There was this time, long ago, when I was writing my first book and talking on the phone to Amanda Hesser who I revered and who kindly agreed to give me tips about shopping at the farmer’s market. I was trying to get a grasp on how to know which ingredients were in season, which were good, which were bad, etc. At some point I said, “Well I guess garlic is one of those things that’s always the same no matter where you get it?” No, actually I said: “Well I guess garlic can’t be fresh can it?” And Amanda Hesser set me straight: “Of course garlic can be fresh…”
“How do you know if it’s fresh?” I asked.
“It’s really tight and firm,” she explained. “The cloves aren’t coming apart.”
That moment stayed with me; mostly because I was a beginning food writer and the world of fresh ingredients and people who know about fresh ingredients seemed so far away. I was a little embarrassed.
Since then, I’ve always looked for tight/firm garlic at the grocery store. Only recently, though, have I started to notice garlic at farmer’s markets. And you know what? It’s the best.
Look at the garlic in the above photo, sitting there in the sunlight. The papery exterior couldn’t be whiter. The cloves are all tightly compressed.
Most importantly, when you take good garlic home and cut into a clove, you don’t find that bitter green stem inside that Jacques Pepin tells you to remove. That’s because this is higher quality garlic.
The main reason is that while all garlic has to be cured (for several months)** before you can eat it, grocery stores can let garlic sit out for a really long time; farmer’s markets don’t do that. So the garlic has a different taste than grocery store garlic. The cloves are firmer, smoother, less dented and discolored.
So the next time you’re at the farmer’s market, stock up on some good garlic. And the next time you talk to Amanda Hesser, you won’t embarrass yourself.
** Turns out I had this wrong (see comments). The garlic cures for just a few days and then, after, will last several months. Thanks, Sara, for pointing that out. (So much for not embarrassing myself.)