of the three methods. I find myself spreading a few sticky-sweet cloves on sandwich bread and adding them whole to just about anything I can think of to eat. If I had a great many heads of roasted garlic, I would store some in the freezer, very well wrapped up.

There are other good methods for storing garlic. Pickling is one good method. And some Russians I know swear by a cure-all made from hot chili peppers and raw garlic marinated for several days in vodka. Garlic confit is another cooked form of processing in which many whole cloves are very gently poached in olive oil.

But I have a serious warning now for a garlic storage method which has an enduring and dangerous popularity. Do not store raw garlic in oil, not even in the refrigerator. Like all root vegetables, garlic always has the potential of harboring the botulism bacteria, which is commonly found in most soil types. This is a facultative anaerobic bacteria. What that means is that it can survive in the presence of lots of oxygen, but it really prefers a very low-oxygen environment. When garlic is in the soil, sitting on your shelf, or hanging in a net bag in your basement, it's harmless, because of the high-oxygen environment. The bacteria itself in fact poses no risk to us if we consume small quantities of it. But when you put raw garlic in oil, there is very little oxygen. That means that if there are any botulinum bacteria there, they'll be very happy, and they will begin to create the very powerful and deadly botulism toxin. This toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking, though you may well kill the bacteria that created the toxin. Only a microscopic amount of this toxin is needed to kill a healthy adult. While storing garlic in oil in the refrigerator may slow the bacteria down, it will not kill or completely halt the bacteria. I personally know people who have used this method of storage for years without any ill effects. But they're taking an incredible risk. If they should be unlucky enough to get a case of botulism poisoning, it won't make them sick; it'll probably kill them, and anyone else they serve their stored garlic to.

Okay, on to lighter topics. For kicks, I compared our personal per capita garlic consumption to national statistics. Given that we ate through 10 pounds of garlic in just under 6 months, I make that 10 pounds per person per year in our household. That puts us at more than three times the national average for the US. Of course, we don't come anywhere near Korean levels of garlic consumption, where the average adult reputedly eats through more than a bulb a day. We eat a LOT of it though, both raw and cooked. If it turns out that I live to some extraordinary old age, I'll attribute that longevity to garlic.

I will definitely miss having my own homegrown garlic for the next seven months or so, until next year's crop comes in. And I will deeply resent having to pay for it at the grocery store. I doubt any local grower of garlic will have any to offer at the few farmer's markets that continue to operate through the winter. But I am glad that I made the best use out of this produce and prevented it from going to waste.

Related posts:

Garlic Harvest
The Promise of Garlic
Processed Foods


It's me said...

No, not your garlic, but the smell of garlic when I tried to dehydrate it. I didn't slice mine so it took hours and hours and hours and... well, you know. And it stank to high heaven. How did you solve that?

Anonymous said...

Have you tried planting the cloves that are beginning to sprout? Plant them much closer together than you would normally. Let them grow on and use the green growing tips as you would use chives or spring onions.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just found your blog, and am having fun reading your older posts.

As to de-hydrated garlic, slicing it is certainly the way to go, and I always put the de-hydrator outside when I do it (and dry several trays of onion bits at the same time). As well as tossing the slices into soups or stews, I like to (gently) deep fry some to garnish Indonesian rice (nasi goreng).

And roasted garlic can be stored for awhile in oil, in the 'fridge, unlike raw garlic. One way to keep it a bit longer.

Thanks for the tip on garlic butter; I know that, but tend to forget.

Great blog; many thanks.

Kate said...

Meadowlark, I think the key really is the slicing. The drying goes faster and I have to say that we had no unpleasant odors. Now, I can't say there was *no* odor. There was a garlicky smell, and here's where my predilections may show. I think we eat so much garlic that we start not to even notice it, like a baker whose nose just ignores all the marvelous smells of cakes and cookies coming out of the oven.

Well, anyway...we noticed a moderate but not unpleasant garlic smell for a short while and then we didn't notice it anymore. The drying took less than a day, so it was over quickly in any case.

Anon1, I have a whole bed of garlic out in the back yard, but I've never planted sprouting garlic cloves indoors. Maybe I'll try it one of these days. Thanks for the suggestion.

Anon2, I love the suggestion about nasi goreng. I do like Indonesian food, but rarely prepare it at home. Thanks for stopping by.


Anonymous said...

I second what Anon1 said: I have patches of garlics that I have let grow for their greens. I uprooted them after their 3rd year and pulled the miniheads apart and have replanted them normally: we'll see if they get much larger, but they should.

On another note, I planted sprouty garlic cloves in the greenhouse on Jan 1 last year. They were my biggest bulbs of all and I got to harvest them in May! So now all bulb garlic gets the greenhouse treatment.

But great tips, Kim. I'm loving the butter treatment meself...

Anonymous said...

Crapola! I meant Kate! (see what i mean by being undercaffeinated???)

Kate said...

Ah, no worries, El. I may try sprouting some garlic indoors around this time next year. But I've already processed all the fresh garlic I had, so nothing left to sprout for now. I'll keep it in mind though.

Michelle said...

Kate, I just happened upon you from your comment on The Simple Dollar (about lead in clothes). I was wondering - do you think I could make garlic salt from that dried garlic? I would love to find a homemade alternative to commercial garlic salt.

Kate said...

Hi, Michelle. Yes, I certainly think that the dried garlic chips could be transformed into garlic salt. I would grind them in a spice grinder (clean coffee grinder would work). If the powdered results were uniform, I'd just combine with either table salt or kosher salt, depending on the size of the garlic powder grains. If the ground garlic was not very uniform, I suppose I could sift it and use the smallest stuff to mix with table salt.

I may give this a try and see how it goes. If so, I'll do a post about it. I don't currently use garlic salt, because I've had so much fresh homegrown garlic available that it never seemed necessary. Also, I'd rather avoid any chemicals or filler in commercial dried garlic products. But homemade garlic powder would be a different story, wouldn't it?

kateS said...

Kate, I have a question about your advice on the botulism bug. Do you think that might apply to mushrooms as well? I have some mushrooms that I've recently put in the fridge in an oil and vinegar type dressing to marinate.....now I'm not sure that was a good idea (although the ones I ate before reading your post were delicious!) I generally clean fresh mushrooms by just brushing them off as well as I can, not by washing them. Is that a bad idea? Now I'm a little nervous about eating the rest of my marinated mushrooms. Suggestions?

Kate said...

KateS, the most honest and shortest answer is that I don't know. For longer and less certain answers, read on.

I'm assuming from here on out that you're talking about raw mushrooms. If they've been cooked or canned, they are undoubtedly safe. The question will apply only to the raw state.

Vinegar will kill or at least safely check the botulism bacteria, which is why pickling raw garlic or anything else is safe - provided that the vinegar is of standard acidity (5%). Most store bought vinegar will be labeled 5%. Any food fully submerged for a while in such vinegar can be considered safe from a botulism perspective.

I should have clarified that the oil itself is not safe because of its low acidity AND the lack of oxygen.

When you pour oil on vinegar, the oil will float. Most vegetables will either sink to the bottom, or float at the midline between the distinct layers of oil and vinegar.

I want to make it clear that I'm guessing, but I would guess that foods that have been coated with vinegar, but float up into contact with the oil would be safe. I certainly keep vinaigrettes with garlic or pepper flakes around on a shelf.

As for mushrooms specifically, I have no knowledge of how often they harbor the botulism bacteria. I know the bacteria is found widely in the soil, and that all root vegetables should be considered as potentially carrying it. Many mushrooms sprout directly from and up through the soil. Given the seriousness of the toxin, I would play it safe and consider those types as also potentially contaminated. Those that sprout from deadwood probably don't carry the bacteria.

So, if you enjoy raw marinated mushrooms, I would give them a good bath in the vinegar first, and then add the oil. If you want to keep them, make sure there's enough vinegar to cover them up so that they're not sitting or floating in oil.

Anonymous said...

I know of some people who just throw their garlic (unpeeled) into the freezer for storage, if they're going to be cooking it. I haven't tried this, so not sure if anything happens to the flavor, but might be worth a try!

Unknown said...

Are you wise in your comments about not storing garlic in oil? Another site someone was discussing this storing method and mentioned that the number of people dying of botulism is extremely low. The lady said that winning the lottery was more likely than getting infected with botulism. It seems that there are about 40 or so cases a year in the US: this is very few. The possibility exists but the likelihood? Wouldn't we cease to eat and drink almost everything if we operated under such constraints?
Maybe, I'm unwise here but this also needs consideration.