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?
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 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 resembling bamboo. The plant is grown for its roots which are really modified stems called rhizomes. You may have seen these knobby rhizomes in grocery stores where spices are sold.
Ginger was first cultivated in China and spread to Europe via the Silk Road. The first known recipe for gingerbread was in Greece in 2400 BC. Chinese developed recipes in the 10th century. 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.
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.
Gingerbread houses originated in Germany in the 16th century. These too were decorated 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 dried ginger rhizomes and ground ginger, you can also grow ginger as a plant. It takes about 8 months for the plant to develop the rhizomes so in this area, you have to start the rhizomes indoors in early spring.
Last year, in 2020, I read Adria Bordas’ experience growing ginger in Northern Virginia on Facebook. Adria, a horticulture extension agent with the Fairfax County Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, bought three ginger rhizomes from a grocery store in March and harvested 5 pounds of ginger in November. It sounded easy and I was inspired to try this the following year.
In March 2021, I bought dried ginger from a local Asian supermarket and soaked them in water for a day. I then planted them vertically, not flat, in small plastic containers. I planted one rhizome per container, about 2 inches deep. I used potting mix formulated for indoor houseplants.
In mid-May, after the risk of frost had passed, I moved them to an extremely large plastic tub that was left over from a tree we purchased. This tub was large enough that I planted three ginger plants into one tub that received morning sun and late afternoon shade. Although it did receive rain, I watered the ginger plants when there was a dry spell with a hose.
The plants flourished and grew to about 4 feet tall. In late November, I cut the foliage and dug up the rhizomes. I did not weigh the total amount, but it was several pounds, more than enough for my family of four.
I hosed off the soil for the photo below and plan to clean even more with an old sponge or toothbrush. I have several recipes I would like to try with fresh ginger: gingerbread, ginger syrup (maybe with lemonade or hot tea and spices), ginger in banana bread, which we make all the time with the old bananas, and ginger with chicken or salmon. Gingerbread cookies are another possibility, but I have to find the cookie cutters.
Ginger can be used fresh, dried and powdered, or pickled. Fresh, unpeeled ginger can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 weeks or stored in the freezer, whole, peeled and sliced, or as a paste. The rhizomes can be stored in a dry, cool location, much like potatoes.
I highly recommend growing ginger. The ginger rhizomes could be planted in the ground or a large container so even those with limited space can grow them. For the amount you harvest and the excellent fresh taste, it is well worth the few bucks to purchase rhizomes from the supermarket. Plus, it is an excellent children’s activity, especially if you find those cookie cutters!
Ornamental gingers are common in Southern Callifornia, but culinary gingers are surprisingly difficult to procure. I finally just got some that was sold for culinary purposes at the supermarket. I suppose that I could find more specific cultivars online.