Garlic is one of the cooks greatest tools. It can bring life to any dish it comes in contact with. But how does one pick out a good head of garlic? I am here to provide you with some tips that will make your garlic purchases better.
First off, repeat after me. I will not buy pre-peeled garlic. I will only buy garlic by the head with the exception of garlic powder, which is good for some recipes. The pre-peeled stuff will not have anywhere near the flavor of the fresh stuff. When buying garlic at the store, look for garlic that is firm, with no signs of black powder (aka mold). It should never be in the refrigerated section as garlic should never be refrigerated unless it's leftover individual cloves that no longer have their paper on them. When I buy garlic at the store I try to use it up as quickly as I can, because if the garlic begins to sprout inside, the flavor will be bitter. I have no idea when store bought garlic was picked. Also stores typically sell it in big piles, so it's possible to end up with a head that was on the bottom for a while.
When shopping for garlic it seems you have two choices: regular garlic and elephant garlic. When I am here to tell you that elephant garlic may look like large garlic, but actually it's not garlic in all. In fact, I think it's for people who don't like garlic. Elephant garlic is very mild and lacks the punch of true garlic. You still may see different colored garlic amongst the regular garlic. Most of the time it's just plain white with no additional coloring but you may see from time to time garlic that has purple stripes in it. According to Alton Brown, from an episode of Good Eats entitled "In the Bulb of the Night", the garlic with purple stripes is most likely grown in Mexico and it has more mild flavor than the all white American garlic.
Now if you are shopping for garlic at a farmer's market and I suggest you do, you will discover that there are hundreds of varieties of garlic with names like Spanish Roja and Chesnok Red. You will never see those names at your local grocery store. By shopping at a farmer's market and learning about the various varieties, you can find the garlic that best suits your needs. Some garlics are better for roasting than others. Some are better in sauces. Each variety has different characteristics, just like with apples. It's unfortunately that the supermarkets of American deny their customers these options. I am fortunate that I can buy garlic straight from the growers at my local farmer's market. These farmers are very informed about garlic and can really help you find what you need. If you are in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area look for the table of Diana and Dick Dyer at the markets in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti on weekdays.
Another great way to get your garlic is to shop for it in your own background. Check out my post on growing garlic and learn how you can have the satisfaction in growing it yourself.