There are the ingredients that wax and wane in the kitchen. The ingredients that somehow find themselves in every meal or are left to collect cobwebs in the corner of cabinets and grow soft in the back of the fridge. But not ginger — never ginger. This rhizome, often described as a root, is often used in my kitchen as a way to bring heat to a dish without reaching for a pepper — I just have to be sure to reach for the right one.
Fresh ginger isn't a standardized ingredient. One hand will be mild and juicy, the other pungently spiced — sometimes fiery enough to replace a chili in a recipe. The older the ginger, the spicier it is, so it's often these mature knobs I reach for when it's heat I'm after. Luckily, mature ginger is what you're most likely to find in the markets. Diane Morgan, the author of James Beard Award Winning cookbook Roots, notes that any ginger left to cure in the soil for about seven to 10 months can be considered mature. I asked Diane if there was any correlation between pungency and size. "There's a tipping point," she says. "Larger ginger is mature ginger, but at some point larger gingers grow fibrous and woody. You want to find a hand that hasn't passed that point."
Mature ginger should be treated like garlic in the sense of preparation. The finer you cut it, the more potent its flavor. Want just the light taste of ginger? Use large slices. Want all the full-on fiery flavor? Grate it or mince it very finely.
Now's the best time to find choice ginger, as its season runs from December to April, with Hawaii producing the most prized crop. The ideal hand of ginger has a taut, shiny brown skin and is deeply fragrant. As ginger etiquette goes, you shouldn't hesitate to break off a knob for the amount you want. Ginger is sold by the pound, not by the hand. Snappy ginger is also a good sign of freshness. As soon as it grows rubbery, it's time to toss it.
As for storage, Diane recently made a switch: "I leave my ginger on the counter now. It's been going strong for a few weeks, and hasn't grown soft or moldy as it would in the fridge."