by Keith Pandolfi
Bake with ginger using Julie Tanous and Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Spiced Coconut Oil cake with Bourbon Glaze recipe, our Gingerbread Pear Loaf recipe, and Not-So-Traditional American Fruitcake recipe. For baking with ginger, check out these five products to spice up your baking game on the next page.
Before gingerbread cookies and gingerbread houses, and before candied ginger or ginger snaps, ginger was mostly medicinal—the Pepto-Bismol of its day—used thousands of years ago in Asia to quell upset stomachs.
Ginger is a proud member of the Zingiberaceae family—a tribe of flowering aromatic plants that grow in abundance in tropical and subtropical regions of southeast Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean (among its spicy siblings are both turmeric and cardamom). If you happened upon a field of ginger you would notice its long stalks, three or four feet tall, with narrow green leaves and clusters of white and pink buds that bloom into yellow flowers. It’s pretty. So pretty, that it’s sometimes used as landscaping in the subtropics. But it’s the rhizome you want: an underground stem that’s not so pretty. Often mistakenly called a root, it’s knobby and craggy. It looks like your grandfather’s hand—if your grandfather suffered a workplace injury or two on the assembly line way back when. Peeled and grated, though, ginger is a wonder of this world. Its fibrous meat is the color of pale sunlight. Bite into it, and it offers a uniquely bold kick, with hints of lemon and pepper and clove. Thanks to those qualities, ginger’s applications have long transcended the medicinal.
After centuries of use across Asia, ginger traveled along the Silk Road, making its way to Europe, where Romans used it to rescue the icky taste of preserved meats and to aid digestion of said icky meats. But it didn’t take long for cooks to start realizing this ingredient was just as good for baking as it was for seasoning. Soon it was mixed with other spices, such as cinnamon, or sweetened with honey to make a soft loaf or hard cookie, both warming and spicy.
While there are unsubstantiated claims that Greeks were making a version of gingerbread as far back as 2400 B.C., “gingerbread fairs” were held in medieval Europe, and it was in Elizabethan England where gingerbread men took shape. Quite literally, in fact. Queen Elizabeth I called on her kitchen staff to create whimsical gingerbread men in the forms of visiting diplomats and dignitaries, decorated with candies and real gold leaf.
Around the same time, German bakers started constructing elaborate gingerbread houses. A phenomenon that had become widely popular by 1812 when the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel, that deranged little fairy tale in which a cannibalistic old woman lures children to the forest with a candy-studded gingerbread house so she can shove them in the oven to satiate her savage stomach.
Ginger came to the New World via the colonists, and eventually became as popular among American bakers as those in Europe. None other than George Washington’s mother had a well-known recipe for soft gingerbread, more of a loaf than a cookie. But harder, crumblier versions won favor, too. Those Pepperidge Farm gingerbread men you nibble? They have a pedigree that dates back thousands of years.
The flavors of ginger manifest themselves in different ways depending on where you are in this world. While ginger is often used in sweets and baked goods in the Western world, in Asia it is more likely to be used in seafood, meat, and vegetarian dishes. In Japan it is shredded into soups and served alongside sushi; in India it is a mainstay of curries. In Jamaica, it is gulped down as ginger beer.
These days you can find ginger everywhere, in a variety of forms. Aside from fresh versions, it comes dried and powdered, minced, or sliced and cooked in sugar to create a candied or crystallized version. But it’s the dried and powdered stuff that bakers love best. They use it for carrot cakes and Christmas cookies, banana bread, pumpkin pies, and then, oh yes, ginger snaps! That last one is a term of endearment. Remember in the classic 1946 Frank Capra film, It’s a Wonderful Life, how George Bailey calls youngest daughter ZuZu his “little ginger snap?” That’s a testament to ginger’s magic. A reminder that, especially this time of year, ginger is something that should truly be adored.