October 09, 2010

Cooking with Ginger

Ginger is one of the ingredients I use most often in my cooking.  Partially this reflects how large a role ginger plays in some of my favorite cuisines (Indian, Chinese, Thai), but there's more to it than that.   Sweet yet spicy, warm, fragrant... the fact is, I just plain love what ginger brings to a dish   As such, I think it's unfortunate that it isn't really used well in a lot of recipes. 

This is often the case in "general" cookbooks, in magazines that feature a few recipes but aren't really cooking magazines, in some of the more "down-home cooking" sorts of magazines and in the recipes that accompany advertisements for a food product or product line.  This isn't to say recipes from these sources are necessarily bad, but along with the occasional outstanding recipe, these sources tend to feature a lot of ho-hum recipes, and sometimes the ho-hum is due in part to some ingredients - including, often, ginger - not really being used to their potential.

Some of my other favorite spices also tend to receive less-than-optimal treatment in published recipes.  Examples include nutmeg, allspice, cloves and cumin, and if there's one ingredient that tends to be even more poorly-utilized (usually by including too little, or adding it at the wrong point in preparing the dish) than ginger, it would probably be cinnamon. 

Anyhow, while I don't claim to be a cooking expert or anything like that, I have given this topic a fair bit of thought, read about it a fair bit and experimented in my own cooking.  My goal for this post is to suggest that in evaluating recipes, we should consider the different ways ginger (and various other ingredients) can be used, the different effects it can produce, its different forms, the way it can be added to a dish, and whether a given recipe utilizes it to best effect - or, conversely, if there might not be a better way to use it.

In its natural form, ginger is, of course, a root.  You can purchase ginger in a variety of other forms.  Crystallized ginger is mostly used in candies - in fact, it is essentially a candy itself in this form - but I've seen it used in some other sorts of recipes to provide both intense ginger flavor and sweetness, as is the case in some sorts of sauces and glazes. 

Melissa's Dried Crystallized Ginger, 3-Ounce Bags (Pack of 12)

Dried slices or chunks of ginger, which can be found in most Asian groceries, can be stored indefinitely.  They are useful mostly to infuse soups, broths and gravies with some ginger flavor.  One can also purchase ginger paste (or a paste mixing ginger with garlic or other ingredients) in some Asian groceries, and some grocery stores now carry jars of minced ginger, similar to jars of minced garlic.  In my experience, the ginger flavor is mostly muted in the pastes.  I'm not sure if this is a function of how it is processed, or if perhaps these products are simply not very fresh.  In any case, I don't bother with them any more.  Similarly, I've found the flavor of the jarred, minced ginger to also be muted.  In fact, most of the ginger flavor ends up in the liquid in which the ginger is packed, as opposed to the bits of minced ginger.  Needless to say, I avoid this as well. 

You can also purchase ginger extract and liquid ginger, ginger beer and a variety of other forms of ginger and use them in cooking.  Most American cooks, however, are usually going to use ginger in one of two forms:  the fresh root, or ground, dried ginger powder. 

Most of the time, fresh ginger root is peeled before use, though there are exceptions.  For some soups, you might slice a section of unpeeled ginger into round, thin "coins."  In this case, the ginger is added just for flavor, and is usually removed before serving, or simply not eaten.  To intensify the flavor imparted into a soup or broth by ginger coins, you can "bruise" them somewhat by pressing both sides with the back of a knife or other cooking implement. 

Peeled ginger is usually either sliced, minced or grated for use in a dish.  Slices of ginger can be somewhat stringy, and their flavor intense, so as with coins, large slices are usually added for flavor but removed from a dish before serving.  More often, ginger is diced to some degree of fineness.  Diced ginger adds flavor to a dish, and the small bits offer intense bursts of flavor when eaten, and possibly also a bit of texture as well, depending at what point in preparation it is added (ginger fibers soften and break down quickly when tiny bits are cooked).  If you really want to maximize the kick fresh ginger can add to a dish, though, grating is the way to go. 

Grating a chunk of ginger releases much of its liquid, and thus much of the flavor, directly into the dish, where it can disperse fully and to greatest effect.  Depending on how fresh the ginger is, you can get by using from 1/4 to 1/6 as much grated ginger as you'd use minced ginger (or, conversely, dishes calling for a certain amount of grated ginger require 4 to 6 times that much minced ginger to get the same effect).  Unless you want the ginger flavor to mostly reside in the ginger bits, as opposed to permeating the entire dish, grating ginger is almost always the better choice. It's very common for published recipes to call for minced ginger, however, even in dishes in which the ginger should stand out (like, pretty much anything with the word "ginger" in the name of the dish).  In such dishes, do yourself a favor and grate the ginger instead.  If you're more used to minced ginger, you'll find the results a flavor revelation.  Don't forget to include the juice along with the grated ginger bits, as that's where a lot of the flavor ends up. 

As to the matter of grating ginger, there are a variety of means available:  box grater, flat or rasp graters, or the traditional ceramic ginger grater. Box graters are a poor choice; use the larger holes and you end up with large, stringy chunks; use the smaller ones and you end up with mostly pulp, and it's very difficult to clean out the grater afterward.  Cooks Illustrated writers sometimes mention their preference for rasp graters over ceramic ginger graters - they complain that the ceramic grater is hard to use without scraping a knuckle on the ceramic teeth - but this is one occasion on which I have to disagree with CI advice.  While rasp graters can be quite useful, when you grate ginger using a rasp grater, most of the ginger juice - and thus most of the flavor - tends to be lost.  When it comes to ginger, I have a strong preference for a ceramic grater.

Ceramic ginger graters are, essentially, ceramic dishes with upward-pointing ceramic "teeth", over which the ginger is grated.  On the better models, the grating surface is elevated, allowing the bits of ginger and the juices to collect in a moat around the edge of the dish.  Ceramic ginger graters come in a variety of sizes, and in my opinion, larger is better.  Maybe the Cooks Illustrated folk dislike ceramic ginger graters because they've used smaller models, which have less room to work with.  Plus, you can grate the ginger a lot more quickly when you havea bigger grating surface.

Kyocera 6 1/2" ceramic ginger grater
I use the Kyocera 6 1/2 inch ceramic grater, which Juli located for me after doing some research on ginger graters.  It's large enough to hold a good amount of grated ginger and juice, and it stays in place nicely (thus reducing the risk of spilling the grated ginger and juice) thanks to a rubber ring along the bottom of the dish.  Useful, sturdy and reasonably priced... I use it all the time, and consider it a "must have" for my style of cooking.

Either minced or powdered ginger's effects can be enhanced by dry-frying it or frying it in a bit of oil - alone or with garlic, chilis or other spices - before meats, vegetables and/or liquids are added.  Dry-fried ginger produces a strong gingery aroma along with the flavor, while frying ginger in oil flavors the oil, which in turn transfers the ginger flavor to whatever else is fried in the oil, or to any liquid through which the oil is dispersed.

GINGER POWDER, 12 oz. jar

Dried, powdered ginger is also intensely flavorful and quite able to permeate a dish, but its flavor is somewhat different from that of fresh ginger - less citrusy and a bit less warm.  It can be used in a wide variety of ways, but it is most often used where bits or fibers of ginger would be unwelcome - in baked goods, especially, and sometimes in drinks.   However, in most dishes, including curries and stir-fries, grated ginger is going to give you a more authentic - and a more robust - ginger flavor.  This is another of the complaints I have with a fair number of published recipes.  In any recipe that wouldn't definitely require powdered ginger (such as gingerbread or muffins), I recommend replacing the stated amount of ginger powder with an equal amount of grated ginger.  Try this idea out for yourself and I think you'll be pleased with the result.

Either minced or powdered ginger's effects can be enhanced by dry-frying it or frying it in a bit of oil - alone or with garlic or other spices - before meats, vegetables and/or liquids are added.  Dry-fried ginger produces a strong gingery aroma along with the flavor, while frying ginger in oil flavors the oil, which in turn transfers the ginger flavor to whatever else is fried in the oil, or to any liquid through which the oil is dispersed. 

Ginger powder can also be useful in recipes in which you want both the intense localized ginger flavor that comes from bits of minced ginger, as well as a pervasive ginger flavor.   I've found the minced + ground ginger combination the best way to achieve this effect, as the combination of minced + grated ginger is just too overpowering for most dishes.  My Spicy Ginger Beef with Broccoli recipe (http://jeffreyandjulicook.blogspot.com/2010/09/spicy-ginger-beef-with-broccoli.html) is an example of this in practice.  I include ginger powder in the marinade in order to impart the meat with some ginger flavor along with the other marinade spices, but also include minced ginger, which is fried in the oil (thus spreading ginger flavor through the whole dish).  These minced bits end up in the sauce, thus providing the occasional, delightful burst of intense ginger flavor. 

I'd be interested in hearing others' thoughts on the matter, and what they do to get the most out of the ingredients they cook with.

For more information about different types of ginger and some of their uses, you might want to check out http://www.gingerpeople.com/bulkingred/GingerIngredients.pdf.

1 comment:

  1. Juli here. Click on the "essentially a candy" part of this post to see the super cute packaging for the ginger candy!