Harvest onions, garlic now to enjoy over winter

Thursday, July 5, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:41 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It will soon be time to harvest the alliums, particularly onions and garlic. Their storage longevity varies and one is challenged to make use of these food essentials in ways that exploit their goodness.

However you began your onions, from seeds, sets or plants, the variety you have planted will have a major effect on how long and well they store for use. Generally the sweeter the onion the shorter its storage life. My most successful keeping onion — all the way through winter into spring — is the variety Copra, a favorite of several gardening friends as well. Though not very sweet, Copra is excellent in soups and stews all winter.

On the other side of onion storage is the green onion or scallion. I have found that if I simply stick the bottom 2 inches of a store-bought green onion in a little dirt and water it a little, it will soon be sprouting a new green onion top, in almost any season of the year, though surely in the cold frame or in the house during winter. Thus, no need for storage at all.

Harvest your onions in July or early August when the tops have largely fallen over. Pick them in the early morning and lay them out in the garden to dry, unwashed, until late afternoon or evening, though not in direct sunlight if it is searing hot. Then take them into shelter onto elevated screens or hanging in bunches to thoroughly air dry for two or three weeks. After this, cut the tops down to a couple of inches and store the bulbs in dry conditions with good air circulation. Don’t attempt to store damaged bulbs and immediately use or discard any that have begun to soften or rot over the coming months.

All my close friends seem to be garlic lovers too and this makes life simpler, for garlic is a staple in my culinary universe. Garlic grows in two principal varieties, hard-neck and soft-neck. The softnecks are the good keepers, but the hardnecks are the quintessence of garlic — clean, bright, and firm bulbs, juicy with flavor.

Harvest your garlic after the tops have begun to brown but when a handful of green leaves remain. Immediately place the bulbs on screens, or loosely braided, to cure in a dry, dark, airy place until thoroughly dry with papery skins. The bulbs can then be stored under cool, dry, dark conditions. Don’t forget to plant some of these cloves in early October for next years harvest.

While my softnecks so treated last through winter the hardnecks rarely make it past December. But their goodness can be stored in other ways, some of which diminish pungency but not flavor.

The simplest and most durable of these is “L’Ail Confit” (garlic preserves). Peel a cup of garlic cloves and cover with a cup of olive oil in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium low heat until the garlic is tender. To store indefinitely, allow to cool and transfer to a jar in the fridge, making sure the garlic is covered with oil. Use it anyway you like by spooning a bit from the jar; the oil itself can later be used to make a nice vinaigrette. You will find the mix smooth and creamy with perhaps less garlic flavor than you might like. Peeling so much garlic is made very easy by using one of the flexible, vinyl cylinders sold for this purpose.

Alternatively you can make a garlic puree by roasting a cup of unpeeled cloves at 400 degrees for an hour or so until tender. Squeeze out and puree the roasted bulbs and then store and refrigerate in a container, covered again entirely with some stirred-in olive oil. Into this you might also add some sun-dried tomatoes. The flavor is mild and can be used in all sorts of ways, including simply spread on good bread along with, or as a base for, a further topping.

Though not a long term storage preparation, to my taste no use of garlic is more sublime than “Aioli,” or garlic mayonnaise. Make a garlic paste of three to six cloves in the bottom of a bowl, add some salt and then stir in the yellow of an egg. After this, begin stirring in olive oil, a drip at a time, always stirring slowly with the whisk. After about 1/4 cup of oil has been used, slowly drip in about a teaspoon of water — this is the emulsifying agent. Then, resume stirring with the olive oil until about a half cup has been used and you have a glistening mayonnaise, to which you should add some lemon juice as a preservative with a little added taste. Aioli is not fast food and nor does it taste like such; a small amount spread on crusty bread can give one a sense of deep satisfaction. Sometimes the Aioli will collapse and separate into its separate ingredients as you stir, in which case you have failed, as I still do, and can either start with a new yolk or refrigerate and serve as it is. Refrigerated shelf life is uncertain but I have never had any Aioli go bad, perhaps because it is used up so quickly.

Dennis Sentilles, MU professor emeritus of mathematics, is a Missouri Master Gardener and a member of Katy Trail Slow Food International with a love for working outdoors and eating simply and well every day. He can be reached at

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