Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Ginger

Imagine, for a moment, life without ginger. The holiday cookie plate would be a boring landscape of sugar cookies. There would be no spicy ginger ale or refreshing ginger beer. (And Dark and Stormys would lose their storminess.) Chinese stir-fries would be missing something essential and Indian curries and sauces would be blah. The wasabi on your sushi platter would be lonely without its trusty companion, pink pickled ginger. Ginger tea: just hot water. Imagine a life without the tingly, peppery, uniquely lovely bite of ginger and rejoice in the fact that this prized spice can now be found in every grocery store across the land.

A Brief History

Although botanists have not discovered a living wild ancestor of ginger, the plant is thought to have originated somewhere in Southern Asia, with different sources indicating Southern China, Southeast Asia and India as ginger's origin. In her fantastic history of food in India, Feasts and Fasts, Colleen Taylor Sen notes that archaeological evidence confirms that ginger, along with turmeric and garlic, were being used in the Indus Valley as early as 2,500 BCE, and it has been in use in China for thousands of years (perhaps as long as 5,000 ) as well. Both the classical Greeks and Romans used ginger medicinally. In medieval England, the spice was almost as common as pepper in England and was highly prized.

Factual Nibbles

  • Gingerbread dates from the Middle Ages, but according to The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, it was Queen Elizabeth I who invented the ginger bread man cookie. 
  • Yemen imports a great deal of ginger in order to make qishr, a coffee drink to which liberal amounts of the powdered rhizome is added.
  • The word "ginger" comes from the Old English "gingifer," which in turn comes from the Latin "zingiberi" (hence the plant's genus name), which itself comes from the Sanskrit "srngaveram," meaning "horn body."

Cultivation

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is in the eponymous Zingiberaceae family, which counts cardamom, turmeric, grains of paradise and galangal as members. The plant is a lovely and large (two to four feet) tropical/sub-tropical perennial with beautiful flowers - and indeed many species of purely ornamental gingers exist - but what makes edible ginger unique is its rhizome, or underground stem, also referred to as its "root." When the stem and leaves wither, the rhizomes are harvested and used fresh or dried and powdered.

India, China, Nepal and Nigeria are the top global producers of ginger, but other countries are in the ginger-growing game: for example, Jamaica grows ginger that is prized in its dried form, and Australia's ginger growing industry is primarily for producing preserved ginger. Up until recently, cultivation of the rhizome in the US has been limited to Hawaii (and the island state is still the top producer of ginger in the US), but a disease called bacterial wilt has been wiping out Hawaiian ginger at a huge rate since 2006. What's really fun is that growers all over the US are now getting into the ginger-growing game, because the plant can be grown in greenhouses in climates as cold as upstate New York and Maine. I have even seen local young ginger at my Brooklyn food co-op!

Seasonality

In the US, "young" ginger (more on what this means, below) is harvested in the early fall, but you'll frequently also see young ginger in the spring, flown in from tropical locals. Mature ginger is available year-round. In Hawaii, the ginger harvest is generally December through June.

Environmental Impact

Ginger is monocropped in Hawaii, but due to the bacterial wilt problem mentioned above, intercropping with other tropical plants, like taro and sweet potato, is being recommended by agricultural experts to help alleviate the problem. A number of unpleasant pesticides are used to grow ginger, and although pesticide residues are generally low on the rhizomes themselves, these pesticides are certainly toxic to the farmworkers who must use them. (*Check out our Real Food rule of thumb, below, for more info.) Choose organic ginger if you can. And because most ginger we see in conventional grocery stores comes from far-flung tropical areas, the spice might not be a good choice if you're a strict locavore. (Or look for locally farmed ginger the next time you go to the farmers' market.)

Characteristics and What to Look for

Fresh ginger comes in two forms - the rarer "young" ginger (also called "baby" ginger), and the more common "mature" ginger. If you can get your hands on young ginger, snap it up: you'll find that it is juicier and less fibrous than its older counterpart, with a more subtle flavor. Young ginger has smaller rhizomes, with lighter, super thin beige skin tinged with pink on the ends. It is extremely delicate and doesn't travel well. Look for young ginger with no mushy spots or scraped skin. "Mature" ginger has been left to grow longer than young ginger, so the rhizomes get significantly larger, their skin darkens and gets thicker, and their flesh becomes more fibrous. When choosing mature ginger rhizomes, look for firm specimens with smooth skin, no dried-out or moldy looking areas and no mushiness. Dried ginger is made from mature ginger rhizomes that have been ground up; the resulting powder is usually off white to golden yellow.

Ginger's pungency comes from three compounds - gingerol, found in fresh ginger; 6-shogaol, found in dried ginger; and zingerone, found in cooked ginger. According to food scientist Harold McGee, writing in his book, On Food and Cooking, the hottest of these compounds is shogaol, but it is only one thousandth as hot as capsaicin, which is the molecule that gives chile peppers their heat. These compounds increase as the rhizome matures in the ground.

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

Because ginger is most often eaten as a spice - that is, in small quantities - its total nutritional value doesn't add up to much. It does have some Vitamin C and trace minerals, like zinc, copper, manganese and magnesium.

Ginger has been used medicinally for thousands of years in Asia, India and the Middle East. According to the University of Maryland, the Chinese have been using ginger to treat stomach and digestive problems for more than 2,000 years. Modern research seems to back up what the Chinese have known for centuries - in some studies, ginger is clinically shown to be effective in treating motion and morning sickness. It may also be effective in treating the pain of arthritis and as an anticarcinogen. (Here is a comprehensive literature review of the scientific evidence supporting the use of ginger as a medicinal compound, should you want a deeper dive on this.) 

What to Do with It and Cooking

As noted in the intro, ginger sings in so many dishes, from the sweet to the savory, from beverages to candies. Harold McGee puts it beautifully when he says, about ginger, "[i]t adds a refreshing, bright aroma - from fresh, floral, citrus, woody and eucalyptus notes - and mild pepper-like pungency that compliments other flavors without dominating them." Fresh and dried ginger plays an important part in the cuisines of India, China, Southeast Asia, North Africa, the Caribbean, and much of Northern Europe and Great Britain. On the savory side, ginger pairs beautifully with fish, shellfish (especially crab) and chicken. It's an essential ingredient in many Indian and Caribbean curries, often paired with other spices, like its cousin cardamom. It is also used extensively in stir-fries in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine. On the sweet side, ginger pairs well with fruit, chocolate, other spices (like cinnamon and cloves), honey and citrus. It's also delightful with other tropical fruits, like pineapple, coconut and bananas. I love a hint of ginger in fruit crumbles and pies, or try chopped candied ginger in your next batch of oatmeal cookies. Ginger cake in various forms is ubiquitous in the Caribbean, a relative of gingerbread, which dates back to medieval times. Here's a nice recipe roundup from BuzzFeed of ginger recipes, both sweet and savory.

There are also a number of delicious ginger-y beverages. When I'm sick, I love to make simple ginger tea with honey and lemon - I just slice unpeeled, fresh ginger into coins and steep in boiling water for 20 minutes or so, and then add honey and lemon juice (and maybe a splash of rum for good measure). Commercial ginger teas, made from dried ginger, are also readily available, of course. Harold McGee notes that ginger beer and ginger ale dates from the 19th century, when ginger powder was first sprinkled into drinks in English taverns. Today, ginger beer comes in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic forms, the non-alcoholic version usually a little spicier than ginger ale. Ginger wine is a fortified wine made with ginger and raisins - it enjoyed immense popularity in the 19th century as a cure for the cholera that raged across Europe.

Storage

Young ginger will keep for no longer than a few days in your refrigerator. Store them in paper bags in the crisper drawer for best results. Mature ginger, on the other hand, will keep for forever - I swear I've kept a knob of ginger in my crisper for two to three months, but it does lose its potency over time. Over at The Kitchn, they say that the best way to store fresh ginger is in a resealable plastic bag with all the air pushed out, in your crisper.

Pro Tips

The best way to peel fresh ginger is with a teaspoon - just use the tip of the spoon to scrape off the skin. It is super easy to get into the root's nooks and crannies to get every last bit of skin off, and as an added bonus, you don't take any of the flesh off with it.

Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation

Try your hand at homemade pickled ginger (gari) to pair with your favorite sushi. Ginger also makes a fantastic addition to jams and marmalades because it pairs so beautifully with fruit. Or to get really ginger-y, try this ginger marmalade or make the candied ginger in the recipe below. You can also freeze freshly grated ginger as an easy way to add ginger's peppery bite to your food.

Recipe

Candied Ginger, Ginger Syrup and Homemade Ginger Ale

From Brooklyn Farmhouse

Make this and you'll never want to drink commercial ginger ale ever again (sorry, not sorry). You can control exactly how ginger-y sweet your ginger ale by altering how much syrup you put in your seltzer - and as an added bonus to this recipe, you get a bunch of candied ginger to do with what you will: nibble as candy, add to your favorite cookie recipe or impress your dinner guests.

A note about slicing vs. chopping and young vs. old ginger: slice your ginger into very thin disks if you want a chewier candied ginger. Because I was looking for a more al dente candied ginger, like the kind you find packaged in grocery stores, I chopped my ginger into small-ish (about 12-inch) squares. Just note that it will take quite a bit longer to soften ginger cut into chunks than ginger sliced into thin disks. If you can find young ginger, which has a much thinner skin and is often a bit pink in color, definitely use it instead of regular (read: old) ginger. Older ginger, like the kind I used, tends to be more fibrous, so you won't have the creamier interior consistency that you will get if you can get your hands on young ginger. Check young ginger at around the 45-minute mark to ensure that the pieces aren't drying out.

Ingredients:
For the Candied Ginger and Ginger Syrup:
12 pound ginger (8 oz.), about 2 large knobs, peeled
2 cups granulated sugar, plus 14 cup extra for coating the ginger pieces
2 cups water

For the Ginger Ale:
Seltzer or sparkling water
Ginger syrup (recipe above)
Lime slices (optional)

Makes about 112 cups ginger syrup and approximately a cup of candied ginger.

Procedure:

  1. Slice or chop the ginger (as discussed above).
  2. In a medium heavy saucepan, combine the sugar and the water over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Add the ginger pieces.
  3. Simmer over medium heat for 1 hour if you've sliced your ginger very thin, and at least twice that if you've cut your ginger into larger chunks. (Check on them occasionally to make sure they aren't drying out and that the water isn't evaporating too quickly.)
  4. Meanwhile, line a small sheet pan with wax or parchment paper, or with tinfoil. Spread the remaining 14 cup sugar on the lined sheet pan.
  5. When the ginger is done (it will be soft), remove with a slotted spoon to the prepared sheet pan. Toss the ginger pieces in the sugar and spread them out. Let dry for several hours, or overnight. Let the ginger syrup cool, then refrigerate. If you want a thicker ginger syrup, continue to cook over medium-low heat until it reaches the consistency you want.
  6. To make homemade ginger ale: add 3-4 generous tablespoons (or more, to taste) of ginger syrup to a large pint glass. Top with seltzer or other sparkling water. (I also like to add a bit of lime. Uh, and a bit of rum.) Garnish with candied ginger, if desired.

Makes about 112 cups ginger syrup and approximately a cup of candied ginger.


(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)