What's Going on with This Garlic?

July 30, 2015

When big things come in normal-sized packages. 

Giant GarlicMonster garlic cloves, dime for scale. 

When I bought a few heads of garlic at the supermarket this week, I felt like I'd won the lottery: They were purple around the contours with long stems, and as weighty as little coin purses. This is the grocery that's so poorly stocked it sometimes doesn't have garlic, so I did a little heel click in my brain and went home to make Sautéed Shrimp with Lemon, Garlic, and Parsley.

But if I'd make it by the book there might have been a problem. When I ripped open the garlic I'd bought, this is what fell out—cloves the size of shallots! The recipe already calls for 4 cloves of garlic, and they were so large I only had to use one. 

Shop the Story

What's going on here? I asked Sarah what she thought, and her response seemed spot-on considering where I'd been shopping: "GMO??? So big!!" It is indeed a gargantuan specimen. Kenzi, on the other hand, wondered if it was "elephant garlic." I did some looking around, and the latter seems unlikely—the garlic head itself was normally-sized, but with four giant cloves in place of many small ones. 

Farmers? Anyone ever grow something like this? Let us know in the comments. 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nonna
  • Christine
  • pat
  • Barbara D'Angelo
    Barbara D'Angelo
  • Paula Olcese Ferrazzano
    Paula Olcese Ferrazzano
Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.


Nonna September 11, 2015
Google Filaree Farms to see 130 different varieties out of the hundreds (if not thousands) of garlic varieties from around the world. Your very large head of garlic may well be one of the Asiatic varieties.
Christine September 7, 2015
I grow my own garlic and with a lot of strains, it's not unusual to have only 3-4 cloves in a (small) head. I grow mostly hardneck types and I find the taste is much stronger. I don't get so many annoying tiny cloves with the bitter green sprout on the inside.
pat August 4, 2015
Have you noticed that the multiple garlic heads sold in a net are all from China? I had to search to find some grown in the USA where human waste is not used as fertilizer.
Barbara D. August 4, 2015
I grow a stiff neck variety of garlic that is this big, we can't grow the soft neck one up this far north. usually there are 3-5 very large cloves. I choose the largest and best ones to plant for next year, garlic is planted in the fall like tulips, to get a bulb to harvest the following July
Paula O. August 2, 2015
Yes, it's "elephant garlic". While the cloves are indeed quite large, they are generally a little milder than the regular garlic. I use it when I can find isn't widely sold. An old friend used to grow it and shared it with me. There is nothing mysterious or genetically altered about it, it's simply another variety.
Tatyana July 30, 2015
Maybe Romanian red variety: those have 2-6 large cloves. It's considered desirable by some since you don't have to peel a million tiny cloves.
Jack P. July 30, 2015
By a very strange coincidence, I was tweeting about the same thing this very morning. I, like you, was told that it's a "hardneck" variety, one called "purple stripe." I thought it had an odd flavor, too, a hint of anise in there somewhere. I'm against this weird garlic!
Amanda S. July 30, 2015
I didn't taste a different flavor—but there was a lot of butter and parsley in the mix, too!
Lyrajayne July 30, 2015
There's not a biotech (or GMO, if you prefer) version of garlic outside of a limited number of field trials in New Zealand.
Molly C. July 30, 2015
Those look like cloves of hardneck garlic, hence the stem in the middle and the well-separated cloves. Generally, larger bulbs are created by selecting seed garlic with large cloves. Hardneck garlic cloves are larger (proportionally) because they don't have the tiny inner cloves that softneck varieties have. I can't speak to your GMO question, but this would be my guess.
Amanda S. July 30, 2015
Very interesting about seed selection! Thank you for sharing that.
702551 July 30, 2015
When humans grow plants for food, there are typically dozens if not hundreds of cultivars, each with a unique combination of size, color, flavor, texture, growing season, pest resistance, etc.

This isn't specific to garlic, it is relevant to peaches, grapes, tomatoes, lettuces, strawberries, potatoes, whatever.

Commercial farmers have many choices about what they put in the ground. Often they will select multiple cultivars to expand the growing season, or different plants altogether to use their land in a most productive manner.

Most likely, you picked up a garlic bulb that was bred for those characteristics and which the farmer specifically picked to grow. After all, why would a farmer try to grow a cultivar that performs poorly in his/her area?

Concerning garlic, there are 500+ commercially active garlic cultivars around the world, and probably a few dozen are routinely grown here in the USA by commercial farmers. There are about ten major varieties of garlic in which the various cultivars fall into.

Again, this is typical of commercial agriculture: lots of varieties, lots of cultivars.