It’s a tired old garden saw but it’s true: big garlic cloves grow big garlic bulbs. And, at least where garlic is concerned, bigger is definitely better. In the kitchen small bulbs are a pain. They take longer to peel. They’re hard to handle. They slow you down. And they often taste “hotter” than bigger bulbs of the same variety. At the market, it’s almost impossible to sell small bulbs. People are used to seeing garlic of a certain size and while they gobble up anything larger, they flat refuse to go small. In the field all the growers I know try to manage bulb size by only planting the largest cloves. That’s certainly what we do. The problem is that seed garlic comes as whole bulbs. And many bulbs, especially the softneck varieties (like the Silverskin sold in grocery stores), are a melange of different sized cloves. There are little ones and there are big ones. There are runts and there are giants. Plant a runt, get a runt. Plant a giant, get a decent size bulb.
The first thing we do when we get our seed garlic is break up the bulbs and sort the cloves by size. Then we plant, biggest clove to smallest, until we’ve filled the beds. This always leaves us with a big bowl of leftover, smaller cloves. We use these in the kitchen. In November everything we cook is made with copious amounts of garlic. We eat our excess and love every bite.
We plant two-thirds of our garlic crop in late October,around Halloween. The rest go in very early in the spring. We decide when to plant what based on hardiness. All hardneck and many of the softneck garlic varieties can survive Colorado’s winter. So we plant them around Halloween, about three inches deep on a 6-8 inch grid. We mulch them with 6 inches of aged straw to insulate them and reduce frost heave. Come spring, their green tops grow vigorously in the still chilly weather. Then, as summer warms, the bulbs ripen. We harvest our fall planted garlic before mid-summer, freeing the beds for a second planting.
In the kitchen, I have five rules for garlic:
- The smaller the bulb the stronger the flavor. Softneck garlic is generally smaller that hardneck which is generally smaller than elephant (which isn’t really garlic at all but rather a variety of leek). So, softneck varieties are generally stronger than hardneck and everything is stronger than elephant. This isn’t 100% true but is a pretty good guide.
- The smaller the cut the stronger the flavor. Minced garlic tastes stronger than chopped. Chopped garlic tastes stronger than rough-cut or whole clove garlic. You strengthen or mellow garlic’s taste by cutting it differently.
- Cooking garlic mellows it’s flavor. Cook it more for less heat and a mellower flavor. I consider this rule when deciding when during the cook to add my garlic. Strong garlic added early to a long cook can end up very mellow. The same garlic added late can end up real hot and burn your eyes out.
- Taste the garlic before adding it. There can be a lot of variation between cloves.
- Don’t let it burn. There is no recovering from burnt garlic. You can’t fix it. You can’t hide it. There’s nothing you can do to minimize it’s damage. It’s terrible. It’s all you’ll taste.