Back, In Black

The other day I was doing my usual hustle through Whole Foods when I came upon something I had never seen before — black garlic. I grabbed a pack and headed over to interrogate the produce guy, but unfortunately, the guy selling the $5.00 a bulb garlic knew little about it. Seemingly embarrassed by his lack of knowledge, he gave me the package for free and requested that I come back and educate him.

Upon returning to my kitchen, I quickly tore open the small bag to figure out exactly what it was that I had procured. The outside of the bulb was a soft-beige color and felt much softer than fresh garlic. With a gentle coaxing the cloves broke away from the bulb’s core and easily slipped out of their papery skins.

The cloves were strange looking and made me think of black truffles. They were dark and sticky like tar, but held their shape, even when pressed upon lightly. Their smell was deep and earthy and reminded me of fermented black beans, dried mushrooms, tree bark and wet coffee grounds.

Showing no fear, I bit straight into the first clove, hoping for the best. The texture was similar to that of a slightly firm, roasted garlic clove. That first bite was at once sweet and tart, with a fruity, deep and slightly bitter flavor. There were hints of molasses and tamarind and in many ways it reminded me of soy sauce. It was a true umami-bomb, filling my mouth with savory richness and forcing my taste buds to struggle with making sense of the flavors. Interestingly enough, the one flavor that remained subtle, as the others competed for recognition, was that of the garlic itself. Its flavor was buried deep beneath the others and really only emerged after those with more prominence had dissipated. When it did present itself, the garlic flavor was mild and sweet, with more of a mellow, roasted flavor than a harsh, raw one.

I spent the better part of that day playing around with the black garlic. I started out by just smearing it on a baguette and then later, added it to a lentil and farro salad, some softly scrambled eggs and an aioli served with an Asian-inspired salmon dish.

In each of those preparations the garlic held its own, adding richness, depth and a distinctively pleasant essence. On the baguette, the flavor was that of sweet garlic and soy sauce and I could easily imagine dipping it into the yolk of a soft boiled egg for an interesting breakfast twist. In the salad it provided random bursts of flavor, beautifully complementing the earthiness of the lentils and farro. In the eggs, the flavor came through the strongest and would have probably been even better with the addition of a nice goat or sheep's milk cheese, or even a dollop of creme fraiche. With the aioli the flavor was deep and hearty and added an extra layer to the already strong Asian flavors of the dish.

After familiarizing myself with it, I can now easily imagine black garlic lending itself to an endless number of preparations. In researching it, I found that it is actually one of the hot ingredients of the moment and is being featured on restaurant menus throughout the world. I'm curious to learn what other chefs are doing with it, but am pretty sure that I'll stay away from the one preparation I read about that sounded too bizarre even for me, black garlic ice cream.

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