Chinese vs. Californian

At the Market: How to Sniff Out Where Your Garlic Came From

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fresh garlic from California and from nearby farms has started showing up in markets and stores here.

Vendors carrying local garlic include those affiliated with FreshFarm Markets (, which have it now, and with the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative ( Tony Ricci's White Porcelain garlic from Green Heron Farm in Three Springs, Pa., will be available through the Tuscarora co-op, which supplies more than 100 local chefs and markets, around July 1.

There are hundreds of varieties of garlic, but only eight or so are commonly found, and White Porcelain and Purple Stripe are predominant. There are two garlic types: hardneck, with fewer, larger cloves, and softneck, with many smaller cloves. ("Elephant" garlic is technically a leek.)

To pick garlic, look for medium-size bulbs with "tight, firm heads," advises chef Barton Seaver of Georgetown's Hook restaurant, and avoid those that seem dry or brittle. Seaver poaches garlic three times in water to render it "sweet, aromatic, soft and floral," he says. "You remove all the harsh indigestibles," as well as its ability to cause bad breath.

Unpeeled garlic can last for months. Andrea Froncillo of the Stinking Rose restaurant in San Francisco buys 40 tons of California garlic a year. Stored properly -- away from heat or light -- it lasts six months, he says. But, he adds, fresh is best: "It starts losing power very quickly. The sooner you use it, the better."

How do you tell the difference between Chinese and California garlic?

· Look: "If the root has stubble," says Bill Christopher of Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, Calif., "it's from California." But John Layous of the Garlic Co. in Bakersfield, Calif., notes that packaging methods can make scrutiny difficult: Chinese garlic often is packaged so that you can't tell whether stubble is present.

· Feel: California garlic is heavier because it contains less water. Labs tests show it is about 42 percent solid, says Neil Cracknell of the American Dehydrated Onion and Garlic Association. Chinese garlic is about 37 percent solid. But consumers might not be able to detect that difference. So squeeze the bulb: The firmer, the better.

· Taste: California garlic might be more pungent. But "flavor is subjective," says Patsy Ross, marketing director of Christopher Ranch, which has done lab tests to try to measure it. "We started looking for differences in California garlic and imports because chefs were telling us they preferred the flavor of California garlic over Chinese," she says. Besides measuring solidity, the lab measured allicin, the odiferous compound in garlic that is released when the bulb is crushed. It is believed to be the reason garlic has some health benefits. "The results for the California garlic showed over 4,400 ppm [parts per million] of allicin compared to 3,500 for the Chinese," Ross says.

According to Jena Roberts of the National Food Laboratory, which tests products for companies, there is no test to measure flavor.

-- Sue Kovach Shuman

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