Garlic Vs. Ginger: SPICEography Showdown

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Garlic and ginger show up together in quite a few Asian recipes, which may lead those who are unfamiliar with these seasonings to confuse them or to believe that they are related. Garlic and ginger are known for bringing assertive, complex flavors to food and are widely available all over the world. That said, they have some major differences. We will take a look at the distinctive characteristics of each spice in this SPICEography Showdown.

How do garlic and ginger differ?

Garlic is an Allium, which means that it belongs to the same family as onion and shallots. It is known for its extreme pungency; its smell is redolent of earthy sulfur notes. The pungency can be mellowed out with cooking to the point where cooked garlic possesses only a small fraction of the raw form’s intensity and takes on a nutty sweetness. While there are examples of garlic being used as a dessert ingredient, these do not represent typical usage. Garlic is almost always used in savory preparations where it enhances the umami qualities of a dish in a similar way to onion. Because virtually all of its applications are savory, it could be considered a less versatile spice than ginger.

Ginger is a rhizome that is related to galangal and turmeric. It offers a spicy, zesty flavor that some liken to the warmth of allspice or cinnamon. Some ginger varieties even have a mild acidic tang. Ginger is used in savory and sweet dishes. The savory applications come mostly from the Far East, where ginger is one of the fundamental spices and is held in high esteem. Ginger is a particularly important ingredient in Chinese and South Asian food cultures. The sweet applications for ginger may be Western or Eastern in origin, but European and American cooks throughout history have limited its use largely (but not entirely) to baked goods.

Can you use garlic in place of ginger and vice versa?

Garlic and ginger do commonly show up in many of the same Asian dishes where they are used as complements for each other but they are not interchangeable. Their flavor profiles bear no similarities and you will not see one used in place of the other. That said, it is sometimes possible to follow a recipe that calls for both by using twice as much of the other. In that case, the dish will be flavorful but may lack the complexity that the other spice would have provided.

When should you use garlic and when should you use ginger?

Garlic has a long and diverse list of applications that range from Italian pasta sauces to Jamaican jerk seasoning. It is considered an essential spice in most food cultures. Use it fresh or dried in almost any savory dish. Use powdered garlic as a part of a dry rub for meat or on vegetables that you plan to roast or bake. Alternatively, you can use a garlic oil to make a salad dressing or in a marinade.

Dried ground ginger is a great addition to a dry rub where it can be an effective background note. Move it to the forefront in Asian stir-fried dishes and curries by using the fresh form of the spice. You can use dried or fresh ginger to make gingerbread or to give a peppery bite to your apple pie filling. Ginger can be used to make a tea as well; ginger tea is believed to help with digestion.