Monday, April 6, 2015

Garlic that will improve your life by 1000%

One of the highlights for me whenever we’ve sat down for a northern Chinese hotpot dinner has always been the tawny brown heads of sweet pickled garlic that were plunked down with the plates of pickled cabbage and boiled peanuts. Fixed this way, the garlic evolves from bitingly hot to mellow and sweet, with the vinegar and salt providing cleansing edges. I like my garlic exotically dark, so I use very dark brown sugar and a tasty but cheap balsamic vinegar, which also lends a lovely tang to the little cloves.

But the real prize in this recipe is the vinegar that emerges from this process. Nothing, but nothing can equal this vinegar. It has everything you could ask for in a sauce: sweet, sour, salty, garlic, and all of them in perfect balance. This one ingredient I prize so much that I never give it away, hoarding it like a miser and serving it dribbled over tidbits only when I'm certain that it will be appreciated. Selfish? Oh yes indeed. But completely sensible. Wait until you taste it; you'll understand.

Like so many of China's greatest culinary masterpieces, this is understated, simple, and requires only a modicum of ingredients and preparation. But also like quite a few of my favorite dishes, this does require patience. These lovely heads of garlic have to settle quietly into the sweetened and gently salted vinegar for a couple of months - or even longer if you can bear it - before they surrender their fire and become mellow enough to eat just the way they are. Then and only then do you pluck out a sweetly drowned head of garlic, surreptitiously licking your fingers, and squeeze a lovely clove out of its jacket and into your mouth. 

If you find this as intoxicating as I do, consider preparing a batch every three months or so and have jars continually mellowing away in the pantry or on the shelf. I label my crocks and so put them into regular rotation. As summer draws near, you still will find plenty of use for them, since the luscious sauce is great in salads and drizzled over things like fresh, flavorful tomatoes. I'm getting hunger pangs just thinking about a still warm Brandywine tomato, sliced into wedges, lightly salted, and oozing with this loveliest of vinegar sauces.

A note on the ingredients: I tend to use a good, cheap balsamic vinegar here for a couple of reasons. I haven't been too happy with the taste of lots of the Chinese vinegars I have tried; they seem raw and yeasty, rather than tasting of rice wines that have been nudged over into the realm of delicious tartness. However, there has also been a bit of concern lately over the amount of lead that has found its way into balsamic vinegars, so do your research. 

Warning: may cause cravings
As for the sugar, my hands-down favorite is the extremely dark brown sugar that you can buy in some Korean markets. This sugar is soft and moist and tastes like molasses, and it works wonders here.  Finally, I have read that Chinese garlic is unclean, full of pesticides, and often sold at such outrageously low prices that American farmers can't compete. So, if you worry about things like I do, buy heavy, firm, plump heads of garlic that are organically grown, and you'll find that the flavor just cannot be beat. I take this one step further and plant the biggest cloves so that I have nice green shoots to cook with in the cooler months, as well as more heavy, firm, plump, organic heads to harvest later on.  

Win win.

Sweet pickled garlic cloves 
Táng suàn  糖蒜 
Makes 8 heads of pickled garlic

Special equipment:  
1-quart jar or crock
A plate that fits easily inside the mouth of the jar or crock

Garlic and brining liquid:
8 large heads of fresh garlic
½ cup sea salt
6 cups hot water

3 cups balsamic vinegar
2¼ cups dark brown sugar
1 cup water

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1. Clean the heads of garlic, but don’t break them apart.  Peel off most of the outer layers of the garlic skin, leaving only a layer or two over the garlic cloves.  Carefully scrub the root end and cut off as much as possible without cutting into the cloves or breaking the heads.
Organic American garlic

2. Dissolve the salt in the hot water and let it cool.  Place the garlic in the cool salt water and let them soak for about 24 hours to remove some of the harshness and to make the garlic as clean as possible.

3. Place the vinegar, sugar, water, and soy sauce in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, and then stir it until the sugar dissolves.  Allow the marinade to cool down to room temperature.

4. Remove the garlic from the salt water and place them in the clean jar or crock without rinsing the salt water off.  Pour the cool marinade over them, place the plate on top of the garlic to help submerge them in the marinade, and cover the container.  Lightly stir the garlic every day or two for a week and then store the garlic in a cool place for about 2 weeks before using.  Taste a clove of garlic to see whether its flavor is sweet and relatively gentle.  As soon as the garlic is pickled to your liking, pack the garlic in small jars or plastic containers and store them in the refrigerator; they will keep a long time that way.


  1. Your website is a treasure - wish I would have discovered it sooner...So many recipes I would like to try.

    The crock you mentioned above - is it the same crock used for the sichuan pickled cabbage recipe? Would using a Fido or mason jar work for the pickling?

    Rite Aid sells a balsamic vinegar (Heinz I think) - would that work? Thank you again.

  2. Hi Carolyn - also a Bay Area person with Asian background (mine is Japanese) and spent half my time in Asia as well. I remember taiwan well in the early 70's as it was only less than 40 min flight from Okinawa.

    I started this recipe almost 2 weeks ago and garlic. Almost ready to transfer to a glass jar for refrigerator. What textue am I looking for? Soft or crunchy? Is this similar to pickled rakkyo in Japan with small rakkyo onion bulbs? How would I use the garlic in cooking? Thank you!

    1. Wow, I wonder whether we ever ran into each other in Taipei! The garlic should remain pretty crunchy since it's not cooked. Yes, it will be a bit like pickled rakkyo or shallots or anything from the allium family, but with a whole lot more flavor. I don't use the garlic in cooking so much, but rather as a pickle, especially with northern meals, and in particular hotpot. It is great for waking up your mouth if the meal is on the bland side. What I especially love is the resulting sweet vinegar. Try it as a simple salad dressing with something crunchy and bitter, like endive, along with something soft and creamy, like 7-minute eggs or some good cheese. It's very, very addictive!

  3. Do I store the garlic in the fridge in or out of the vinegar?

    1. In the vinegar is fine. It will continue to improve and get more flavorful, and the vinegar just gets better and better!