Beautiful and functional, garlic braids will help preserve the harvest while adding a dash of old-fashioned charm to any pantry.
By Jill Winger
The way I see it, there are two very important reasons to braid softneck garlic. First, braiding your garlic will help it last longer in storage because air will be able to circulate around the bulbs more easily. Second, there’s just something beautiful and homey about a braid of garlic hanging in the kitchen — it’s certainly more aesthetically pleasing than just throwing bulbs into a mesh bag.
Before you can braid softneck garlic, you’ll have to harvest it. The exact timing of your garlic harvest will ultimately depend on when you plant the bulbs. Because I plant mine in fall — which I recommend for better yields — I’m able to harvest them the following August. You’ll know they’re ready to harvest when the tops begin to yellow and dry from the bottom up. Be sure to stop watering them at least a week prior to harvest so the ground is as dry as possible when you dig them up. The cloves should be well-developed, and the outer layer of the wrapper should be dry and papery. To harvest, carefully work along the sides of your garlic rows with a shovel or a potato fork to loosen the soil, and then use your hands to carefully remove the bulbs from the earth.
After harvesting, sort through the bulbs. Bulbs with missing tops or missing cloves (it happens sometimes) can be set aside for immediate use. If the bulb and top are fully intact, spread them out on a table in a cool, dark place — such as a dry basement or root cellar — and allow them to air-dry for about two weeks. This drying process is necessary to remove excess moisture from the stalks (or more technically, the leaves) so they don’t spoil. However, if they dry too much, they’ll be too brittle to braid, so you’ll have to find that fine balance.
Once your garlic is cured and dried, it’ll be time to braid. You’ll want at least 8 to 10 intact heads of softneck garlic and two short lengths of twine or string.
1) Prepare your bulbs for braiding by gently rubbing any big chunks of dirt from the outer layer of the bulbs and then trimming the roots. Not only will this look prettier, it will also help prevent your garlic braids from shedding stuff all over your floor.
2) Next, pick three of the largest bulbs, tie them together at the base of their stalks with one of the lengths of twine or string, and lay them with their stalks facing you. Because you have three stalks, you’ll use the same braiding process as you would for a basic three-strand braid. Now comes the fun part.
3) Place a fourth bulb in the center of the trio of tied bulbs. Make sure the stalk is lying straight down the middle. (Tip: The stalk of every newly added bulb will go in the middle.)
4) To begin the braid, cross the stalk on the right over the top of the two middle stalks.
5) Select another bulb, and place it to the right of the bulb you just added. Lay the stalk so it’s in the middle.
6) Now, cross the stalks on the left side over the middle.
7) Add a bulb to the left side of the bunch. Lay the stalk of this new bulb in the middle, and cross the right side over.
8) Now, all you’ll have to do is repeat Steps 3 through 7 until you reach the desired length for your garlic braid or you run out of garlic.
9) When you’re done adding bulbs to the braid, you’ll have a handful of stalks left to deal with. Simply continue braiding these until you reach the end. Tie the end of the braid tightly with the second length of twine — I like to make a loop with the twine so I can easily hang the braid.
10) For the longest storage life, hang the garlic in a cool, dry place. Try to avoid anywhere with lots of humidity, such as a damp basement. To be honest, I keep a braid in my kitchen. This may cause the garlic to spoil faster because it’s warmer, but I know I’ll use up the braid before that point and like having it within arm’s reach when putting together a meal.
The main thing is to have fun with it. Honestly, you can mess up the braiding sequence a bit and usually still end up with a decent-looking braid. I say, as long as the braid stays together, who cares if you messed up which side you crossed over? I won’t tell, I promise. And don’t forget to save some of your very best bulbs for seed garlic so you can do this whole crazy thing all over again!
If you have bulbs with missing tops, or just don't feel like messing around with braiding, you'll still have storage options. You'll still want to cure the harvest, but after that's complete, simply clean the bulbs and trim the roots, cut off the stalks, and store the garlic bulbs loosely in a container put in a cool, dry place. Mesh or brown paper bags, cardboard boxes, baskets, or even old pantyhose all work well for storing loose garlic.
Jill Winger is a homesteader and prairie-dweller who loves to inspire others to return to their roots and learn new skills. Visit her website, The Prairie Homestead, for advice on everything from starting seeds and raising chickens to preserving food and making natural products for use around the home.