What Is Ginger and How Do I Use It?

You may be most accustomed to using dried ginger in baking, but the warming, zingy flavor of ginger root is available in a variety of formats — and it's good for more than you might think.

Slices and whole pieces of ginger

Abby Mercer/AllRecipes

What Is Ginger?

Ginger (Zingiber Officinale) is a flowering plant that originated in Asia. A member of the family Zingiberaceae, ginger's close relatives include turmeric, cardamom, and galangal. The ginger that we're familiar with is actually the rhizome of the ginger plant, which is a root-like structure that grows beneath the ground.

What Does Ginger Taste Like?

While somewhat hard to describe, the flavor of ginger is often labeled as spicy, peppery, and either warm or hot. I also find it a bit sweet. Young ginger is very juicy, and has a much mellower flavor. As it ages, it becomes more fibrous, less juicy, and much stronger/hotter.

How to Use Ginger

Most dishes call for peeled fresh ginger that is then grated or minced. Some call for juice, which can be obtained by grating the ginger in a towel and then squeezing out the juice. (Bottled ginger juice can now also be purchased in some grocery stores and online.) Once cooked, ginger's flavor mellows considerably.

Here are a few recipes that highlight ginger's exceptional flavor:

Substitutes for Ginger

As ginger's flavor and aroma are quite unique, no substitute will provide you with everything ginger does. However, galangal, though different and a bit more camphor-like, will bring some familial similarities. Additionally, many people find allspice can provide a comparable effect. But with both of the above, it's key not to "overdo" them; just a hint is all you need.

Now that we know the basics, let's look at the various ways we can purchase ginger, and how to best use each option.

"Types" of Ginger

Ginger Powder
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Fresh Mature Ginger

This is probably the most frequently encountered variety of ginger. The flesh of the rhizome is encased in a dry, beige, papery skin. Eating the skin will not hurt you, but it's pretty tough and chewy. The easiest way to peel it, I think, is to drag a spoon edge down the piece of ginger (with the bowl of the spoon facing the ginger).This allows you to peel it without wasting too much of the delicious flesh. A vegetable peeler also works just fine. Once peeled, you can cut the piece of ginger into matchsticks, mince it, dice it, or grate it. I find that a rasp-style grater is a perfect tool for the last option. You are then ready to move forward with all kinds of dishes, including dishes native to a wide variety of cuisines such as Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Scandinavian, and even the foods of Venice, Italy.

Of course, fresh ginger's vibrant zing is a welcome addition to any number of dishes that you throw together on the fly. From salad dressings to creamy soups, you can give a flavor pick-me-up to all kinds of recipes. Fresh ginger should be stored in the refrigerator; if peeled, it should be placed in a zip-top bag or air-tight, lidded container before being refrigerated. You can also freeze fresh ginger for longer-term storage.

Fresh Young Ginger

If you ever happen to see ginger that has an almost translucent, smooth skin, I urge you to buy it. This is young ginger and it has an unrivaled flavor and perfume. It is much less potent than the mature ginger, but truly delicious. Young ginger is used to make one of my favorite condiments of all time: pickled ginger.

Pickled Ginger

Speaking of, you may have seen jars of pickled ginger at your local grocery store. It is often dyed a garish shade of pink, but increasingly, you can find it "un-dyed," and that's the version I'd go for. It's just what you'd assume — paper-thin slices of young ginger that have been pickled with vinegar and a bit of sugar. Pickled ginger is most often used as a garnish or "finishing touch" for various dishes. I personally never cook it, but I know many people do. However you choose to use it, you'll find yourself addicted to its tangy, gingery bite. (I frequently use it to top a piece of roasted tuna or swordfish.) It's commonly served alongside sushi, but don't limit its usage to sushi alone.

Dried/Powdered Ginger

Dried ginger is simply peeled, fresh ginger that has been dehydrated and then ground to a fine powder. And the holidays wouldn't be the same without it! I most frequently reach for this when baking, but also when I want some of ginger's flavor and aroma, and I don't want to bite into a piece Increasingly, I'll admit that when I'm making cookies or breads with dried ginger, I've started to add a bit of minced or grated fresh ginger or candied ginger to liven up the ginger presence. From my experience thus far, I'd highly recommend using a ginger combo in your fall and winter baking. The dried spice will never give you the full range of ginger flavor, but it will add a lot of the warmth and spiciness of the fresh.

Candied Ginger

Also known as crystalized or stem ginger, this is peeled, fresh ginger that has been cooked in a fairly heavy sugar syrup. You can buy it in the syrup, or dried and rolled in more sugar. When not using fresh ginger, this is one of my favorites. It retains a lot of flavor and heat, but the syrup mitigates it just enough that eating a piece is one of my preferred "candy" snacks. You can certainly use it in baking, but I also find it perfectly acceptable in savory cooked dishes where a little sweetness would not go amiss. Plus, you really haven't lived until you've made ice cream or whipped cream using some of that ginger syrup. I'll even garnish ice cream or pumpkin pie with minced, candied ginger.

Ginger Paste

Ginger paste is basically minced or grated ginger with a bit of added water or oil. If kept in the fridge, it will last for weeks. It is quite convenient, but, as with most processed goods, I prefer grating my own because of the freshness and power of the flavor and aroma. That said ginger paste is not a bad time-saver when you need one. If I'm making a lot of food that calls for a lot of ginger, I'll reach for the ginger paste. In short: Ginger paste is not a first choice, but not a bad choice either.

Ginger Juice

Bottled ginger juice is fairly new on my radar, and I have to say that I think it's a great product. Having said that, I need to add that it can be very pricey. The taste, though not quite as "fresh as ginger that you'll squeeze yourself, is potent and more than acceptable. Squeezing fresh grated ginger is a laborious process, and the bottled option is definitely a welcome shortcut in my book.

Ginger is one of the flavors I always have in my kitchen. I've learned that frozen ginger gives me most of what I want, and never dries out or goes bad (as ginger in the fridge will). So I keep a few pieces in the freezer all of the time. There's candied ginger in the pantry, along with powdered. And when I'm feeling flush, I have a bottle of juice in the fridge. Point being, add more ginger to your life — you'll never regret it. Besides the wonderful flavor and aroma, the health benefits rival even garlic's. Thus, there's every reason to enjoy it.


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