Hundreds of garlic varieties offer different flavor profiles. How do you enjoy different types of garlic? Is it worth trying hardneck garlic? Where do you buy the different types of garlic?
There are hundreds of different garlic varieties, possibly thousands.
- Spanish Roja
- Walla Walla Early
- Russian Redstreak
- Purple Glazer
- Asian Tempest
These varieties of garlic grow from all over the world and offer different personalities and flavor profiles.
You can substitute the commonplace garlic you buy in the grocery store with any of these heirloom garlic varieties in your recipes. There are two main types of garlic: hardneck garlic versus softneck garlic.
Hardneck garlic is stronger in flavor, the cloves are larger, and it produces a scape, which is a delicacy in many cuisines.
Softneck garlic is the most common type of garlic that is sold at the grocery store. Its softer, papery-thin skins enclose smaller cloves, which makes softneck garlic harder to peel than hardneck garlic. Its flavor tends to be less pungent and spicy than hardneck garlic.
In addition to hardneck and softneck garlic varieties, there are also different parts of the garlic plant that you can eat, such as the scape and garlic leaves (ramps). Let's dig in to learn where you can find these different types of garlic and how to prepare them for cooking.
Types of Garlic
There are two subspecies of garlic: hard-necked garlic (Ophioscorodon, ophios for short) and soft-necked garlic (sativum).
Many garlic varieties are genetically very similar. Garlic often has whimsical names because the different varieties are named after the place where they were first discovered or after the garlic grower. Garlic can take on a different appearance based on the environment in which it grows, leading growers to believe they discovered a new variety.
Most of the garlic varieties we have come from the Caucasus mountain range between Russia and Georgia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, researchers were invited to explore Central Asia and Eastern Union where they discovered many varieties of garlic unknown to the West.
One such lawyer-turned-amateur-allium-botanist, John Swenson, was profiled in the Chicago Tribune in 1990 for his trip to the Soviet Union where he and a group of researchers collected garlic over 8,000 miles.
30 years ago, Swenson was quoted saying, "Who knows what genetic diversity there is? There's been virtually no research done on garlic.'' Today, thanks to modern-day genetic testing and passionate researchers who spend time cultivating garlic, we better understand garlic's genetic diversity, and how environmental conditions change it.
Let's dive in to learn how you can benefit from this knowledge as a garlic eater.
Softneck garlic does not have a scape. Instead, it has a soft stem that, when dried, can be braided. Softneck garlic can be woven into beautiful garlic bouquets that you see dangling from the ceiling of old-fashioned Italian restaurants and artisanal food markets.
Softneck varieties are often smaller in size and sweeter than the hardneck varieties. The translucent paper-like skin that covers the cloves is known to be stickier which makes peeling and preparing the softneck cloves for cooking more challenging than hardnecks.
Softnecks are split into 2 main categories:
- Artichokes and
What Do You Cook with Softneck Garlic?
I like using softneck garlic if the recipe calls for a very large quantity of garlic, and its flavor will be hidden behind other bold flavors because it is more affordable than hardneck garlic. For example, I would use softneck varieties, including the grocery-store, garden-variety white garlic, in stews, braises, sauces, and soups.
Because softneck garlic is sweeter and milder, I prefer it in recipes calling for raw or undercooked garlic, such as garlic salad dressing and garlic herb dip. Softneck garlic is well-suited for garlic ice cream.
Recipes that Work Well with Softneck Garlic
Where Do You Buy Softneck Garlic?
The garlic you can find in the supermarket is most likely a softneck garlic. If you want heirloom softneck garlics, you can find them at local farmers' markets, artisan food markets, and eCommerce retailers selling garlic seed (which can be expensive).
RELATED: Learn from the garlic bread taste test whether you can substitute fresh garlic for garlic powder or minced garlic.
Hardneck garlic produces larger bulbs and larger, but fewer, cloves. Each hardneck bulb can produce as few as 4 cloves, compared to softneck garlic, which can produce 10-30 cloves.
Hardnecks are split into the 5 “true" hardnecks:
- Purple Stripe,
- Marbled Purple Stripe, and
- Glazed Purple Stripe.
Then there are 3 “weakly bolting hardnecks”:
- Asiatic, and
Weakly bolting hardneck garlic are varieties that can produce a scape under harsher conditions, such as intense heat or drought, but otherwise can grow like a softneck.
Hardneck garlic tends to grow well in colder climates, such as Canadian, Central European, and Eastern European climates.
Hardneck garlic grows a scape, a long, hard, spindly stalk that grows from the bulb. It usually grows upwards and coils into 1-3 curls.
From this stalk, the garlic plant can grow a bulbil which looks like a flower bloom. It is not a flower but tiny cloves of garlic that are genetically identical to its parent plant. If allowed to drop to the ground and take root, these mini cloves can each turn into an adult garlic plant.
However, the scape is usually snipped off before it can "bloom” so that the garlic’s energy and therefore flavor remains concentrated in the bulb.
How Do You Cook with Hardneck Garlic?
I like to use hardneck garlic for dishes where fresh garlic is front and center because it is expensive and hard to find. That makes dishes like garlic bread, garlic pizza, and garlic butter on top of steak ideal for hardneck garlic.
Many cooks take advantage of hardneck garlic's stronger flavor for bold dishes, such as braised lamb shank and chicken thighs.
I love roasting hardneck garlic in the oven. The spicy and pungent flavors of hardneck garlic mellow out with the heat to make a sweet roasted garlic spread that goes well on crusty bread.
Recipes that Work Well with Hardneck Garlic
Where Do You Buy Hardneck Garlic?
Hardneck garlic is a lot harder to find in your local grocery store. Lately, I've had luck finding hardneck garlic in Whole Foods. Our local farmers market has a vendor that sells hardneck garlic. You can also find it from eCommerce retailers. Unfortunately, the only reliable online vendors are usually garlic seed sellers, and those are expensive.
TIP: Garlic is seasonal. You're most likely able to find hardneck garlic at Whole Foods and the farmers market during the end of summer and early fall (keep an eye out from August to November).
How Can You Tell Softneck vs. Hardneck Garlic?
Softneck garlic has thinner and stickier skins than hardneck garlic, which makes softneck cloves harder to peel. Hardneck garlic cloves are usually bigger which makes one or two cloves sufficient for your dish. This could save the home cook a lot of time. Unfortunately, most grocery stores stock softneck garlic.
Why Do Grocery Stores Generally Sell Softneck Garlic?
Softneck garlic has a lot of qualities that make it well suited for commercial growing and selling:
- Softneck garlic can be mechanically planted
- It doesn't require pruning because it doesn’t grow a scape
- Softneck garlic produces a greater number of cloves
- It is self-stable and therefore has a longer storage life
Other Edible & Delicious Garlic Parts
The garlic scape is the sprout that grows from hard-neck garlic, which is trimmed before it becomes a stiff, woody stem.
(Photo to come in the late spring when scapes are available for purchase. For now, you can do a Google image search 😉 because I only post original images on Garlic Delight and scapes are nowhere to be found in snowy Boulder in late October.)
Scapes are delicious in scrambled eggs and stir fries. I love a stir-fry dish that my mum makes using garlic scapes and smoked pork belly.
Green garlic, also known as spring garlic, is garlic that hasn't fully matured. Farmers pick garlic early before the bulb has developed. Green garlic looks like green onions and it tastes milder and more delicate than the fresh garlic bulb.
You can substitute spring garlic in place of onions, leeks, and scallions. You can use one stalk with the accompanying bulb in place of one clove of garlic.
TIP: Green garlic is usually picked in early spring after the garlic plant has sprouted and the ground has thawed and before the plant matures into a bulb underground. Look for spring garlic from March to June in your local farmers' markets (or maybe Whole Foods).
Wild Garlic (Ramps)
Wild garlic, also known as ramps, is a leafy wild onion plant that is part of the allium family. It grows in North America and resembles a cross between a leek and a garlic plant. It tastes similar to leeks and can be used in place of onions, garlic, and leeks.
Elephant garlic might look like a gigantic garlic bulb with large cloves but it's closely related to the leek than to garlic. It has a milder flavor than garlic, which means you can substitute it for garlic in a pinch but you may want the real deal if you're looking for authentic, pungent garlic flavor, such as in garlic bread.
Is It Worth Growing Garlic?
It might be hard to buy hardneck garlic and the other heirloom varieties where you live. It can be tempting to grow your garlic to try the different varieties. Why not? Especially if you're experienced in gardening or what to learn.
We did an experiment where we grew garlic in pots on our balcony. Based on what we learned, here are tips that could help you in your garlic growing journey.
If you are growing garlic in your garden (not in pots on your balcony), check out my friend Sarah Cooks' helpful tips on growing garlic.
Garlic Varieties We Tried Growing
Research which kinds of garlic you want to try based on the flavor profiles and characteristics you're looking for.
Here are 2 resources I found helpful:
I purchased 4 garlic varieties from a farm in Washington state that specializes in garlic seed. They’re called Filaree Garlic Farm and they provide more than 100 different varieties of garlic collected from all over the world. According to their website, they have been around for more than 28 years, providing consumers with garlic seed to plant gourmet garlic varieties.
From their starter pack, we received the following 4 garlic varieties:
- Lotus (Turban - Weakly Bolting Hardnecks)
- Sicilian Artichoke (Artichoke - Softneck)
- Burgundy (Creole - Weakly Bolting Hardnecks)
- Mexican Red Silver (Silverskin - Softneck)
I found this garlic seed "cheatsheet" helpful to determine which garlic to plant.
Garlic Seed Is Expensive
It turns out garlic seed is pricey. For the bag of 4 varieties, we paid about $70, and we received about 4 to 6 bulbs of each variety. The garlic seed retailers promise the cloves are free from disease, and that's about it.
If I were to plant garlic again, I would first take a regular garlic bulb from the supermarket, break apart the bulb and plant the cloves in 1 pot of soil or in the ground. This allows you to test whether you enjoy growing garlic before you invest in the equipment and garlic seed. It also gives you the experience to learn how to plant garlic before you buy expensive seed in case you mess up the first time.
Growing Garlic Depends on Your Environment
The biggest factors that determine the color, appearance, and even flavor of garlic are "location, soil, climate, and skill of the grower".
As amateur garlic botanist John Swenson recalls, the best garlic he ever tried was a type of purple garlic in central Mexico. When he brought it home to grow, very little survived. "The taste was nothing special so it has to be the growing conditions in the Celaya region east of Mexico City," he told William Aldrich of the Chicago Tribune.
If you don't live in the right conditions for growing garlic, you may end up with garlic that doesn't look or taste similar to the initial garlic seed you planted. Don't be too disappointed. Understand you have a different variety that comes from your local conditions.
FAQ about Types of Garlic
How many varieties of garlic are there?
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of types of garlic with different names because the environmental conditions determine the size, color, appearance, and flavor of garlic. But overall, there are 2 subspecies of garlic -- hardneck and softneck -- that can be further categorized into about a dozen varieties.
What's the difference between white and purple garlic?
Purple garlic is a different variety of garlic from white garlic. Several kinds of garlic can be purple. Researchers at the USDA have found some cultivars, such as the "Chesnok Red, Purple Glazer, Red Janice, and Siberian" will generally have purple stripes when grown in consistently cold weather conditions.
What's the difference between garlic and elephant garlic?
While elephant garlic is in the allium family and therefore a cousin to garlic, it is closely related to leeks than to garlic. It has a much milder flavor than garlic and is not a perfect substitute.
How can you tell how strong and spicy garlic will be?
It used to be possible to guess how spicy and pungent a garlic bulb tastes based on the season when you acquired it. The longer a bulb is stored, the stronger the taste. Therefore, late winter garlic would offer the most intense flavors.
However, most garlic in the grocery store is imported from China. Because garlic is grown all year round in China, it is no longer easy to guess how strong your garlic will taste.
Why bother trying hardneck garlic?
Many people find hardneck varieties more pungent and spicier than softneck garlic. You may enjoy its stronger flavors. Home cooks also appreciate the bigger cloves and its papery skin is less sticky, which makes hardneck garlic easier to peel and less work because you don't need as many cloves.
Is one-clove garlic a real thing?
I learned about one-clove garlic from The Guardian who mentioned a retailer, Lidl, advertising this new type of garlic as a boon to home cooks. It turns out it is probably a cousin to elephant garlic and therefore closer to the taste of leeks than garlic. Unless you're OK settling for the milder flavor, best to stick with the real-deal garlic and learn to enjoy the meditative peeling 🙂
When is the best time to plant garlic?
Garlic is best planted in October to November before the first winter frost settles in so the cloves have a chance to sprout and take root in the soil.
When is garlic harvested?
Garlic grows for about 8 months through winter and spring. It is usually harvested in late spring and summer. You should cure to help it last longer if you plan to keep the garlic over winter (which is a great idea so you can enjoy garlic all year round).
P.S. If you've read this far about garlic, you must be a real garlic fan. So, you'll probably appreciate this hilarious website about Gilroy Smell.