Once your garlic has been harvested, it needs to be ‘cured’ to prepare it for storage. Since this process takes weeks to complete, you’ll be glad to know that it began while your bulbs were still in the ground! Curing is essentially a more formal term for drying. If you are consuming your garlic right away, then curing it isn’t really necessary. If you want to store it for any length of time, however, then proper curing is essential to prevent that garlic you worked so hard all year to grow, from becoming moldy, shriveled, or otherwise compromised. The goal of curing is get the outer wrapper and clove skins of the garlic completely dry, while maintaining the lovely, fleshy oiliness of the cloves themselves.
Once harvested, garlic takes approximately three to six weeks to fully cure, depending on conditions including temperature, humidity, air circulation, amount of green material left on the bulbs, and the size and type of bulbs. As you would expect, larger bulbs and those with more green material take longer to cure, so softnecks tend to require a longer curing period than hardnecks. High humidity and poor air circulation will also increase the length of time for curing, and a longer drying time increases the risk of mould and other pathogens and, subsequently, decreased storage capability. Likewise, don’t be tempted to rush the process, since this can result in dry, shriveled bulbs that also store poorly.
There are different ways to cure your bulbs based on the amount of garlic to be cured and the space in which to cure it. Two commonly used methods include hanging the garlic in bunches, or stacking the bulbs in vented boxes. Whichever method you choose, remember that garlic should never be cured in the sun, in order to prevent discoloration and softening.
Curing garlic by hanging it in bunches is a method preferred by small-scale growers, and can be used for both hard and softneck varieties. The garlic is not trimmed, but rather gathered into small bundles of six to twenty-four bulbs, which are tied with twine or string and hung from wall racks or nails. Although the leaves and stalk are not trimmed, the scape usually is, since it retains a high level of moisture. The bundles should be tied securely, and balanced with the bulbs angling downward. Ensure that the bundles are hung someplace dry and cool, with moderate humidity and good air circulation.
If you are growing garlic on a scale too large to permit you to hang bundles, vented boxes or racks can be used to efficiently cure your garlic, although this method can be somewhat risky and requires proper management. Ideally, the bulbs, whether you are using vented boxes or racks, would be dried in a single layer. Rarely is this possible due to space constraints, so alternatively, the bulbs can be layered to a maximum of 3-4 deep per box or rack, with the boxes and racks then stacked upon each other. There should be a minimum of two inches of space between the top layer of bulbs and the lower layer of the box above, to guarantee adequate air circulation.
Boxed or racked garlic must also be kept someplace cool and dry, with good air circulation and moderate humidity. Managing these elements is more challenging with this method, as a large number of bulbs will release a significant amount of moisture into the air, drastically increasing the humidity of the storage room and making rot and mould a constant threat. To achieve successful curing, proper air circulation is essential, including a quick way to release large amounts of moisture if necessary. In our shed, for example, we use a combination of vented floors and industrial fans to keep cool air constantly circulating in and around the garlic, and the humidity is carefully monitored by constant measurement. The shed is also equipped with a large sliding door, which we can open if the air moisture level should rise above 50%.
Your garlic is finished curing when the skins feel completely dry and papery. The cloves should still be firm and plump. If, on breaking open a sample bulb, all the outer layers of skins are dry, and the clove skins are thin, tight and dry, then your bulbs are likely ready for storage. Garlic will continue to cure as long as it is stored properly, so that even garlic that is not completely cured at the time of storage should keep for months.