Garlic’s Fermentation innOvation

Cooking Fresh Winter 2015 Issue

Garlic’s Fermentation innOvation

By Andy Radtke | Photos By Jim Klousia 2

The wise visitor, looking to break the ice with the owner-operators of a garlic farm, should anticipate that vampire jokes will not cut the mustard. Rest assured, they’ve heard them all. Besides, there’s very little evidence for garlic’s destructive effect on vampires. A better strategy, obviously, is a solid Darth Vader quote, especially when the garlic here matches the cloak color of that supervillain. But all resemblance ends there.

Craig Dunek and Tommy Torkelson deserve a break from bad jokes. After only a few short years in business as Black Garlic North America (BGNA), these Wisconsin entrepreneur partners are America’s leading producer and processor of this trending culinary superhero. Not only have they already heard all the Dracula one-liners, but, according to them, the savory product they cultivate and market isn’t exactly garlic.

“Black garlic is not garlic,” Dunek said.

“It’s a flavor enhancer,” added Torkelson. “It makes everything sizzle!”

Over the course of an afternoon investigating Dunek and Torkelson’s elegant growing and processing oasis sunk deep in the Transylvania-like hills of Southwest Wisconsin, I learned that this fermented bulb is so much more than delicious; that’s only the beginning of the string of recommending characteristics that has chefs (and family cooks) coast to coast introducing savory black garlic into their creations—to loud applause.

And, for the record, it really is garlic. At least it starts out as the bona fide stuff. This fact was made clear by the lush, mulched garden beds that vein the rich valley floor of BGNA’s home, a stone’s throw west of Hillsboro. The ton of garlic bulbs waiting to be planted in late October by these two multi-hat wearers also attested to its garlicky authenticity. Their soon-to-be-aching backs will extend the proof. What the two were telling me was that garlic, carefully nurtured and precisely fermented, acquires a black magic panache that’s greater than the sum of its original, pungent parts.

What’s Black Garlic?

Put simply, black garlic is fermented garlic (not simply a Maillard reaction, said Dunek, backed up by a lengthy scientific description to make my head spin). At BGNA the fermentation process is “solid state,” which means it’s accomplished over time in special, airtight, space-capsule-like chambers using heat, humidity and temperature controls but no liquid.

It’s hard to say exactly from where or how black garlic came to be. Dunek, who holds undergraduate degrees in chemistry and microbiology, as well as a masters in mycology, believes it was likely the happy result of an accident—someone inadvertently left a few bulbs in a clay pot in the sun, and after a few weeks, whoop, there it is! While Dunek’s best guess places its birthplace in the Middle East, others point to black garlic’s long history in Korea and China as evidence of place(s) of origin. Black garlic has been a staple in Korea for centuries, but Koreans have been actively expanding its availability to the world for merely 20 years—it was introduced to the U.S. in only 2007.

“Everyone wants to claim they invented it because it’s such a great product,” said Dunek.

However, no one disputes the labor-intensiveness required to bring a garlic crop, black or otherwise, to market. It takes a lot of hand work to produce garlic, and black garlic even more—Dunek and Torkelson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business, and their four part-time employees will touch each individual bulb 17 times before it leaves for market.

Craig Dunek (L) and Tommy Torkelson (R) protect the proprietary innovations of BGNA’s process; this is the only photo we can publish from within their facility.

Will I Like It?

A single taste is enough to convince me why it stuck around and why its popularity is growing rapidly in America. One word: OMG. It’s downright candy, grown-up Gummy Bear, even freshly peeled off the rack deep in BGNA’s climate-controlled drying room. Soft and smooth as canned pear with an umami flavor that harkens licorice, date, and well, the polite side of garlic: it is sweet, not boisterous (garlic breath is not an issue).

Available from Black Garlic North America as whole bulbs, peeled cloves or puree, black garlic is more snack than serving, more character actor than headliner, and it’s a potential powerhouse of healthfulness in effect. Dunek says that just a few sweet cloves morning and evening daily may jack up a body’s mojo—although there is a dearth of science to verify its ultimate efficacy on health.

Its effect on lowering blood sugar is something Dunek has experienced firsthand. Already blessed with blood sugar levels on the low end of the spectrum, his early enthusiastic consumption of black garlic pushed them even lower, so he has moderated his intake. But for most of us roly-poly Americans, well, what’s not to like?

Will It Like Me?

As antioxidant—the sought-after exterminator of human-disease-causing free radicals in our bloodstream—black garlic steals the show. Black garlic delivers twice the level of the powerful antioxidant, S-Allylcysteine, compared to unfermented garlic. S-Allylcysteine is a terrific preventative and ameliorator of the oxidative stress caused by free radicals run amok in our contemporary bodies.

Black garlic also contains many thiosulfinates (yet more antioxidants) according to Dunek. He estimates that half of BGNA’s customers use black garlic simply as a health booster. BGNA is the only producer in the United States that tests its black garlic to assure that it delivers the promised levels of all these healthful compounds.

Which makes its culinary pizazz that much more alluring. Add it to just about anything sizzling, baking or cooling, said Torkelson—himself an avid BG consumer—“and you get an immediate flavor-enhancing effect that makes everything step up a notch.” Sautéed mushrooms and asparagus, or spread on toast or on your favorite omelette, the umami of black garlic elevates all. Judging by black garlic’s booming popularity, he is onto something here.

Staying Power

Another reason the black garlic market is expanding in America can be traced back to the BGNA operation itself: After only three years in business, BGNA has managed to stabilize the supply of black garlic in the American marketplace. Serving and satisfying all customers in the retail, industrial, foodservice and online (read: Amazon Fresh) markets, BGNA has catalyzed lower prices for black garlic. Early competitors had found it difficult to keep up with demand, and prices rose accordingly, but thanks to the BGNA business model that compounds its homegrown garlic with carefully purchased garlic from other regions of the U.S. (all then uniquely solid state fermented, qualityassured and packed at their Hillsboro facility) has increased the wide availability of superior quality black garlic.

And that’s good news for everyone looking for good news in food. Which is what Dunek was doing in 2009 while on a whirlwind “babymoon” with his very pregnant wife, Kelly. He’d been for some time distracted by a prickling desire to discover and perfect a better, more sustainable and healthful cultivation and production method of food—any whole food, really—which led his innate curiosity in many different directions. Then, mid-moon, he stumbled on fresh garlic at a farmers market. Wow! It was something entirely new to him in this just-picked iteration. He was hooked and, upon further exploration, discovered black garlic and its transformative quality (not to mention the jaw-dropping taste and tantalizing domestic obscurity). His imagination had been grabbed by the lapels.

From that exciting beginning, to the present seasonal lull before the cycle begins anew with an intense week of blubcracking, planting and mulching, Dunek and Torkelson have found deep satisfaction. It’s clear in their eyes as they discuss the scientific and foodie wonderments at the black heart of garlic. That’s what you’ll see, and taste, too, should you venture out to Star Valley for a mellow clove of tomorrow. But please, hold the vampire jokes when you come calling.


Try this recipe for a Cheesy Spinach and Black Garlic Omelet created by the Black Garlic North America kitchen!

Andy Radtke lives and works in Wisconsin’s ancient Driftless region, northwest of Madison. After ten years as resident of that city, where he attended the University of Wisconsin, waited tables at a west-side eatery and learned to make art, he moved back to his family’s retired farm in the rolling hills. Andy writes for family farmers in between bouts of picture making.

Comments [2]

Kara | December 10, 2015

This confuses me. I am unaware of any organism that can ferment at the temperatures that black garlic is produced… But those temperatures at those long times are perfect for the Maillard reaction. I wish he would have went in a bit more if it is in fact a fermentation.

Andy Radtke | December 13, 2015

Hi Kara,

Great question, and I don’t have the scientific chops to answer, but I can share Craig’s (who has the chops, and then some):

“Fermentation is the conversion of large organic molecules to simple/smaller molecules via enzymatic OR microbial action.  In the case with black garlic we are using enzymatic action and heat to speed up the chemical reactions.  I have termed this an autolytic reaction meaning that the garlic has the enzymes required to do the chemical conversions.  The substrates for the autolytic reactions include the break down of Allin, complex carbohydrates, and proteins.  Some folks claim that making black garlic is simply a maillard reaction, this is simply not true.”

Hope this helps!

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