Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Last weekend North Union Farmers Market put on a garlic festival, where I was lucky enough to judge a cooking contest pitting five local chefs against one another creating dishes that had to feature grilled grass-fed beef and garlic.  I was further fortunate to be seated next to Jonathon Sawyer, chef/owner with his wife Amelia (aka chefswidow), of The Greenhouse Tavern, arguably the best restaurant in Cleveland, certainly second to none (I only get prouder of the burgeoning restaurant scene here). Jonathon is so restless and inventive, he once ate the choke from an artichoke wondering if there was some way of puttin it to use (there wasn’t).  So here’s a guy who will strive for inventiveness and still have the balls to put pike quennelles, an old French warhorse, on his menu, knowing it will feel complete new—and they’re fabulous.  The kind of spirit than earned a much-deserved 10 Best award from Food & Wine last spring.

Jonathon Sawyer, on the right, and to my left, Joe Crea Plain Dealer food editor, judging food at the North Union Farmer's Market Garlic Festival

So Jonathon and I were chatting as we waited for the next garlic dish to arrive and he told me he’d caused a stir by claiming that Music garlic grown by Thaxton Farm in Hudson, OH, was the best garlic in the world, that he got shovelfuls of grief from other farmers say their garlic was best, or how can anyone say this or that garlic is the best in the world?!

It got me thinking: what exactly defines great garlic?  You obviously know it when you see it. You can see the above—it’s beautiful garlic, an example from Maplestar Farm in Auburn, Ohio, Music on the bottom, German Porcelain on top, $2 a piece and worth it). You know it when you work with it, if only by comparison to the almost uniformly crappy variety you get at the grocery store.

Good garlic is grown, and then cured, basically hung to dry, to preserve it.  The skin should be tight, the cloves solid and firm.  The best varieties have that hard core around which the cloves grow.  And yes, size matters.  The bigger the cloves the less peeling you have to do.  There’s also the matter of how hot it is when it’s raw, a matter of taste.  I like it hot so that I can control the heat by different levels of cooking. I love it finely, finely minced, then mixed with olive oil, spread on a slice of sourdough and toasted til the garlic is just golden brown.  I love to let it macerate in lemon juice before adding pepper and oil for a simple vinaigrette for romaine and shaved parmasan.  When you have garlic this good, it’s important to feature it.  Garlic sauteed quickly in olive oil, with just a seasoning of tomato and a hit of red pepper flakes, tossed with pasta. One of the best and most surprising uses on Saturday was smoked garlic that garnished grilled steak—really good, I highly recommend smoking garlic (warning though: hard to keep lit!).

But what really signals to me great garlic, is the sound I hear when I slice it, a sheer sound as the knife moves through it, which really is an indication of its juiciness.  The sound is what tells me its great garlic.  When you see garlic like this, grab it.  It can transform your cooking.

And I just heard back from Jonathon. He stands by claim: THE best in the world.


52 Wonderful responses to “The Best Garlic”

  • GG Mora

    Good garlic is insanely easy to grow. And for anyone in a ‘colder’ climate, now’s the time to start planning for planting. The hard-neck varieties are all cold-climate garlic, and should be planted late in the fall, just before the ground freezes. Poke a single clove root-end down into prepared soil (loosened, amended with compost) about 2 inches deep. It’s one of the first things to sprout in the spring. First come the lush strappy leaves, then the curly delicious scape; round about mid to late July, the single clove will have magically transformed into a fat juicy multi-cloved head.

    We grow about 200 heads a year, 6 or so varieties, all for our own use! I love the way good fresh garlic leaves your fingers sticky with juice when you chop it.

      • Donita

        An Amish organic farmer has it at our indoor market in the winter if you run out of your own stash. I don’t know how he cures it but it still bites back.

      • GG Mora

        Soft-neck varieties grow well in warmer climes. They’re what’s grown in Gilroy, CA – the ‘Garlic Capital of the World’. Soft-neck garlic gets planted in the early spring.

    • Speakeasy Kitchen

      Thanks for the tips! And Paul’s tip on the nitrogen rich soil is helpful as well. Now I just need to find a couple of heads of good garlic and wait. And wait. And wait. July 2011 cannot come soon enough. How far apart should I plant the cloves?

  • Russ

    Loved the garlic themed post…but I must inquire…”,,,arguably the best restaurant in Cleveland…” ???? What about Chef Simon’s places….or did I miss something????

          • Russ

            Sorry Tags…I’m not conversant in smileycon…definitely missed that one…and yes it’s embarrassing to miss the “Y”… my error..I’m glad we both like Michael’s work….re-reading Soul of a Chef for the umpteenth time….have a great day….

          • Tags

            Sorry, Russ, my intention was gentle ribbing. Twenty bucks to whoever can come up with an unambiguous emoticon for “gentle ribbing.”

            Again, I apologize.

    • ruhlman

      lola, under Derek Clayton, is ALSO arguably the best restaurant in Cleveland, and Derek is arguably cleveland’s finest cook.

  • d trattner

    Thaxton is in Hudson, OH I thought. And I agree, it’s the bomb. GG, most growers I spoke to at the garlic fest say they plant mid- to late-october in Ohio.

  • Paul

    Music is certainly the variety to grow around here. An GG Mora above is right in lotsa compost and, in addition, fairly high nitrogen levels since garlic is a gross feeder. The more green you get initially (in the Spring) the bigger and better the cloves and green comes from nitrogen.

    Two thoughts on keeping garlic. One is that softneck keeps better than hardneck but the tradeoff is that you get many more but smaller cloves. The second is that after you harvest it and cure it by hanging, move it to a veggie drawer in your second fridge (what? you only have one fridge?). Garlic likes cool, dry and DARK to keep from sprouting.

    It’s easy to get great garlic in September but tough as heck to have it still be great come February.

  • Tags

    Great compost makes great garlic, or anything else that grows in a garden for that matter.

  • Charles Curran

    Only problem with having a restaurant in Cleveland, soon there won’t be anyone to eat in them.

  • steve

    Thaxtons are indeed in Hudson, OH, and I bought some of their garlic at the fest. I steered away from the Music as I wanted one of the hot varieties. If time allows it would be great to be able to help them plant this year. And lastly The Greenhouse Tavern is certainly one of the best in NEO, we like a lot of the places here, but Jon is certainly one of the most inventive chefs that we have.

  • luanda

    Just tried the hard necked variety for the first time in my life. OMG!! What a revelation. The sound that it makes when sliced!!! Oh yeah, it was yummy also. I just might have to sacrifice a clove or two to plant my own.

  • Maven

    I live on Vancouver Island and have to give a shout out to the Gabriola Island Gourmet Garlic Guy – Ken Stefanson. He grows and sells the most amazing garlic. Well known at local farmer’s markets all over the island, he’s got the kind of dynamic personality one enjoys in a garlic guy 🙂

    Reading these comments has me thinking about trying to grow my own next year.

    • John K.

      Smoking garlic is quite easy, if you have a smoker. You can smoke whole heads, or cloves. Keep the temp low as you can — 160 to no more than 200. A couple of hours will do. A cold smoker is nice, as you don’t have to worry about temps. Higher temps make for a nearly roasted, smoked garlic (which may be what you want), lower temps do not roast the garlic. Some people lightly coat the garlic in oil. Try both. If you google smoked garlic you will find recipes for making and using smoked garlic (as well as some places that sell it — but it’s so simple, why?).

      John K.
      Akron, Ohio

  • The Italian Dish

    The only thing I have to add is if you really love garlic (which I do) don’t bother buying “elephant garlic” – those giant heads of garlic. Their flavor is much too mild for us true garlic lovers.

  • Pat

    I like the Georgian garlic (can’t remember the exact name) as well as Georgian food in general. The best! (Republic of Georgia, former USSR, not the land of peaches and peanuts)

  • Lara

    You may *wish* it to be the best garlic, but there’s a reason Gilroy is the Garlic Capitol of the World 🙂
    Local pride, whoot.

  • Kris

    We have a garlic farmer at our public market – his German hardneck is, without a doubt, the best around. Most of the bulbs I got last week only have 4 or 5 cloves, but oh, what huge, beautiful cloves they are!

  • Talley

    We had a garlic tasting about a year ago with 7 varieties of garlic that our friend was growing. We were amazed at the variation between different varieties! My personal favorite ended up being Gourmet Red…

  • John

    I tried smoking garlic once. Not only was it hard to keep lit, it was quite harsh.

    Some nights I dream of the chicken wings deep fried in duck fat at the Greenhouse….heaven on earth!

  • Rhonda

    I love this post because I just watched a 2 hour + documentary on garlic: how it is grown, etc, etc; — that I CHECKED OUT FROM THE LIBRARY!

    Who the fuck, in their normal mind does that, except me?

    The only thing that gives me solace is that there are some people out there that actually make documentaries on garlic.

    • luanda

      Pray tell… what’s the name of this documentary. I feel the urge to request it from the library.

  • Mary-Alice

    We grow garlic and it is so easy and so wonderful. We order in February and receive it in time to plant on Columbus Day. The best part of the process is harvesting the scapes and green garlic about the same time as the asparagus is coming in and the chickens start their spring laying. What grows together…. We grow both hard neck and soft neck. The hard neck is more perishable and therefore used first, my favs are Georgian Crystal and Chesnick Red. After Thanksgiving we have used up all the hard neck and start on the soft neck and if we have planned correctly, we can go until we get the scapes in the spring. This last year I had to buy some storebought to get us through and it was so sad. I don’t believe one should plant something unless you can do it cheaper or better than store bought. In the case of garlic, it is al so much better.

  • William

    In addition to farming garlic, Fred Thaxton is a biology teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and a great guy. Two thumbs up for Thaxton garlic!

  • Lori @ RecipeGirl

    You know, I just picked up an electric smoker. I wonder how it would go if I tried smoking some garlic in that contraption? Sounds like it’s worth a shot. I can only imagine that a smoky-flavored minced garlic would do some amazing things to breads and pasta dishes.

    I’m not sure we have access to multiple varieties of garlic around here, but I’ll certainly be on the lookout. Have you ever had black garlic?

  • parkbench

    We were in San Francisco last year and had dinner at the Stinking Rose…dinner was horrid (tourist trap level) but was made up for by having books for sale. We bought “Garlic is Life” by Chester Aaron, which tells the story (recipes included) of how he became a garlic grower and connoisseur late in life. Includes growing instructions, sources and how to deter gophers. He swears by Georgian Red Toche hardnecks and we just received our shipment of some from Filaree Farms in Washington state for planting next month. July will not be here a minute too soon.

    @Lara…Gilroy may call itself the “garlic capital” but Fresno County grows the most garlic in the nation. 😉

  • danelono

    Hey, snow bound folks, this is Dane reporting from sunny CA, Yeah, we grow Garlic. All Kinds. Not just California Early or Late, We have heirloom bulbs and a growing season that will make your midwesterner palates break down in obvious envy. Viva la San Joaquin Valley !

  • Sami Lees

    Sigh, went to Maplestar Farm in Bainbridge yesterday but they were closed. I could see into their store a variety of luscious looking garlics. Must drive back there soon…maybe call first to be sure they are open.

  • Nicholas L. Hall

    I’m betting that Ruth Bourdain put you up to smoking the garlic. She’s a bad influence, and that’s a gateway alium, Ruhlman. Be careful. Before you know it, she’ll have you snorting a line of powdered ramps in the back of some seedy trailer off route 105.

  • lq

    I keep hearing things about Korean garlic, but I have no idea where you get it. Hrmph. Lots of different-looking garlics at my local farmers’ markets (ahh, SF Bay Area! 4 within 10 minutes’ drive, and all year round), but none are labeled.

  • Paul

    The reason there are so many garlics, by the way, is that it crosses so easily. You do have to let it come to flower and you do have to have several varieties flower at the same time and you do have to then start it from the seeds of the flowers but … go experiment. Talk about cheap!

  • Dayse Sene

    Gostaria de participar do seu blog…é possível? Não achei aqui onde me inscrever.
    Deixo meu endereço de blog, seja lá meu amigo também.


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