Ginger lends its zing to sweet and savory dishes and drinks across a wide range of cuisines. In Caribbean, Indian, and Asian cuisines, fresh ginger root is featured in many meat, seafood, and vegetable dishes. In Western cooking, ground ginger often lends a note of spice to cookies, preserves, and quick breads, along with beverages such as ginger ale and tea. Increasingly, it's prized for its health benefits, ranging from overall gastrointestinal assistance to antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory abilities.
What Is Ginger?
Ginger is the gnarled bumpy root of the ginger plant Zingiber officiale, which belongs to the same family as turmeric and cardamom. It was domesticated in the islands of Southeast Asia and came to the West via the spice trade. Though there are many varieties of ginger root, the most common has light brown skin and yellow flesh. Ginger is available in six forms: fresh, dried, pickled, preserved, crystallized (or candied), and powdered/ground. It's easily used both in sweet and savory cooking applications.
Varieties of Ginger
Ginger has different uses depending on the form and variety.
Ground ginger (also referred to as powdered ginger) is dried and ground ginger root. It is readily available in supermarkets and is used primarily in sweets and curry mixes.
Fresh ginger is available in two forms: young and mature. The young roots are also called green or spring ginger. They have a pale, thin skin that requires no peeling, is very tender, and has a milder flavor. It can be grated, chopped, or julienned for use.
Mature ginger root has a tough skin that must be peeled away to get to the fibrous flesh and is usually grated, chopped, or ground for use. If you notice a blue ring after slicing fresh ginger, do not be alarmed. It is not mold or fungus. It is simply a Hawaiian variety of ginger known as blue-ring ginger or Chinese white ginger. This variety is considered superior for its juiciness and bright flavor. They are also larger rhizomes and generally cleaner but also usually more expensive.
Dried ginger is usually found in whole fingers and also in slices. It is usually soaked in a recipe's liquid before using and isn't hard to dehydrate at home.
Pickled ginger, called gari or beni shoga in Japan, is pickled in sweet vinegar and is usually colored bright red or pink. It is a familiar accompaniment to sushi and is also eaten to refresh the breath. Available at Asian markets, it should be kept refrigerated in its container.
Preserved ginger is available in Asian and specialty markets. This form has been preserved in a sugar-salt mixture. It is generally used as a confection or added to desserts, and it is especially good with melon.
Crystallized or candied ginger has been cooked in a sugar syrup until tender and then coated with granulated sugar. It is commonly used in desserts and can easily be made at home.
Ginger vs. Galangal
These two ingredients are easily confused because they're both rhizomes used in Southeast Asian cuisines. Galangal is in the same family as ginger and is definitely a close relative of both ginger and turmeric but tends to be less sweet and rounded in its taste. Instead, it is sharper, more peppery, and spicier. But like ginger, it's also available fresh, ground, or dried and sliced. Galangal is used in Thai food, but it's also widely implemented in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for its healing properties.
What Does It Taste Like?
The flavor of fresh ginger is slightly peppery and sweet, with a pungent and spicy aroma. Much like garlic, fresh ginger mellows with cooking and turns bitter if burned. The ground form is not as strongly flavored but has a warm bite and a little sweetness. Ground ginger is used often in desserts and is not easily swapped with fresh ginger.
Cooking With Ginger
Generally, peeling fresh ginger can be a matter of personal preference or based on what the recipe indicates. Many people like to peel mature fresh ginger before use, whereas young ginger doesn't typically have much skin. It is used in myriad preparations including marinades, soups, and curries. It's hard to make a good stir-fry without it, for example, and its juice can be implemented in sauces. Ground ginger can simply be added at the appropriate step to the batter or the cooking pot. Pickled ginger is served on the side as a condiment.
Ginger is an incredibly versatile ingredient to add to drinks such as teas, sodas, and cocktails. As the name indicates, it's easy to make a simple syrup infused with fresh ginger to flavor mixed drinks such as shrubs and sodas. Ginger root tea is one of those utilitarian beverages that work equally well hot or cold. Ginger naturally pairs well with honey, lemon, and many fruits such as peaches, blueberries, and cranberries.
Recipes With Ginger
Ginger, in all its versatility, appears in an array of savory dishes, spice blends, condiments, sauces, desserts, and drinks. It's almost impossible to list the ways in which ginger can be used in cooking.
Ground ginger is more concentrated than fresh ginger but has less of a bite. If you only have ground on hand, 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger equals 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger. However, this won't be appropriate for every recipe, such as in baked goods. In those cases, it may be better to substitute another ground spice such as pumpkin pie spice, allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, mace, or nutmeg. These can also be used as a substitute for fresh ginger in a pinch. When making sweets, you can substitute 1/8 teaspoon of ground ginger for every tablespoon of crystallized ginger and adjust the sugar according to taste.
Where to Buy Ginger
Ground ginger can be found in the spice section, sold in small jars. Look for crystallized ginger in the baking or bulk foods section. You may need to go to an Asian or specialty market to find pickled or preserved ginger.
Fresh ginger can be found in the produce section of most grocery stores. Look for smooth skin with a fresh, spicy fragrance, and avoid those whose ends show signs of mold. Tubers should be firm and feel heavy. Its length is a sign of maturity, and mature rhizomes will be hotter and more fibrous. Avoid those with wrinkled flesh, as this indicates the ginger is past its prime. Sometimes you can find fresh ground ginger root in the produce section, available in plastic bottles or tubes that require refrigeration.
Those looking to avoid any question of pesticides can find organic ginger fairly easily in ground and fresh forms.
For a never-ending supply of ginger, plant the root in a small pot and put it on a windowsill. Whenever you need ginger for a recipe, lift the plant, cut off a piece of the root, and then return it to the pot. If you keep it watered, you'll never run out of fresh ginger.
Ground, crystallized, and dried ginger should be kept in a cool, dark cabinet in an airtight container for the best shelf life. Pickled and preserved ginger should be kept in their original containers in the refrigerator.
Fresh, unpeeled root should be wrapped in paper towels, placed in a plastic bag and refrigerated for up to three weeks. It may also be tightly wrapped and frozen up to two months. To use frozen ginger, slice off or grate a piece of unthawed root.
Peeled ginger root may be stored in a lidded glass jar with enough vodka or sherry wine to cover it completely. However, storing peeled ginger in wine will impart that flavor, so keep that in mind. It should be good for several weeks at least; toss it when the alcohol starts to look cloudy, which indicates mold or bacteria may be present.
Health Benefits of Ginger
Ginger has traditionally been used to relieve upset stomach, motion sickness, morning sickness, and other gastrointestinal problems. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says there is some scientific evidence that it can help with pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting, and can help control nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy when used with conventional anti-nausea medication.
Ginger is also helpful for reducing pain and improving joint function in those with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. The root possesses antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties as well. It plays a key role in fire cider, a tonic that may help boost your immune system during cold and flu season. It's probably safe to say researchers haven't yet discovered all the ways in which ginger can be helpful to health.
Viljoen E, Visser J, Koen N, Musekiwa A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect and safety of ginger in the treatment of pregnancy-associated nausea and vomiting. Nutr J. 2014;13:20. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-20
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Ginger. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/ginger. Updated September 2016.
Al-Nahain A, Jahan R, Rahmatullah M. Zingiber officinale: A Potential Plant against Rheumatoid Arthritis. Arthritis. 2014. doi:10.1155/2014/159089
Mao QQ, Xu XY, Cao SY, et al. Bioactive Compounds and Bioactivities of Ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe). Foods. 2019;8(6):185. doi:10.3390/foods8060185