The holidays are for enjoying all kinds of goodies and the smell of sweet and spicy baked goods in the oven is obligatory in most households. Gingerbread and gingerbread cookies are often part of that tradition, but did you know you can grow your own fresh ginger and use it in holiday baking?
Choosing Grocery Store Ginger for Planting
The ginger you find dried and ground in the spice aisle of your local supermarket started life as a plant, however most cooks know that the produce department is where to buy whole ginger root that's good for transplanting. It isn't really a root, but a rhizome, also known as the creeping rootstalk of the larger ginger plant. Often used in Asian dishes, we forget that this is the same thing that makes the holidays merry and bright. It is also what puts the zing in ginger ale.
The ginger root is used in a number of ways and just about every grocery, no matter how humble has a few ginger stems tucked into the produce department. Botanically known as Zingiber officinale this inconspicuous root has many uses. I've even shredded ginger into sauerkraut that I'm fermenting for a great little spicy kick. As stated, ginger is superb in Asian dishes and is also indispensable for holiday cooking. Ginger also has medicinal uses, having a calming effect on upset stomachs. It also has been proven to reduce inflammation and muscle pain and research is underway to determine whether ginger has any effect on preventing cancer, treating cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Ginger is easy to grow, so why not plant your own supply?
Organic Ginger vs. Non-Organic Ginger
The ginger roots in the supermarket will work, however a little education will make for a better chance of success. Choose plump, light tan roots with a number of little knobs. If you are lucky, you might find roots that have already started to sprout. Soak non-organic ginger overnight in water to help remove the germination inhibitor that is often sprayed on them. Organic ginger will not have this chemical. If you see small light yellow 'beads' popping up on the ginger root, that's a good thing. That's where the plant will sprout. Some companies will cut these little beads off and you'll see small 'craters' on the ginger root. Don't choose them. Choose smooth or bumpy roots that look plump. Bring your ginger root home and sit it on your kitchen counter and wait until it starts to sprout. Don't worry if it starts to shrivel, it is natural. It may take a few weeks, so be patient.
How to Plant Store-Bought Ginger
Once you see the little 'beads' starting to swell, it is time to think about planting your ginger. If you have a large root with a number of sprouts forming, you can cut it into several pieces. Just make sure you have at least 2 sprouts per piece and let the cut pieces heal for a day or two before planting. Ginger isn't picky about soil and if you live in a warm climate, you can plant it outside in your perennial bed. If you live in an area that has freezing temperatures, it is quite happy as a houseplant. Plant the root pieces horizontally instead of vertically. Ginger is shallow rooted much like a bearded iris and doesn't like deep soil conditions. Cover with only an inch or so of soil and water well. Ginger loves water. Many people use self-watering containers so that the ginger always has a consistent supply of moisture. Just remember to plant in a generous pot because you want the roots to grow and increase in volume.
If planted outdoors, make sure that it does not sit in water during the cool season. Cool conditions and too much water at the same time can cause rot. If you grow ginger outdoors during the summer, situating it near downspouts or pond edges is ideal since warm conditions and lots of moisture is its favorite situation. Ginger likes bright light, but not much direct sun. This also makes it a great houseplant. An eastern-facing outdoor bed with afternoon shade is also good for those who live in warm climates. You can even start your ginger indoors during the winter and transplant outdoors after danger of frost has passed.
Once the leaves and shoots start to grow you can even harvest them for use in salads and stir frys. The flavor isn't as intense as the actual root, but the milder taste does boost certain dishes and even drinks. Chop the stems and leaves and use like scallion tops or chives when a hint of ginger is all you need. Water well all through the growing season and add some compost or well-aged manure a couple of times during the summer.
Once the ginger has started to grow, you can harvest it about any time you wish, however leaving it alone until autumn will result in a larger rhizome and more ginger. Lift the rhizomes from the pot or bed and store in a cool, dark area like you would potatoes or onions. Save a few pieces for the next season's crop and you should have plenty of ginger to use until the next harvest.
Baking With Fresh Ginger
To use fresh ginger in seasonal baking, remember that the ground, dried spice is more potent than the freshly grated spice. Most sites recommend 3 or 4 times more freshly grated ginger than the dried ginger, but you may have to experiment to see what tastes right to your family. Remember that the freshly grated ginger is moist, so add that with the wet ingredients instead of the dry. The freshly grated ginger lends itself well to quick breads and bundt cakes. Even gingerbread cookies are special with the fresh ginger. Just remember to scrape off the outer skin with a vegetable peeler or the edge of a teaspoon before you grate it and use a micro grater to make the ginger as smooth and paste-like as possible. Discard any tough strings and only peel as much as you plan to use. Ginger stores best with the skin intact and once cut, in the refrigerator.
Try using ginger in desserts this holiday season and bake homemade ginger cookies with this recipe.
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup soft butter or vegetable shortening (I used butter-flavored shortening)
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup molasses
Additional sugar for garnish
I always let refrigerated ingredients like the egg come to room temperature before I start to bake. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl and cream together the butter, sugar and ginger until fluffy. Add the egg and molasses and blend well. Fold the dry ingredients into the butter mixture gently and chill for 1 hour. My grandmother always set her cookie dough on the unheated back porch instead of the refrigerator. This habit was probably because she grew up in a time without refrigeration. I sit mine on the porch too. It always reminds me of her delicious cookies.
Preheat oven to 350 (175C)
Form the chilled dough into 1 1/2 inch balls and roll in the extra sugar. This can be plain white sugar or decorative sugar crystals. Place 2 inches apart on un-greased baking sheets. Bake 15 (I baked mine 18) minutes or until the edges start to brown. Remove from oven and let stand for a minute or two, before removing the ginger cookies to a cooling rack.
The holidays are a perfect time to bake with fresh ginger and you can save any left over pieces to plant after the first of the year. Ginger is an easy plant to grow and just about everyone has a supermarket that has it in their produce department.