Softneck vs. Hardneck Garlic: What’s the Difference?
Choosing the right garlic variety can feel daunting. These two types of garlic differ in far more than their stems’ hardness! Former organic farmer Logan Hailey digs into the differences and how to choose the best garlic for your garden.
Garlic is the foundation of nearly any tasty meal. This beloved, versatile ingredient comes in over 600 global varieties, each suited to different growing zones, culinary uses, and storage conditions. Each falls into one of two categories: softneck or hardneck. These two types vary drastically in growth habit, flavor, clove size, storage, and more.
While softneck varieties are often found in grocery stores thanks to their long-term storability, hardnecks have a more complex spicy flavor and are easier to peel. Softnecks are more suited to southern climates, while hardnecks require a period of cold weather to form bulbs properly. The distinctions and uses of each type in both the garden and the kitchen are important to recognize before you order and plant seed garlic.
Ultimately, the choice between hardneck and softneck depends on your climate and culinary preferences. Let’s dig into everything you need to know about each category and how to choose the best varieties for your gardens.
Which is Better, Hardneck or Softneck?
The best type for your garden and kitchen depends on your region and taste preferences. Generally, hardnecks are better for cold northern zones, while softnecks are better for warm southern zones.
Hardneck garlic has a bolder, spicier flavor, larger, easy-to-peel cloves, and the advantage of scape (flower stalk) production for a tasty summer treat. On the other hand, softneck garlic has a milder flavor, smaller cloves, and a longer storage time.
Warm-region growers often have trouble growing hardneck varieties because they require a longer period of vernalization (exposure to cold winter temperatures) to form a bulb. You can “trick” the plants by keeping the cloves in the refrigerator for 1-2 months before planting. Softneck garlic still benefits from cold exposure but doesn’t require as much time in wintery weather, thus making it more suitable for southern gardens.
Hardneck vs. Softneck Comparison Chart
The most obvious distinction between hardneck and softneck is the hardness of the stalk. Hardnecks produce (surprise!) a hard stem that is more rigid and difficult to bend. Softnecks have pliable stalks that are often bent into braids for storage.
These two categories are different subspecies of the same plant. The other primary differences are detailed in this side-by-side comparison chart:
|Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon
|Allium sativum var. sativum
|Best for northern zones 8 and colder
|Best for southern zones 9 and warmer
|Bold, rich, spicier, complex flavor
|Mild, buttery, gentle flavor
|Fewer cloves per head
|Greater amount of cloves per head
|Larger individual cloves
|Smaller individual clove size
|Produces a scape (edible flowering stalk that needs to be removed and eaten)
|Does not produce a scape
|Rigid, hard central stalk
|Flexible, braidable stems for garlic braids
|Shorter storage (4-6 months)
|Longest storage (6-12 months)
|Requires long vernalization period (temperatures under 40°F for 4-8 weeks through winter)
|Only a mild cold exposure required (refrigerate 1-2 weeks in subtropical zones)
|Thinner wrappers (easier to peel)
|More wrappers (more difficult to peel)
|Most common in gardens and on specialty farms
|Most common in supermarkets and on commercial farms
What is Hardneck Garlic?
Hardneck garlic is a broad category of varieties best suited to cold weather climates, with stiff stalks that rise from the underground bulb. The plants require a vernalization (cold exposure) period to produce a sizable bulb.
Botanically known as Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, this type is most closely related to the wild garlic originating in Central Asia. It has likely been cultivated for over 5,000 years.
In early summer, hardneck varieties produce a flowering curly-cue called a “scape.” It is important to pick the scape off to ensure the plants redirect their energy back toward the final development of the bulb. The scapes are incredibly delicious and have a buttery flavor with a scallion or leek-like texture. If left on the plant, the scape will form a large spherical allium flower that will detract from garlic head yields.
Hardneck garlic is most suited to zones 8 and colder. It is more difficult to grow in warmer hardiness zones because the winters aren’t cold enough.
These plants evolved in chilly weather and actually enjoy long winters mulched beneath varying levels of snowpack. The cloves need at least 4-8 weeks of cold exposure below 40°F to stimulate strong bulb formation.
This is easy to do in regions with frosty winters because you can plant in the fall a couple of weeks before frost and let nature do the work. However, southern subtropical growers must stimulate a similar process by placing their planting stock in the refrigerator.
Chilling cloves at 40° in a refrigerator (not a freezer) for around 40 days should help bulb formation in tropical areas. Once chilled, the cloves can be planted as usual during the coldest months of December and January.
If you love deep, intense flavor, plant hardneck garlic! Hardneck varieties are revered for their bold, rich, and complex flavors. These are a culinary delight because they engage a wide range of taste buds, from an initial spicy burst to a mellow earthiness and well-rounded pungent muskiness that complements nearly any cuisine.
While flavor profiles vary dramatically between cultivars, hardnecks are all-around more intricate in the character and strength of their flavors. For example, ‘Music’ is hot and aromatic, while ‘German Porcelain’ is pungent and mellow when cooked. ‘Chesnok Red’ is balanced and rich, yet not overpowering, while ‘Metechi’ is a super spicy in-your-face punch of flavor.
The individual cloves of hardneck garlic are noticeably different from softnecks. They are larger and easier to peel than softnecks, with thinner wrappers. These types have fewer cloves per bulb, ranging from 4-12 plump cloves per head.
They may be white to cream-colored to purple-blushed and are easy to prepare in the kitchen. The larger cloves are arranged in a single circle around the central woody stem.
Hardneck garlic is the most cold-hardy category, thanks to its close genetic relationship to wild ancestors. Even far northern gardeners can grow these varieties if the cloves are in the ground at least 2 to 4 weeks before the first frost.
Hardneck types sprout roots in the fall and then go dormant through the winter. Green sprouts emerge in the spring, and the stiff central stalk grows upward like a mini trunk.
Scapes are the distinguishing characteristic of hardneck garlic. This pliable curly stalk usually forms at the top-center of the plant around early June through July. It is thicker than the leaves and resembles a curled scallion but denser.
This scape is the precursor to flower formation. It is very important to pick off the scapes because leaving them will cause the plant to fully “bolt” (go to seed), which may hinder bulb maturation.
The incredible smooth-buttery, oniony flavor of scapes ensures you’ll never miss out on harvesting them! When the scape begins to curl, you can snap it off and use it in the kitchen, like garlic cloves or onions. Scape pesto, chopped scape garnishes, and pickled scapes are just a few ways to savor this special treat before the bulbs are ready to harvest.
Despite their tremendous flavor, ease of peeling, and delicious scape production, hardnecks have a downside: they don’t store as well as softnecks.
Because the wrappers are thinner, the bulbs don’t usually last longer than 1-2 months at room temperature and 4-6 months in cool, dark conditions. They may rot sooner if improperly cured.
This is why you don’t often see hardneck varieties in grocery stores. It is less likely to be stored and shipped across the country because the heads may succumb to rot before they get sold. However, you can make hardnecks last even longer if kept in a cool, dark, dry place in a refrigerator.
The diversity of hardneck garlic is always growing, but certain heirloom lines are easily preserved thanks to vegetative propagation. Garlic “seed” is not a true seed, but rather cloves used to asexually clone the plants. They produce identical offspring to the parent bulb.
Many growers save seed the biggest, best cloves each year to replant in their garden, creating a passive breeding project that selects for the best bulbs. As long as you constantly plant the tastiest, largest, most well-wrapped hardneck cloves, you will create your own strain perfectly adapted to your garden over the course of many years.
But first, you need to start with seed garlic from a reliable, disease-free source, like the Epic Gardening Store! Some of the most popular hardneck varieties include:
- ‘Music’: My personal favorite, this cultivar has extra-large, easy-peel cloves with a rich, balanced flavor.
- ‘Porcelain’: These satiny white bulbs are beautiful with giant cloves (about 4 per head).
- ‘German Extra Hardy’: Among the most cold-hardy garlic, it produces large heads of 5-8 purple-tinted white cloves.
- ‘Chesnok Red’: The beautiful striped skins of this cold-hardy variety are known for their fine flavor and smooth texture that is ideal for roasting.
What is Softneck Garlic?
Softneck garlic is the most common commercially available, with plentiful cloves that are smaller in size and last longer in storage than hardneck types. These are the classic white garlics you most often see in grocery stores.
They do not produce scapes and grow pliable, soft stems that are sometimes braided. Botanically known as Allium sativum var. sativum, softneck garlic varieties do not require prolonged cold exposure to form bulbs, making them ideal for southern gardens.
If you live in a warm, southern climate, softneck garlic is usually the best option. These types are adapted to warmer winters because they don’t need extensive vernalization (chill periods) to produce bulbs. Still, softneck types may benefit from a couple of weeks of refrigeration before planting in subtropical and tropical climates in zones 9 and warmer.
Softneck garlic is more versatile and less intense in the kitchen. The flavor is milder, sweet, and straightforward compared to the rich complexities of hardnecks. This is ideal for anyone who enjoys a subtler taste widely complementary to different dishes and cuisines.
The cloves of softneck bulbs are smaller and more plentiful. You get many more cloves per bulb than with hardneck garlic, ranging from 8-20 cloves in a single softneck bulb.
The cloves are arranged in concentric circles around the central soft stem. These cloves are harder to peel because they have more wrappers. They are generally used in recipes that call for crushed or finely minced garlic.
Softneck garlics have (shocker!) softer necks. The stems of softnecks are more pliable yet still upright. The plants look similar to leeks when growing, and they do not produce a scape. This is nice for anyone who forgets to check on their garlic midsummer or doesn’t enjoy the flavor of scapes.
When dried, softneck stems lose their turgidity and become extra soft, making them perfect for braids. Garlic braids are a pretty, convenient way to store garlic through the winter. I like to hang one in my kitchen for easy access while cooking, but keep the rest of the braids in a cool, dry place like a root cellar, unheated garage, or refrigerator.
If you want to eat garlic all year long, softnecks have the longest storage life. When properly cured and stored in cool, dry conditions, it can last for 6-12 months.
This is partially due to the plentiful skin wrappers that help preserve the cloves from rot. This type is most often distributed through commercial supermarkets.
Softneck garlics are easy to find and can be passively selected specifically for your garden, just like your hardneck cloves. The key is always to save and plant the largest, most densely wrapped cloves so you don’t end up with bulbs of a million tiny, hard-to-peel cloves.
Popular softnecks include:
- ‘Inchelium Red’: Well-adapted to the south, yet hardy enough for northern winters. The lavender-skinned cloves have a mild flavor and are perfect for braids.
- ‘Early Italian’: This early harvest softneck matures in just 90 days and tolerates summer heat.
- ‘California White’: Similar to classic grocery store garlic, this variety is popular in Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana for year-round storage.
- ‘Nootka Rose’: Larger softneck heads with strong flavor and pink-splashed skins that still mature in intense summers.
The nuances between softneck and hardneck garlic may seem confusing, but your climate and culinary preferences usually choose for you:
- If you live in an area with cold winters and enjoy strong flavors, grow hardnecks.
- If you live in an area with hot summers and mild winters, grow softnecks.
- If you are willing to chill your garlic for a few months before planting, you can grow either type in a hot climate if you plant in the coolest part of the year.
- If you want year-round storage, grow softnecks.
- If you want the easiest-to-peel, biggest cloves, grow hardnecks.