Food

Is Garlic Getting Easier to Peel?

To solve the mystery, I had to talk to horticulturalists, farmers, chefs—and also my local grocery store.

Garlic cloves arranged to form a question mark.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by baibaz/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

For most of my adult life, I was a garlic-phobe. Not because I didn’t like the flavor! No, like basically every human on earth, I adore garlic, whether sautéed in a stir-fry, roasted with a chicken, or sharp and raw on bruschetta. I love garlic’s smell, warm and rich and alluring, as it simmers in olive oil. I even ate a delicious meal at the Stinking Rose, San Francisco’s gimmicky restaurant dedicated entirely to Allium sativum. I loved eating garlic. What I hated, for years, was peeling garlic.

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What a drag it was! Let’s say your recipe calls for three cloves of garlic. Your onions are fizzing, your pasta is bubbling, and you’re cursing, trying to separate the garlic’s skin from the cloves within. Papery shards festoon the floor. The wispy skins adhere to the sticky garlic surface and you find yourself digging at it with your fingernails. The onions are browning! The pasta is al dente! And you’re still struggling to scrape off that last stubborn bit of skin with your pungent fingers. Arrgh! Garlic makes infomercial fails of us all.

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Like juicing a lemon or opening a stuck jar, peeling garlic is one of those kitchen tasks so pesky that gadget companies are forever trying to solve it for you. I’ve tried the shakers. I’ve tried the silicon rollers. I’ve tried cutting off the stem end and rolling the clove between my hands. All these methods sort of work, which is to say that they end with a snowfall of skin decorating my counter and cloves I still have to pick clean. I even tried the delightful method proposed by Saveur magazine, whose executive food editor, Todd Coleman, instructed me in a video to throw a whole head of garlic into a metal bowl, cover it with a second same-sized metal bowl, and then “shake the dickens out of it.” The clanging, cacophonous result was like standing in the belfry at Notre-Dame at high noon. Friends ran from the kitchen, clutching their ears. And? It sort of worked.

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But over the past three years or so, something strange has happened to the garlic I buy at the grocery store. It’s become so much easier to peel! The clove wrappers now seem drier, sturdier, less likely to tear and stick. Peels now crackle off the clove like a dream, releasing smoothly and simply, no muss, no fuss. I’m now unafraid to approach recipes that demand four, six, even 40 cloves of garlic. Bring it on, I say.

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How did this happen? How did my garlic transform from sticky nightmare to user-friendly flavor dispenser? Have America’s garlic breeders suddenly focused on peelability as a saleable trait? Has competition from pre-peeled garlic somehow forced a change in the garlic farming world? I had to know the answer, so I called everyone I could think of who might know anything about garlic.

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“I don’t know that anybody’s measured that, peelability,” said Barbara Hellier, a horticultural crops curator with the United States Department of Agriculture in Pullman, Washington. Like a home chef with a particularly tough clove, she wrestled to unwrap the subject: “Well, in our collection there is a wide range of how tight the skins are on the cloves. Some varieties, the skins fall off readily. And others, the skins are really held tightly onto the cloves. That’s a genetic thing.”

I asked if anyone was breeding garlic specifically to improve peelability, and she told me something I hadn’t previously known: “There’s hardly anyone breeding garlic at all.” Garlic, it turns out, isn’t like other crops, where you plant seeds, grow a plant, harvest it, and then, next year, plant a new seed. Garlic seeds, from fertilized flowers on garlic plants, look a little like onion seeds, but hardly anyone generates and plants them—because why would you? All you need to grow a new garlic plant is just one garlic clove off a garlic bulb. (When you’ve left your garlic sitting around so long a clove sprouts a green shoot, you’ve begun that process.) In commercial farms, they plant the cloves. But that means that the next garlic plant is a clone of the previous one, not a blend of two plants’ genes, so you can’t really select for certain traits.

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Hellier said that some larger producers had experimented with trying to isolate garlic seeds, “true seed,” for planting, but Hellier didn’t know that they’d made much progress. Maybe some researchers were working on it?

One such researcher is professor Rina Kamenetsky of the Volcani Institute in Israel. When I called her and told her I was writing about peelability, she said, “Nobody, probably, knows a lot about that.” She apologized and told me that the goal of her breeding program is not peelability. “It is disease resistance. Pest resistance.” Garlic, she said, has a real disease problem. “The cloves you plant carry the whole infection load from last year. Everything you had last year, you plant next year.”

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The issue, Kamenetsky explained, is that unlike other crops, garlic mostly can’t flower and be fertilized. “In garlic, this was damaged in ancient times,” she said. “For 5,000 years, people selected for bigger cloves, and they continually selected against flowering.” Flowering redirects the plant’s energy from generating bigger cloves to generating a flower. Kamenetsky’s team has been working for 25 years to create new breeds of garlic that flower and can be fertilized, starting with journeys to find ancient strains in the birthplace of garlic, central Asia—including Kazakhstan, where Kamenetsky was born. Her short-term goal, she said, is simply to generate new, hardier strains of garlic, which growers might plant in the traditional way, with cloves. But the long-term goal is to change farming techniques so that commercial garlic is grown from seeds, which, she said, is better for the crop from generation to generation. That could take a long time. “Maybe I will see it,” she said with a shrug. “Maybe I won’t. I don’t know.”

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It isn’t only large research institutes that are trying to breed garlic. Avram Drucker runs a small garlic farm in Tiller, Oregon, where he experiments with new garlic cultivars (and even sells seeds on his website). He called me during his lunch break one day and explained that the hundreds of varieties of garlic are classified into 10 horticultural groups, and that some of those groups are indeed easier to peel than others. Rocamboles, for example, are hard-necked garlics—meaning that when you buy them, there’s a hard scape poking up out of the middle of the head—that are typically very easy to peel.

The problem, Drucker said, is that “the easier to peel, the worse the storage.” That is, easy-to-peel garlic doesn’t last as long after it’s picked. The whole reason rocamboles are easy to peel, for example, is that there’s a teensy bit of space between the clove wrappers and the cloves themselves. “But that allows more pathways for area-fed mites to get in. Varieties with tight clove skins, while harder to peel, are much less susceptible to mite pressure.” And so, he said, he doesn’t want to breed for easy peeling. “I’d rather select for longer storage.”

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So what breed of garlic am I purchasing at my local grocery store and then peeling, effortlessly, in my kitchen? To learn more, I cut a head of garlic in half and sent Drucker a photograph of the cross-section; he wrote back identifying it as a member of the “artichoke” group, of which representative varieties include the “California early,” the “Corsican red,” and the “beekeepers’ Sicilian.” “They are not known as being easy to peel,” he told me.

I wasn’t getting anywhere! Maybe if I talked to someone who peeled a lot of garlic, they might know more. I called Dante Serafini, the co-founder of the Stinking Rose, the San Francisco restaurant devoted to garlic. Between his two restaurants, he told me, he went through 50 tons of garlic a year, at least in pre-COVID times. “When we started, 31 years ago, we had people in the kitchen peeling garlic all day long,” he said. Unsurprisingly, “it was difficult to keep those people on staff.” Employees complained about their hands and breath smelling bad. “A couple of the guys had allergic reactions.”

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Within a year of opening, Serafini found a California farm that sold pre-peeled garlic, which is where the Stinking Rose now sources all its A. sativum. “What they do is they put it in screens that heat the skin to a certain temperature, dry it, and then they put it through a wind treatment, like a wind tunnel almost.” The wind blows the skins off. Serafini now swears by pre-peeled garlic: “It’s really the best way! It’s more consistent.”

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Do companies that sell pre-peeled garlic, or processed garlic powder, have an interest in making garlic easier to peel? Professor Kamenetsky confirmed that she did once work with a California producer that made flavoring for chips, powders, and the like. That company was interested in peelability, but what that meant in practice was that they wanted each head of garlic to contain fewer, larger cloves—that is to say, not as many cloves to individually peel. (Their other priority was for the skin to be as white as possible, so that whatever peel didn’t get removed, when it got ground up, wouldn’t be visible to consumers.) If there was a way to breed for peelability, Kamenetsky said, the results would be valuable: “China is 87 percent of the global garlic market, and only a small amount is fresh garlic. All the rest is soup, ketchup, powder for chips, you know.”

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So far I was learning an incredible amount about garlic, from people who really loved talking about it. (When I apologized to the USDA’s Barbara Hellier about my weird, very focused interest in garlic, she said, “Among the people I associate with, it’s a totally normal amount of interest.”) But I hadn’t solved this mystery! My grocery store wasn’t getting some special easy-peel garlic. No one was really breeding easy-peel garlic. So what had happened? It was time to go to the source: Harris Teeter, my grocery chain.

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According to a representative, the origin of the garlic in my store did change a few years ago, right around the time I noticed my garlic getting easier to peel. Formerly, my distribution center in Greensboro, North Carolina, sourced its garlic from California; now it comes from Argentina or Spain, depending on the season.

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So it’s likely a different variety. But it turns out it’s not only the variety that makes a difference. It’s how long it takes for that variety to get to your kitchen. “The longer the time between harvest and sale, that matters,” said Hellier. “As the bulb is stored, it shrinks slightly, so the flesh of the cloves is going to move away from the skin.” That tiny shrinkage, and the drying of the skin as a result, contributes to that easier-to-remove, crunchier peel that doesn’t cling to the clove. As long as you get the garlic out of storage before that shrinkage exposes the garlic to mites, your result is high-quality garlic that’s much easier to peel.

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And garlic that comes from overseas can wait a long time between harvest and sale. “Those were probably harvested last June,” said Avram Drucker of the piles of Spanish garlic in my produce department. (Harris Teeter’s communications manager, the only person who did not seem all that eager to talk to me about garlic, eventually stopped responding to my emails, voicemails, and texts asking how long the garlic in my store spends in storage.)

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I guess I’m grateful that the impossibly convoluted complexity of the intercontinental produce supply chain—which makes modern life more convenient in the short term but is destroying the planet for the long term—is the likely cause of my garlic’s new peelability. At scale, it’s tricky to sell garlic that comes out of the ground easy to peel, because you can’t store it very long. The better solution, it turns out, is to sell garlic that comes out of the ground difficult to peel, but then sits in cold storage so long that it becomes easy to peel.

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The result is a system in which buying local, freshly harvested produce can result, bizarrely, in a worse product. (That is, if you can’t discern some flavor difference between fresh and old garlic. I can’t, but your palate may be more refined than mine.) So if you’re sick of sticky fingers and snowfalls of skin, and you don’t want to spend the extra money on jars of pre-peeled cloves, consider finding older garlic. That super-local garlic from the farmers market, dug from the ground this morning? Nope! Garlic that sat in a warehouse for almost a year? Now that’s got appeal.

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