When we think of gingerbread, we think of breads, cakes, and little edible men. But what is gingerbread really? Where does the “ginger” come from? Is this something we can grow here in the DC metro area? To celebrate National Gingerbread Cookie Day today, let’s explore ginger the spice plant.
The term “gingerbread” is from Latin “zingiber” via Old French “gingebras,” referring to preserved ginger. The term “zingiber” is derived from Greek “zingiberis” which comes from the Sanskrit name of the spice “singabera.”
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is an herbaceous perennial plant native to southeastern Asia. The plant can grow up to 4 feet tall and has sharp, thin leaves. The plant is grown for its roots which are really modified stems called rhizomes. You may have seen these knobby rhizomes in grocery stores in the produce section.
Ginger was first cultivated in China and spread to Europe via the Silk Road. In medieval England, gingerbread meant preserved ginger and was not applied to desserts until the 15th century. Ginger was the most common spice in medieval Europe, after pepper.
Making gingerbread cookies in the shape of people is credited to Queen Elizabeth I who had them made to resemble and to serve to visiting foreign dignitaries. These became so popular that baking gingerbread cookies in the shapes of people and animals became a staple at European medieval fairs. Over time, the festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs and the cookies were called fairings.
From gingerbread figures it was inevitable that the next step would be to build gingerbread houses. Gingerbread houses originated in Germany in the 16th century and are just large, rectangular-shaped cookies “glued” together with frosting. These are highly decorated with sweets and became associated with Christmas tradition. As German immigrants settled in America the tradition continued particularly with the Pennsylvania Germans.
In the United States, the first known recipes for gingerbread are in the American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796). These were in loaf form because molasses, which was less expensive than sugar, produced a softer cake or loaf. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, served her recipe for gingerbread to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her in Fredericksburg, Virginia. During the American revolutionary war, soldiers received ginger in their food rations.
Gingerbread now refers to baked goods made with ginger and other spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon and sweetened with honey, sugar, or molasses. Gingerbread can be a loaf, cake, cookie (soft), or biscuit (hard like ginger snaps or gingerbread men).
Although you can buy ginger rhizomes and ground ginger at the store, you can also grow ginger. It takes about 8 months for the plant to develop the rhizomes for harvest so in the DC metro area, one has to begin indoors in the early spring.
Adria Bordas, horticulture extension agent with the Fairfax County Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, recently posted her experiences on Facebook. She bought three ginger rhizomes from a grocery store in March and harvested 5 pounds of ginger in November.
“Ginger does better if you soak the rhizomes in water before you plant them. This method re-hydrates them and removes any chemicals that prohibit sprouting,” she said. After soaking overnight, Adria planted her rhizomes in a small container with a light potting mix called pro-mix.
“Plant so the rhizomes are vertical, not flat, so sprouts shoot up. It can take 2 weeks before you see sprouts so don’t get discouraged.” Adria planted hers about 2 inches deep. Because she had a skylight in her living room, she was able to position the container to receive enough light and warmth. In May, she re-planted them outside in a 20-inch container with pro-mix and a little bit of compost.
“They do better in part shade than full sun,” she said. “The only amendment I added was Bumper Crop in the summer.”
From her three rhizomes, Adria harvested 5 pounds of fresh ginger in November. Already she has made gingerbread with fresh grated ginger and banana bread with ginger. She is thinking of making a ginger syrup and highly recommends chicken, garlic, and ginger on the grill. “I just use a cheese grater or a kitchen plane to shred the ginger but I have found that if I freeze them first and then grate, it is much easier.”
Ginger can be stored in a dry, cool location as is or it can be frozen, either whole, peeled and sliced, or as a paste. Fresh, unpeeled ginger can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. Ginger can also be dried and powdered.
After hearing about Adria’s experience, I have been inspired to start growing ginger in March indoors. I will just buy a few rhizomes at the local grocery store and hopefully, this time next year, I will have fresh ginger to make gingerbread cookies for National Gingerbread Cookie Day in November 2021.