What is ginger and how do I use it?
Discover the hidden depths of this spicy root that vamps up all manner of meals
What is ginger?
Spicy sweet ginger is a rhizome, or underground stem of the ginger plant, that is capable of producing new roots and shoots. This knobbly root has a tough tan skin that is gently peeled or scrapped off to reveal the usable, fiery flesh inside.
What does ginger taste like?
Ginger has a spicy flavour, and an invigorating aroma. It produces a warming and fiery taste that gives an unmistakable and comforting kick. Ginger tastes spicy because of its chemical composition, specifically the compound gingerol, which creates its hot sensation.
Where does ginger come from?
It’s believed ginger originated from south east Asia, with its role in Indian and Chinese cuisine documented as far back as the 1st century CE. Today, India dominates global production, though China, Nigeria and Nepal also produce it at volume. The spice grows best in a warm, humid environment, although it can be produced in a variety of land types and climates.
Fresh vs dried ginger: what’s the difference?
Fresh and dried ginger are not interchangeable. Dried ground ginger has a very different flavour and texture, and is twice as strong as fresh ginger.
Similarly, fresh ginger is intense, juicy and fibrous, with a more pronounced, fiery taste and heavy citric notes. While dried ginger has the same base tones, it’s more concentrated and is better at retaining its flavour at hotter temperatures.
You will lose some of the fresh taste that comes from the root if you substitute with dried spice, but the powder is considered preferable for meat rubs and marinades and for spice blends such as with allspice, cardamom, cinnamon and sage.
What cuisine can ginger be used in?
Ginger is popular in Caribbean, Indian and Asian cuisines. Ginger cake, ginger ale and coolers are popular treats in the West Indies, while savoury dishes embracing the spice include the trademark smoky jerk chicken.
In Indian cooking, ginger is found in pickles or chutneys, often paired with mango or lemon to make a warming and refreshing side. It’s also often blended with garlic or coconut to flavour chicken dishes like Murgh Adraki.
Across Asia, ginger is chopped raw into stir fries, blended with soy as a Japanese dressing, and blended through noodle dishes and curries.
How to use ginger
Simply grate or slice peeled, raw ginger into soups, stews or stir frys. It is also excellent when used as an infusion, added to the cooking water to bring a kick to rice or quinoa.
When cooking with ginger, consider what end result you’re hoping to achieve. For example, minced or chopped ginger will add a physical bite as well as flavour, whereas grating will mean the ingredient almost melts, and is fully integrated into the final dish.
Ground ginger is great to incorporate into your baking, to slow-cooked feasts like curries and stews or sprinkled over cooked fruit or root vegetable dishes.
If you’re substituting fresh ginger for ground, an inch of the root is about a teaspoon of the ground spice, so use it sparingly.
How to prepare ginger
Root ginger should be peeled before cutting and cooking, to remove the woody skin. The skin is quite fibrous and coarse, but can easily be peeled away with the edge of a spoon. After peeling, it’s time to slice, dice or grate, depending on your recipe.
Where to buy ginger
Ginger is readily available in supermarkets and whole food shops, whether as fresh root, or ground spice. While ground ginger is found in the spice section, fresh ginger is kept with the fresh produce, often near the garlic. It’s recognisable for its knobbly form and brown papery skin. The root should be soft enough to be able to nick the skin with a fingernail, but not wet or soggy to the touch.
How to store ginger
Fresh ginger should be stored whole, unpeeled in a paper bag or paper towel in the fridge and it will keep for about a week. To keep it for longer, it can be preserved in vodka or sherry for about three weeks or frozen indefinitely in a bag or container. You can simply grate the amount of fresh ginger you need from frozen – the skin even peels off more easily this way.
Another option is to blend your ginger into a paste. Put the root in a food processor and, as long as you blitz up a sufficient quantity, the root itself should hold enough water, no need to add any more. Then use what you need in your recipe and pop the remainder into an ice cube tray and freeze.
Can you freeze ginger?
Freezing is a great way to preserve the life of this practical spice. The fresh root can be frozen either peeled or with the skin intact, grated, sliced or whole for at least a month, and cooked straight from the freezer, no need to thaw.
There are no benefits to freezing the dried or ground spice, and stored properly and uncontaminated, it should last in cool storage indefinitely.
How long does ginger last?
The shelf life of fresh ginger can vary widely depending on the state in which it was bought and the conditions it’s kept under once home. The trick is to choose your fresh root carefully in the shop – if the skin’s very wrinkled, it has already started to perish. Instead check for any visible signs of mould and select a piece that’s firm to the touch.
Once home, if refrigerated, it should keep for at least a week. But to keep the ginger fresh indefinitely, freeze as a whole, in slices or as a puree, and cook with it from frozen.
The ground spice will happily go on for up to four years. Take heed of the best before date on the jar and store in the commercially-packaged bottle. If in doubt of its freshness, rub the spice on your hand and taste and smell it. It’s time to dispose of it if the familiar flavour and aroma is muted or missing
When not to use ginger
Ginger is a very versatile spice, but also one best enjoyed in moderation. Not only might over consumption trigger mild mouth and stomach irritation, but it could lead to bloating or heartburn after extreme overindulgence.
Like many other spices, ginger offers well-documented health benefits, but should be used in moderation to avoid intestinal problems. It also isn’t recommended in combination with certain medications, so check with your doctor if you’re not sure.
Complimentary herbs and spices to ginger
Despite its strong and distinctive taste and aroma, ginger pairs well with several other flavours and spices. You can boost the warmth and earthy notes by using it together with allspice, cloves, nutmeg or cinnamon.
Substitutions for ginger
If you can’t get hold of ginger in any form, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg will bring the same warm, sweet flavour to your baking. The spice is closely related to cardamom and turmeric, making them ideal stand-ins in an emergency curry.
How to grow ginger at home
Despite being a tropical plant, ginger is easily grown at home. Start with an organic piece, as most supermarket roots are treated with a growth inhibitor to prevent sprouting. The bumpy nodules are the buds, so make sure your piece has several, and plant in shallow soil to encourage it to sprout.
Keep it well watered and a tip should emerge in a couple of months. Then re-pot in deeper soil, burying all but the sprout and keep in a warm, sunny window. Make sure you use a large pot, as the roots will soon fill all available space. Your ginger root can be harvested at any time, but leave for eight-to-ten months for a mature and well-developed spice.