Black Garlic Is a Lip-Smackingly Good Ingredient with Unlimited Cooking Potential

updated Dec 12, 2022
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Credit: Coco Morante

When I first came upon black garlic at a neighborhood grocery shop a few years ago, I was immediately drawn in, fascinated by the mysterious onyx orbs. I wondered at its potential as I slid a jar into my shopping basket and sprinted out of the spice aisle, not sure where it would take me, but ready for the adventure.

What I learned after doing a bit of research was that black garlic’s origins were as opaque as the bulbs themselves, with likely ancient Asian beginnings or, perhaps, a more modern history as an invention by Black Garlic Inc. founder, Scott Kim.

What Is Black Garlic? 

Black garlic is actually the result of aging regular garlic in a humid environment for about a month. As the enzymes that make garlic so assertive begin to break down, the maillard reaction (that blessed bit of science that gives us a perfect sear on a piece of meat) begins to take effect, charging the once-potent allium with a pleasant caramelized flavor. 

Sticky with a surprising dankness, black garlic has the head-scratching ability to conjure, like a wizard, a myriad of flavors, from Medjool dates to aged balsamic to black licorice. It has a similar I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it, lip-smacking quality to Worcestershire sauce, with a high crave-ability factor. 

The Many, Magical Ways to Use Black Garlic in the Kitchen

Black garlic’s fruit snack-esque texture can make it feel tricky to incorporate into dishes because, unlike regular garlic, it doesn’t disappear into a dish. The key is not to use it like regular garlic. Smashing the cloves and whisking them into an emulsification (like an aioli or salad dressing) or shaving slivers into a bubbling tomato sauce works particularly well.

You can swirl black garlic into just about anything that needs a high kick of savory flavor, but don’t expect the chewy texture to simply melt away. Its funk is contagious, working well in a marinade. Tofu, for example, soaks that flavor right up and is magically transformed for the better.

Newly confident in my love for black garlic, I wanted to experiment even more. I tossed roasted vegetables in a black garlic and shallot vinaigrette for an easy, but impressive side dish. I whipped the cloves into sour cream and cream cheese to make a dip that made crudités irresistible (and potato chips even more irresistible).

Black garlic’s tamarind notes gave my homemade barbecue sauce the perfect earthy sweetness, and I bet it would do the same for the store-bought stuff too. Drunk on black garlic potential, I could not be stopped.

I had enjoyed black garlic oil, or mayu, in ramen, and I wanted to make my own. I learned that mayu is typically made by charring regular garlic to a state of oblivion in canola oil, a sort of lightning-round black garlic. I wasted a few cloves trying to whiz black garlic with canola oil in the blender, but since black garlic isn’t oil-soluble, the mixture never came together in any kind of satisfying way.

Eventually, I discovered that I could heat the black garlic cloves in neutral oil, low and slow, until the oil soaked up the flavor, although the color remained unchanged. But still, I had my oil!

For whatever reason (maybe my propensity to wing it), the first time I tried making my own black garlic in a rice cooker, the garlic went past the squishy stage and became, instead, rock hard. When I blitzed my little black garlic pebbles in the spice grinder, the result was a fine umami powder that, by adding it as you would any dried spice, lent extra savoriness to delivery pizza, freezer french fries, and, especially, microwave popcorn.

A warning: Black garlic popcorn makes you do that thing where you take the very last kernel of popcorn and use it like a dustpan to collect all the black garlic in the bottom of the bowl. Then it makes you do that other thing where you make another full bag just for yourself and eat it, standing in the kitchen, looking over your shoulder to make sure no one’s coming to take it from you.

The potential for black garlic in its various forms is vast. Lately, my go-to is a black garlic compound butter, which comes together effortlessly, stores indefinitely in the freezer, and delivers savoriness in spades wherever it’s deployed. Try it on a steak or sautéed mushrooms, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Black garlic has shown that big flavor can come in small packages, and that, although the packages may be squishy and inexplicably moist, in terms of umami, these cloves don’t hold back.

What’s your favorite way to use black garlic in the kitchen? Let us know in the comments!