Elephant Garlic is a member of the Leek Family with "Garlic-esque" Properties.
Elephant Garlic
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First of all, despite its name, Elephant Garlic, sometimes called Giant Garlic, is actually a Leek, and technically more closely related to an Onion. Indeed, it belongs to Allium Ampeloprasum which is one of the seven Allium species cultivated for food. They all are a sub-set of Allium that includes Leeks, Pearl Onions and Kurrat (a wild leek mostly grown in the Middle East).

Elephant Garlic is part of a horticultural group known as the "Great-Headed Garlic Group."  Due to its size, which can be as large as a man's clenched fist, Linnaeus (in 1753) gave it the name, and verifying his description, Luther Burbank (in 1919) confirmed it, which created some confusion further down the road.  It is also known as "Oriental Garlic" in some regions, probably due to the French name of "Ail (“garlic”) d'orient (“of the Orient”)."

The early confusion stems from the fact that Elephant Garlic is similar to Garlic (Allium Sativum) in several ways.  Like Garlic, Elephant Garlic grows in bulbs, and has cloves (very large cloves). They both develop a solid seed stalk (the Elephant Garlic's usually does not curl or curve like a True Garlic), both exhibit leaves that are V-shaped when looked at in cross section, and both have solid Scapes (immature flower buds). Generally, they look alike in every way apparent to a 16th Century botanist (except for their mature flower clusters, which on Elephant Garlic seldom fully open and are not very fertile).

What the early botanists missed was the chemical makeup of Elephant Garlic. More modern instruments are able to discern the chemistry. We have learned that Elephant Garlic contains both Onion Lachrymatory Factor (syn-propanethial-S-oxide) courtesy of its Onion and Leek genetics, S-alk(en)yl cysteine sulfoxides and Allicin. Garlic contains the last two (in different proportions) but not the first.

The important result for chefs is that Elephant Garlic has a mild (some say negligible) garlic flavor and a bit of Onion flavor, though it isn’t really a substitute for either one, even if some cooks use it that way. It’s a pity too because its larger size would save a lot of prep and peeling work in the kitchen. In practice, Elephant Garlic is closer to a middle ground between a mild Garlic and a mild Onion.

Giant Garlic, as it was originally called, was first introduced to the commercial and gardening market in 1941 by Nicholas Garden nursery in the Willamette Valley of Oregon in the United States. The nursery staff noticed local Eastern European immigrants growing a huge type of Garlic imported from their homeland. They bought 12 pounds on the spot to cultivate for commercial distribution.

After working with it for 10 years, the marketing people changed the name to Elephant Garlic and began promoting it in the U.S. and Canada.

Season

In northern temperate zones, Elephant Garlic (which is best grown from cloves) is usually planted in October or November, but planting can actually be done in either Spring or Fall.  For the first few months, it will appear that nothing is happening above ground, but under the soil’s surface the plants will be establishing their roots.  Garlic planted in October or November will likely be ready to harvest the following June.

Availability

Elephant Garlic is available all year long.

Cultivation

Cultivation is very similar to that of True Garlic. One should dig down about one foot, adding sand and granite dust along with hummus and/or peat moss, all of which should be well mixed.  Aged manure makes a good top dressing, and a good mulch will keep the weeds down as well as provide nutrients.  The individual cloves should be planted 3 inches deep with the "root side" down, and spaced 8 to 10 inches apart.  Rows should be spaced 2 feet apart or more, depending on how many rows are planted, in order to obtain good air and light circulation.  The flower stalk of the Elephant Garlic should be cut off as soon as it forms in order to help the bulb size up.

In harvesting, unlike True Garlic, the neck of the Elephant Garlic never hardens or turns woody enough to allow for it to be pulled from the ground without tearing the tops off.  As with True Garlic, the optimum harvest time is when the leaves begin to brown and appear ready to drop off.

One big difference between True Garlic and Elephant Garlic is that Elephant Garlic will develop Corms, which are small cloves with hard outer shells that grow outside the main bulb and which can be planted.  If a Corm is planted, a non-flowering plant with a solid bulb will grow from it the first year, and the second year the plant will produce a bulb with separate cloves.

Elephant Garlic can be left in the ground year round without much risk of rotting.  It will grow into a large clump with many flower heads that are not only an attractive and ornamental addition to a garden but also discourages pests.

Production

Elephant Garlic is grown mostly for its large mature bulb. The leaves and scapes are edible but rarely seen commercially.

Elephant Garlic is grown throughout the world and fares well in both warm and cool climates.  It is native to Europe, West Asia and Africa.  It is cultivated in the USA, Greece, India, Chile and The Netherlands.  When grown in the northern climes, it usually forms only one large undivided "round," which is used much like a pearl onion.  Regions further south produce plants that usually develop four to six-clove bulbs that can weigh up to one pound each.

Elephant Garlic yields can range from 1,000 to 6,000 lbs per acre.

Purchasing

When purchasing Elephant Garlic, look for bulbs with tightly formed cloves with no visible bruising or discoloration.

Storage

When Elephant Garlic is first harvested, the freshly dug bulbs should be kept out of the sun, the roots and stems removed immediately, and the bulbs spread out to dry for two to three weeks. After the drying time, the dried, dirty outer layers can be removed.  The bulbs should then be stored in open mesh bags or shallow bins with slotted bottoms or wire mesh to allow air circulation.  After curing a few months in storage, their moisture will be reduced, and the cloves will have a fuller flavor.

Un-cut Elephant Garlic, stored properly, can keep up to six months from harvest. In practice, you will get much less shelf time at home because your Elephant Garlic will have already spent some time in the grocery distribution system before arriving in your pantry where it should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

Culinary Uses

In the kitchen, since their flavor is much milder flavor than True Garlic, peeled Elephant Garlic cloves can be cut up and used Raw in Salads or Fried or Sautéed and eaten like chips. Be watchful when cooking with it, it Browns quickly and can turn bitter.

Elephant Garlic can be used in any dish in which you would like a mildly garlic-like taste, without offending any guests who are not diehard Garlic fans. Elephant Garlic is not a direct substitute for True Garlic since its flavor is much more subtle, but if you add about 3 times the amount of Elephant Garlic than you would True Garlic in a recipe, you may be able to approximate the True Garlic taste you are seeking, though Elephant Garlic will lack the “bite” of True Garlic. Treat it as a “Similar but Different” ingredient and you will be on the right track.

Elephant Garlic bulbs can be Grilled or Roasted whole and the soft, cooked pulp used to make a buttery spread.  Elephant Garlic can also be used as a Flavoring Agent in Soups or Stews. An alternative use is to lacto-ferment the cloves (Pickle them like Sauerkraut), and add the pickled cloves dishes like Soups, Stews, Casseroles, etc.  The large pink flower head is also edible. 

Portion Size

Allow 1-2 t of Elephant Garlic per person.

Pairings

BasilBay LeafCaraway Seeds, Cayenne, ChivesCorianderCuminFennel SeedsOreganoPaprikaPepperRosemarySaffronSageSaltSugarTarragonThyme, Beets, BroccoliBell PeppersCabbage, Chile Peppers, CilantroEggplantFennelGingerLeeksMushroomsOnionsParsleyShallotsSpinachTomatoesZucchiniAlmondsBeans, Lentils, BaconBeefChickenEggs, Fish, Lamb, Pork, Shellfish, CheeseCreamLimesLemons, Bread, MustardSoy SauceVinegars, Wine, StocksSaucesSoups

Substitutes

Hardneck Garlic

Nutritional Value

9 grams (1 to 2 tablespoons) of chopped Elephant Garlic contains the following nutrients:

13 calories

0.57 g protein

0.04 g fat

2.98 g carbohydrates

0.2 g fiber

0.09 g sugar

16 mg calcium

0.15 mg iron

2 mg magnesium

14 mg phosphorus

36 mg potassium

2 mg sodium

0.10 mg zinc

2.8 mg vitamin C

0.018 mg thiamin

0.010 mg riboflavin

0.063 mg niacin

0.111 mg vitamin B-6

1 IU vitamin A, IU

0.2 µg vitamin K

Nutrition

Elephant Garlic contains Allicin and Onion Lachrymatory Factor and is thought to help improve immunity and aid in digestion.  It can also have laxative properties, with a reputation for promoting smooth bowel movements. 

Elephant Garlic is rich in calcium, fiber, vitamins A, C and K, potassium and folic acid, all of which promote good health.

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Yes

Low Calorie

Yes