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Elephant garlic or Allium ampeloprasum is a variety of garlic with very large cloves and a tender, mild, slightly sweet flavor. Some consumers enjoy it because it can be eaten raw and used in cooking for a hint of garlic flavor without being overwhelming. Others turn their noses up at it, claiming that it is too weak to be considered a true garlic. Many grocers stock elephant garlic when it is in season, and it is also very easy to grow at home.
Technically, this type of garlic is not garlic at all. It is actually a leek, although it looks distinctly like garlic since garlic is a member of the leek family. Unlike leeks, elephant garlic has been bred to producer larger edible cloves underground, with less of a focus on the green stalks of the plant. When allowed to fully mature, the garlic can develop very large cloves.
The large size tricks some consumers into thinking that elephant garlic will have a large flavor. In fact, the flavor is actually quite delicate and complex, but it is also very mild, without the biting burn associated with true garlic. However, this mild flavor can be used to advantage, as the garlic is great raw in an assortment of foods, and it can be added to dishes at the last minute for a garlicky note. Care should be taken when cooking this food, as it can turn bitter if it is cooked too long.
When selecting elephant garlic in the store, look for firm, evenly textured heads without soft spots or areas of browning. The outer layers should be fine, white papery skin which is not moist or moldy. Areas of softness or browning suggest that a head of garlic may not be terribly good, and it should be avoided. Elephant garlic also has a shorter shelf life than other varieties such as the pungent American garlic, so it should be kept under refrigeration and used in a timely fashion.
To grow elephant garlic, plant out separated bulbs in the fall months. Garden supply stores often sell cloves specifically for planting, although garlic from a market can be used as well. The garlic is hardy in USDA zones five through eight, and sometimes in other regions as well. After overwintering during the fall, the plant will produce small shoots in the early spring, and the heads of garlic will mature in the mid to late summer.