Onions and garlic appear in recipes and pantries all year long. They form the base of so many dishes that they can become rote, or sometimes even boring. But in spring, something special happens: Varieties of early garlic and onion sprout up from the ground before peak harvest. These shoots become an early crop prized because it jolts us out of a winter vegetable stupor with springtime flavors that haven’t been available for months.
If you happen to be in a garden, you can deduce that there’s spring garlic or onions growing if you notice just one shoot sprouting out from the bulbs beneath the ground. Almost all other plants send up two.The whole plant, from that green shoot to the underground miniature bulb, is edible.
Gardeners and farmers usually harvest the entire vegetable, partially because once it’s out, they’ve now got more room in the soil for summer vegetables.
Because these shoots take less time to grow than their mature siblings, spring onions and garlic have a milder flavor and a moister texture than their mature varieties. That fact means they come with one small caveat: they don’t last long once picked. They need to be handled carefully and should always be dried well and stored in the fridge, far from any moisture, which can cause wilting.
Spring onions have small bulbs—how small depends on when they’re harvested. Because they aren’t grown to full maturity or cured, they don’t have the yellow parchment-like skins you’re used to seeing on an onion. Here’s perhaps the best quality of spring onions: They just don’t have the time in the soil to develop the sulfuric compounds that give “adult” onions their sharp taste or trigger that crying impulse when sliced. So chop away. No tears here!
Spring onions also are sold with green shoots attached. This is another reason you should grab spring onions when you see them. The tops turn out to be nutritionally superior to the bulbs, too, offering up lots of potassium and vitamins A and C—another perk of eating these young members of the allium family. So of course, you should eat the whole plant (besides the root).
(Images: Angel Valley Farm)
When you’re looking for garlic in the spring, you’ll typically find two types: actual spring garlic and garlic scapes.
At their earliest picking, spring garlic looks almost like one long strand, going from green at the top to white in the middle to pinkish where the teeny tiny bulb is at the end. As the garlic grows, the bulb will also, of course, get bigger. Know that the bulb is fully edible, as long as the membranes haven’t developed between the cloves that are growing. It’s on its way to being summer garlic, with the recognizable papery packets around the cloves.
Garlic scapes are the single green shoots that burst out of the ground. If they keep growing, they actually steal sugars from the garlic bulb. So, farmers simply cut them off, directing sugars back to the garlic cloves they’ll harvest later. (These are a byproduct of growing garlic, rather than an early harvest.) You’ll see the scapes in ribbon-like piles, looping over themselves and each other (shown below). They’re delicious and deeply garlicky. When cooked, they’re less sweet and more vegetal-tasting than the bulb. Occasionally, they are also dried and turned into a powdery, garlicky dried scape powder.
(Image: Dinner With Julie)
How to Cook with These Springy Gems
Obviously, spring onions taste oniony and spring garlic and garlic scapes contain the essence of garlic, and they can be cooked the same way, which is simply. Often, they’ll be very dirty, so first take some time to thoroughly rinse the spring soil, especially the roots.
Once that’s done, sauté the chopped greens and bulbs in olive oil or butter over fairly low heat to preserve their flavor, which, though piquant when raw, gets quite mild during cooking. After that, you can build out a sauté of other spring vegetables, like asparagus and baby greens. The early onions and leeks taste delightfully fresh with eggs, in omelets, frittatas, scrambles, and even egg sandwiches. We’d never say no to a spring garlic risotto or spring onion pasta, or a dish of buttery boiled new potatoes tossed with gently cooked spring onions. You can also pound the vegetables, raw, into a pesto—this works especially well with garlic scapes. Be sure to use a mild nut, like pine nuts or almonds, so as not to drown out the flavor.