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Black garlic, a popular choice for home cooks and chefs

Elspeth Hay

Beau Valtz is standing in his Wellfleet kitchen in front of a giant pile of fresh garlic.

He's wrapping the heads tightly in tin foil.

"I’m going to do 90 of these and then I’m going to put them in the crockpots on the porch, which all have thermo-couples attached to them that keep the temperature hovering around 140 degrees and they’ll sit out there for a month and a half," he explains.

Over the course of this month and a half, the cloves inside the garlic paper will turn from white to black. Over the past decade, this so-called black garlic become incredibly popular with gourmet home cooks and chefs.

"My wife saw this stuff in the old health food store in Provincetown. There was a little point of purchase display and a single head of this stuff in a little clear plastic bag was ten bucks," Beau says.

"And she was like what the heck is that and splurged on it and brought it home and gosh that’s interesting and tasty and weird, and we didn’t really think about it, and who’s going to buy ten dollar heads of garlic, but then a couple years went by and I just decided — wait a minute, that stuff, I wonder what would happen if you made a bunch of that and offered it up to people."

Beau quickly discovered that what would happen is the black garlic would fly off the shelves. He started making it for local chefs and a farm stand, and he can’t produce enough to satisfy local demand. It turns out the black color in black garlic comes from a reaction between the sugars and an amino acid that are naturally present in the bulb. which is called the Maillard reaction. This is also responsible for the flavors of other foods we find addictively tasty: toasted bread and nuts, barbecued meats, and roasted coffee.

"When it’s done, when it comes out right, sometimes it gets like especially if you lose moisture, or some of the stuff I’ve bought in stores sometimes is kind of hard and too solid, but when this stuff comes out right it kind of has the consistency of a Chuckle one of those gelatin candies," he explains.

"Your teeth leave little drag marks in it when you bite it, and if you pop a piece in somebody’s mouth and don’t let them see that it’s shaped like a clove, they usually can’t guess what it is, they’re like oh, that tastes sort of like balsamic vinegar or what is that, almost maybe one person in ten will go is that garlic? So, it completely changes."

I asked a few chefs I know why they like black garlic and my friend Eric Jansen of Blackfish in Truro says it’s an umami thing. He puts black garlic in aioli or dressings and adds it to a demiglacé for steak. He says black garlic has a complexity that fresh garlic lacks. It’s almost sweet, and it’s flavorful in an intense way that some people compare to truffles.

"It’s supposed to be full of anti-oxidants, it is supposed to have healthful properties in Asian cultures, but who knows."

That’s one of the strange things about black garlic, actually. Where exactly it comes from and why it suddenly burst onto the U.S. culinary scene a little over a decade ago are questions that are surprisingly hard to answer. Some people say it’s an ancient Chinese tradition, others that it comes from Egypt. One Korean man claims he invented it in 2004. What we do know is that it’s easy to make. The only ingredients are time, garlic, moisture, and heat.

Here's a link to a recipe for pasta with black garlic, shallots, butter, and white wine that gets rave reviews: https://cookingontheweekends.com/black-garlic-pappardelle-recipe/

And here's a youtube video that shows the process (with a little humor!):

This piece first aired in May 2022.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.