Spicy Thai Lime-Ginger Soup
Photo: Ditte Isager
Wherever you dream of going to escape February's dark days, chances are, ginger belongs there, too. High on snowy peaks, fresh-baked gingerbread is as cozy as a blanket. Down in the balmy Caribbean, gingery stews and brews are dished up nightly. And all across the Pacific basin, cool, refreshing ginger turns up in dishes from pad thai to sushi.

Menu: Get 6 delicious ginger recipes

But for now, let's pull on our wool-lined boots and head to the supermarket instead. Gingerroot (actually an underground stem, or rhizome) appears on the shelves in many guises: as pale gold powder, damp pink slices, sculptural knobs, bubbly beverages. The spice rack is the best place to find ginger powder, the mainstay of baked goods like coffee cakes and molasses cookies. This dried and pulverized form of ginger has been at home in Western kitchens far longer than the fresh kind. The medieval English and French were nuts about it; nearly every existing recipe from that age, whether for sausage or candy, calls for dried ginger. Drying intensifies the rhizome's heat, so ginger in this form packs the biggest kick.

If you swing by the Asian foods aisle, you'll find the youngest, mildest ginger available—pickled ginger. Harvested when just six months old and sold presliced in jars, it's best known as sushi's arm candy.

To root out whole ginger, head over to the produce department and select stems with thin, smooth skin and a lemony, woodsy scent. Though fresh, this ginger is not exactly young—indeed, the tough fibers you encounter when you try to chop or grate it are signs of its maturity. Cutting against the grain with a sharp knife reduces the stringiness. Keep chopping to release its full taste—the more surface area you expose, the more flavor will emerge. And cook fresh ginger briefly, if at all; the longer it's cooked, the less intense it becomes.

Last stop: the beverage aisle. As anyone who's reached for a bottle of ginger ale to combat queasiness instinctively knows, ginger is easy on the stomach. Corinne Trang, author of Essentials of Asian Cuisine, recalls her Chinese grandmother whipping up a soup of sweet potato and ginger when she was feeling under the weather as a child. A more modern concoction—boiled Coke (!) infused with ginger slices—is a popular remedy in Beijing.

Science has borne out this folk wisdom; in one clinical trial, powdered ginger was more effective than Dramamine at alleviating motion sickness. Gingerol is the chemical compound thought to be responsible for this nausea-quelling trait; it's related to the molecule capsaicin, which gives peppers their heat. Gingerol can also literally warm you up: Alpine skiers used to sprinkle it in their socks to help keep their feet toasty.

Warming yet refreshing, spicy yet nice to stomachs: Ginger is full of contradictions. It's what you'd expect from a knob of buried sunshine. Ginger begins its life rooted in the dark, cold earth, but once it arrives in your kitchen, this feisty stem can take you almost anywhere.