Digging up black gold

Fermented garlic—more delicious than it sounds

Photo by Avlxyz (via Flickr)

The first clue that black garlic is notably different from those pungent bulbs in most kitchens comes as you shyly lower your nose to that first clove and … hey, it smells kind of sweet.

A relatively new culinary ingredient in the United States, black garlic enjoyed a flash-in-the-pan success in haute restaurants around 2009-10. It first appeared on the world market in 2004, when Hayward-based Black Garlic Inc. (BlackGarlic.com) started producing what its owner Scott Kim initially labeled a “superfood,” using a heat-plus-humidity technique that he invented to quickly ferment raw garlic over the course of three weeks. The cooking process mellows the flavors and turns the cloves jet black in color.

You can make black garlic at home as well—the Internet is filled with 14-day rice-cooker recipes—but it’s probably easier to order online or grab a black garlic two-pack for around $6 when it pops up at Trader Joe’s or Chico Natural Foods.

Under the thin, crinkly, brown skin, black garlic is sticky and mushy, resembling smooth prunes, and the smell is much subtler than the overwhelming odor that fills the Salinas Valley every summer. The fermentation process gives the cloves a whiff of sickly sweetness akin to the muskiness of the damp floor of a redwood forest. Much like the smell, the taste is sweet and mild—like mellow roasted garlic with an earthier depth—so don’t be afraid to bite directly into a clove, though its chewy texture is reminiscent of soggy black licorice.

With its peculiar flavor, it is best to openly experiment with black garlic. The subtle taste won’t leave your breath hazardous to vampires, so a simple prep is the best way to highlight the unique taste without losing it among a blend of many other flavors. Try mashing the cloves and spreading the paste on crostini with a very light drizzle of olive oil.

As great as it is in the spotlight, black garlic provides a wonderfully distinct background note that works across world cuisines. Liberally drizzle black garlic oil (see recipe) over steaming bowls of ramen; add whole cloves atop pizzas; slice it up for mushroom risotto; or add a flavorful finesse to a sauce for fish or flank steak. Use black garlic in a garlic soup and you get a rich and rustic broth that would be perfect for rainy days spent alternating scalding bowls of rich soup with icy pints of pilsner.

While black garlic has only hinted at national fame, the versatility of its surprising flavor is alluring, and enables a chef’s passion for trying new things and making food fun.

Black garlic oil

1/4 cup vegetable oil

One black garlic bulb, peeled and minced

Sesame oil

Heat vegetable oil and black garlic in a pan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a food processor, blend oil and garlic mixture on high speed until smooth. Add sesame oil, one tablespoon at a time, to taste. Blend until fully incorporated. Store in refrigerator for up to two months.

Black garlic soup

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 onion, diced

One black garlic bulb, peeled and chopped

6 cups beef stock

Salt and pepper

Ham, diced

Gruyere cheese, grated


In a medium saucepan, melt butter and sauté onions until soft. Add chopped black garlic and sauté, stirring, until onions are slightly translucent. Add beef stock. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot and invite guests to add diced ham, grated cheese and croutons. Or, for the perfect hangover cure, after bringing soup to a boil, add 1 cup diced potatoes, lower heat, and simmer until potatoes are tender.