Ginger: The Feisty Rhizome

by The Gilded Fork

a test kitchen dossier

Had I but a penny in the world, thou shouldst have it for gingerbread.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Foodstuff: Ginger

Proper name: Zingiber officinale

Etymology: Though the Latin zingiber seems to be the direct source for various translations, including Ingwer (German), gingembre (French), and zenzero (Italian), the roots of those are thought to be the Sanksrit shringavera, meaning “shaped like a deer’s horn.”

Area of Origin: India and China

Description
The nubby little rhizome known as ginger has long been esteemed both for its medicinal and aphrodisiac properties; and while we are clear on its ability as a digestive aid, we are curious as to its “other” reputation. Of course, given its property as a diaphoretic (meaning it causes one to sweat), we can see in what direction the evidence points. Ginger is also mentioned in the Kama Sutra, and is known to enhance circulation, so perhaps we should just leave it at that. Besides, our interest lies in the realm of cooking.

History
Native to China and India, ginger’s medicinal properties have been recorded as far back as the time of Confucius, who noted its value in his ancient writings. It is also referenced in the Koran. As a digestive aid, ginger helps to relieve various stomach maladies from nausea to motion sickness, and its anti-inflammatory properties and warming properties can often relieve the pain of those with arthritis and rheumatism. Given its power to stimulate circulation, it helps to rid the body of toxins.

In medieval Europe, ginger was known as a powerful aide for warding off the plague, and, sadly, was sometimes used with other spices to mask the scent of rotting meat. It is notable that in the Nineteenth Century, English taverns and pubs offered powdered ginger much as one might see pretzels today, in complementary bowls for sprinkling. It is likely that this is the origin of “gingered ale” (sound familiar?) which is now a non-alcoholic beverage. The Greeks are thought to have been the first to use ginger in bread dough, thereby crafting the first gingerbread, which is now served more often as a cake-like dessert.

In our opinion, ginger is most auspiciously used in international cuisine, and its fiery kick adds a dimension of flavor in all types of dishes from savory to sweet. It can either be used to balance or enhance spicy and sweet flavors, making it one of the most versatile ingredients available. It can be used raw in salads, chopped in marinades, or pickled in chutneys; in dried form as a component of curries, spice rubs and in baked goods; and candied for numerous uses such as in preserves and jams, cookies and other tasty treats (we’ve been known to snack on candied ginger as-is). Ginger looks much like a thin-skinned, gnarled little hand, which makes it both easy and difficult to peel. (We suggest using a teaspoon to scrape off the skin, which is surprisingly effortless.) Much like garlic, it mellows with cooking, but given its sugary properties can turn bitter if burned.

Types of Ginger
Whole raw ginger (or fresh ginger) has a pale yellow interior with a thin skin that is off-white to brown in color. Jamaican ginger is a light tan color, and African and Indian gingers are generally darker skinned. The Jamaican variety is considered the most superior variety.

Whole fresh roots provide the most pungent taste, and should be fairly juicy. Look for pieces with plump smooth skin, which is indicative of its freshness (cracked, wrinkly skin is a sign of dryness). Dried-out roots (as opposed to roots sold as “dried”) have little aroma and flavor, so they should be avoided. Since fresh ginger will get moldy in the refrigerator, it is best to store it much like you would garlic (at room temperature). It will also sprout buds like garlic does, and the sprouts can be used much as you would the fresh ginger. Note: Fresh ginger will sour milk, so we recommend crystallized ginger in desserts.

Preserved ginger is made from fresh young roots, peeled and sliced, then cooked in a heavy sugar syrup. The pieces remain soft, but are very hot and spicy. Crystallized ginger is also cooked in sugar syrup, but is then air-dried and rolled in sugar. Both can be used in desserts to add a sweet, fiery flavor. When purchasing crystallized ginger, look for ginger that is plump and tender, and preserved without sulfur (which is used to dry and preserve many fruits).

Pickled ginger comprises roots that have been shaved paper-thin and pickled in a vinegar solution. Known in Japanese cuisine as gari, pickled ginger is often served as an accompaniment to sushi to refresh the palate between courses, and is readily available in Asian grocery stores and in most supermarkets. We recommend that you look for a naturally pickled, white-colored ginger, as many times there are red dyes and sweeteners added to the typical kinds available on grocery store shelves.

Dried ginger roots are available in whole or sliced form, and are used to produce powdered ginger, which is typically used in baking due to its milder properties. Note that unless you are baking, you should not substitute powdered ginger for fresh, as it does not have the same flavorful impact.

Our Approach
Since there is no “best match” for ginger given its versatility, we decided to have a bit of fun with summer fruit (peaches, in particular), seafoods, dressings, and of course a summer cocktail. We recommend that you experiment with it too, and learn which levels of “ginger fire” are most pleasing to your palate.

Recipes

Spicy Peach & Ginger Grilling Sauce
Gingered Peach Trifle
Gingered Peach Tarte Tatin
Ginger Lime Chimichurri
Mixed Seafood in Ginger Broth with Confetti Vegetables
Fizzy Ginger (Virgin) Cocktail
Carrot & Ginger Soup
Melon Ball Salad in Spiced Ginger Syrup
Ginger Lime Vinaigrette
Ginger & Honey Crème Brûlée

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