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Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Black Garlic

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Not many spices have a website. It's hard to find quotes from chefs about how great coriander is. For the most part, spices just aren't considered that sexy.

Black garlic, on the other hand, has all these things. It doesn't just have one website; it has several, each devoted to heaping praise from chefs and home cooks on a supposed "superfood" and streamlining a mail-order sale. It's a spice with a PR staff, and like an indy band featured in a car commercial, it's transitioned from obscure stinky allium to fancy "it" ingredient very quickly.

After reading so much hype, I approached black garlic with some trepidation lest the good press exceed its actual value. And while I think BlackGarlic.com's slogan "garlic just got better" might be a little over the top, this is a spice that rewards playfulness in the kitchen and offers plenty of opportunities to change up some old standard recipes.

What is the stuff? It's simply garlic that's been left to ferment for about a month until the cloves turn soft, gummy, and black and the papery exterior withers and browns. The details of the process are a trade secret, but involve careful regulation of heat and humidity to keep the garlic aged, rather than, well, rotten. The result is a clove with the sweetness and texture of roasted garlic and a funky, fermented twang reminiscent of molasses and kimchi. The cloves can be eaten raw and have none of the sulfurous bite of unfermented garlic.

The black garlic PR team says you can use it wherever you'd use plain garlic, but those recipes can get a little Mad Lib for my tastes. I prefer it in applications where black garlic's unique qualities can shine through. It's great raw or puréed for salads and dips, where raw garlic would overwhelm everything else. Its complex sweetness beats the pants off roasted garlic, making an interesting and time-saving alternative to spreads and mashed dishes.

But I've found black garlic is at its best when you embrace its funk. Think kimchi, stinky cheese, and fish sauce. Then pair black garlic with it for an incredibly complex fermented kick. These types of dishes, such as a cheese spread, kimchi fried rice, or Thai curry, are best made a while before serving, as black garlic needs time to weave its flavor into other ingredients. Don't worry about your food tasting too harsh to eat;rblack garlic smells stronger than it tastes and is sweet enough to balance itself out.

Black also takes well to acids, which is why I like using it in sharp vinaigrettes to round out citrus or vinegar. Long-aged balsamic, while often best unmolested, is great infused with some black garlic. Besides drinking it by the shot while alone in your kitchen at 3 a.m. on a sleepless night (hey, this blog asked), you could could also drizzle some on your vanilla ice cream for a sweet-savory treat. No, really—black garlic is very sweet and small amounts can make desserts quite interesting, but probably best left to a garnish. With its gelatinous texture, I wouldn't be surprised to see someone make gummy bears out of it.

So is black garlic a miracle spice that'll kick white garlic out of your kitchen? No. I wouldn't want its fermented flavor interfering with my mirepoix, stews, or sautéed vegetables. And let's not even get started on its supposed "superfood" health claims. But it is an ingredient with a unique flavor and texture well-suited to plenty of culinary roles. It's a welcome addition to the allium family, one of nature's finest gifts to cuisine.

Where to find Black Garlic

You can find black garlic available in some well-stocked spice stores as well as those fancy websites for $2 to $2.50 a head (here and here respectively. You can also find whole, peeled cloves, pastes, and ready-made sauces on the internet.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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