The Dirty Secrets and Deep Flavor of Black Garlic

by Caroline Hatchett
Shannon Sturgis and Antoinette Bruno
March 2013

Black Garlic Stats

$15 to $20 per pound

Baldor, Chefs' Warehouse, Chinese markets

Hold in a dark, cool space, sealed, for up to 24 months.

Wear gloves when peeling skin; soak cloves in warm water for a few minutes for easier peeling.

Extra Tips:
  • Pair black garlic with bright acid.
  • Build umami in vegetable and poultry dishes with a hit of black garlic.
  • Use the skins in braises to add a subtle layer of flavor.

Black garlic has a few dirty secrets. It may or may not be a traditional Korean product, originally "fermented" in clay pots in the warm summer sun, or according to sketchy internet sources, it may have hailed from ancient China, Japan, or even Egypt. Less likely but better documented, Korean inventor Scott Kim claims to have developed black garlic in 2004 as the next big superfood.

What we do know is that black garlic has become a staple in professional American kitchens since Kim formed Black Garlic Inc. and began selling the product to stateside chefs in 2008. Regardless of its provenance, chefs know why they love black garlic. "It's deep. The flavors are so layered, and they linger," says Chef Evan Hanczor of Brooklyn's Parish Hall. "It has notes of dark caramel, chocolate, a little bitterness, a little sweetness, and umami, plus that je ne sais quoi."

That je ne sais quoi has long been associated with all things fermented, a trend that's picked up momentum in fine-dining kitchens over the last few years. But black garlic owes its characteristic flavor not to fermentation, but enzymatic breakdown and the good old fashioned Maillard reaction. Processed at around 60°C/140°F for a month to six weeks, it essentially gets a low and slow roast that converts sugar and turns the cloves black. Sorry to disappoint you lovers of funk and rot, but black garlic is glorified, pasteurized, deeply caramelized garlic.

"[Black garlic] isn't fermented. It's a break down product," says Dave Arnold, culinary tinkerer and former director of technology at the French Culinary Institute. "It involves sugar conversion, a slow sugar break down over time."

House-made Black Garlic from Parish Hall

House-made Black Garlic from Parish Hall

House-made, Farm-to-Table Approved

Black garlic may not be romantic or ancient or the work of a million microbes, but it's having a moment in New York City.

To make black garlic authentic to the menu at farm-to-table Parish Hall, Hanczor decided to forgo specialty purveyors and make his own black garlic from local Pennsylvania and New York State bulbs. After researching techniques online, he and his team developed a process that works for their kitchen, and they now keep a continuous batch of black garlic "cooking."

Hanczor adds whole heads to a Lexan, which he covers tightly with plastic wrap and aluminum foil, creating an airtight seal and to hold in moisture. He then adds the Lexan to a large dehydrator to maintain a constant 140°F. He checks the garlic every few weeks, and usually pulls the deep black bulbs at 26 to 28 days. (He has also successfully tried the process with shallots, which require a shorter time in the dehydrator, he says.)

Hanczor likes to add black garlic into dishes that are naturally weak on deep umami flavor—think vegetarian compositions and chicken dishes like his Confit Chicken Thigh, Dirty Farro, Sunny Egg, Black Garlic, and Herb Sauce. A bright, rich sauce of black garlic, shallots, maple syrup, cider vinegar, cream, and stock enhances the chicken and mirrors the funk of duck livers in the farro. And the vinegar-based herb sauce cuts right through the intensity and fat.

Black Garlic Does Dessert

Contrasting black garlic, acid, and herbs is also at the heart of Pastry Chef Katy Peetz's Parsley Cake, Fennel-Black Garlic Gelato, Meyer Lemon Granita, and Parsley-Olive Oil Crumble.

Inspired by gremolata, this dish's garlic flavor bursts from the gelato. "I love the grassiness and freshness of parsley … It was citrus season, and the lemons were amazing. A light bulb just went on to make a dessert out of [gremolata]," says Peetz, who runs the pasty program at Brooklyn's Blanca. "The black garlic gelato alone was too overpowering, so I played with other flavors that would balance out the funkiness. The deep, sweet caramel notes along with the earthiness of fennel pollen were perfect."  

Peetz, who started her career on the savory side of the line, boldly incorporates black garlic and other savory elements, such as sunchokes, hemp seed, and celery root, into her desserts. "[Black garlic] brings an almost disturbing but lovely characteristic to the dish that people don't usually associate with dessert," she says.

Ties to Italy?

Black garlic is no more Italian than Sriracha sauce, but Chef Justin Smillie of Il Buco Alimentaria e Vineria has worked the ingredient into his menu since taking over the kitchen in 2011. "We try to pay homage to Italian technique and simplicity, but we do cook in New York City," he says. Smillie serves a plate of Seared Octopus, Black Garlic-Squid Ink Emulsion, Turmeric-pickled Cauliflower, Marcona Almonds, and Seaweed.

For the dish, he blends the black garlic into a thick sauce with salty squid ink and lime juice—a mayonnaise-like vehicle to coat the palate with umami love. Although it's not authentic, he argues it's not a far stretch from the sweet, salty, funky flavors of ancient Roman cooking with ingredients like anchovies and fish-sauce relative garum. However old school the inspiration, black garlic brings New York and New World attitude to Smillie's Italian cooking, and he's not afraid to slip the cloves into unexpected dishes. But he cautions: "The more you add, the more you deplete what makes black garlic so special."

It's that nuance, the mystery, that makes black garlic an ingredient worth experimenting with—if not fully understanding.