Garlic 101

How To Buy and Cook With Garlic

Garlic 101

How To Buy and Cook With Garlic

Cooking With Garlic

Garlic is most commonly cooked as an aromatic ingredient. It's a steady presence in almost every world cuisine and is often added at the start of a dish, along with a mirepoix of celery, onions and carrots. Some cuisines use it more aggressively, as in much of Asian cooking, where garlic can be dominant in sauces.

But garlic can also be the main event.  A whole chicken can be roasted with a pile-up of unpeeled garlic cloves, producing a fragrant flavor -- see our recipe for Roast Chicken With Forty Cloves of Garlic.  We've also added our own recipes for a favorite big flavor Caesar Salad, very simple Roasted Garlic, and also the versatile Garlic Confit, using a method used by professional kitchens that's easy to bring into your own.

The next time you make a leg of lamb or a simple pork or beef roast, consider adding a couple of garlic heads to the roasting pan or alongside in a baking dish, drizzled with a little olive oil.  Your kitchen will smell heavenly and every flavor will be better.


What is the typical head of garlic we see in our produce stores?

Garlic, or allium sativum, is a flavoring that goes back to antiquity and today is essential to nearly all cuisines. In our modern stores, we usually find two to three-inch bulbs that contain about a dozen individual cloves. There are two common types of garlic: "soft neck" with a fibrous stem that dries into a grass-like top that can be braided -- sometimes you see these braided chains of garlic heads hanging in a store or in a restaurant; and "hard neck" that has a long, hard central stem surrounded by firm and intensely flavored cloves. What most of us usually buy is hard neck garlic.

For more information about the different kinds of garlic, including garlic scapes, braids, and green garlic, visit Rickertville Garlic Farm, a family-owned farm in Newaygo, Michigan.  When in season, they also sell their crops and related products from their website.  See the link below.

What is elephant garlic? Is it bigger in flavor as well as size?

Just the opposite. Elephant garlic is in fact more closely related to a leek. It may look like a gargantuan head of garlic but in fact has a very mild garlic flavor and a texture that's more like a potato.

Does garlic have a season?

No. It's available year-round, although sometimes what's in our stores has been in storage for several months. If you're shopping at a greenmarket during the height of the harvest and find just-picked garlic, pounce because you'll find its flavor is more pronounced and interesting. Some young, fresh garlic has an almost wet, sticky texture -- much like a water chestnut or radish.

When facing a bin full of garlic heads, how do I know which to choose?

Choose ones that are large, plump-looking, firm, and with cloves that are tightly in place. Avoid ones that appear dried out or with brown marks. The exterior of the bulbs will be pale white or gray and have a paper-like skin. In some markets the garlic may appear to be more pink.

What about those plastic containers filled with peeled cloves?

Peeling garlic cloves is a tedious task and it's tempting to buy a jar of ones that are ready-peeled. These have had their skin removed by a blast of air. It's likely that this garlic has lost part of its flavor just by being peeled and being exposed to air. Also, if you do buy this kind of garlic, examine it carefully to make sure it has no mold or shriveling. Keep in mind that it's always harder to confirm the origins of our food when it's been extensively prepared and handled; in this case, who knows where this garlic was originally grown? I personally never buy pre-peeled garlic.

What about jars of pre-minced garlic?

If I can convince you of nothing else about garlic except to never buy that stuff then I will be a success. This minced, crushed, pasted and flavored garlic has been sitting in oil in these little glass containers for who knows how long (seems like a happy place for bacteria). You have absolutely no idea how it's been processed or where the original garlic came from or how it was grown. You also don't know if it's been bleached before being put in the jar or what kind of chemicals have been added to keep the little bits pale yellow. Much of the mass produced commercial garlic sold in the country is actually grown in China and southeast Asia.

For an ingredient that I use almost every day, I want to make best efforts to get something that has been grown if not locally, at least in California or Michigan.  Please instead take the extra five minutes and mince your own. If using jarred garlic has become a habit, breaking it will make you feel triumphant and will remind you why you cook.

Still unconvinced and you still want the convenience of having a jar of minced garlic ready in your refrigerator? Then make your own. Peel a dozen or so fresh garlic cloves and mince either in a food processor or by hand with a chef's knife. Store along with some canola or olive oil, refrigerated in a tightly sealed jar. It will keep for about a week.

How should I store garlic? Should I refrigerate it?

Many home cooks recommend refrigerating garlic but I find that it changes the texture and causes it to quickly become soft. And when garlic becomes soft, usually from excess moisture, it slices differently and cooks differently. I recommend keeping garlic out on the counter, perhaps sitting in a small bowl or basket (I keep mine in a counter-top ceramic bowl along with shallots and onions). Also, try not to buy your garlic too far in advance of when you think you'll use it; that way it will still be perfectly fresh when you cook with it.

What about that little green stem that sometimes appears inside the garlic clove? Should I cut it out?

That sprout is called the germ.  It won't hurt you nor really harm the flavor of whatever you're cooking. But since that little green stem is a sign that the garlic clove is sprouting, it's a sign that your garlic is old. This doesn't mean it is in any way spoiled, but the older the clove, the less flavor it will have.

Some say that the germ has a bitter taste but I find that unless you're using the garlic raw or barely cooked, it makes no difference to include it.  If all you have is a sprouting clove, go ahead and use it.  If this is aesthetics and you don't like the look of the green stem, by all means, cut it out.

I see fancy French garlic and smoked garlic and other exotic varieties in my produce market. Should I try these?

Why not? If you are adventuresome, are a garlic lover, and want to use garlic to enhance the flavor of what you're cooking, there's no way to tell unless you buy and try an ingredient for yourself. There are nearly 200 varieties of garlic and whenever you have choices in ingredients, it's a way to add interest to your food. As an example, I love pink French garlic when I can find it because it has a brighter, more forward garlic taste. But is it worth the extra price? Well, I only buy it when garlic is a major ingredient in whatever I'm making and don't spend the extra cost for my everyday cooking. The other less common garlic I've tried is recently harvested local garlic that's available at Greenmarkets during the summer which has a really special and happily aggressive flavor.

What's the best way to peel garlic?

You need to first separate the cloves and this can be done either by pulling them off one by one or else by hitting the whole head of garlic against a countertop so that it breaks apart, thus making it easier to separate all the cloves.

When it comes to peeling the individual cloves, there's no secret to making it easier but here are three helpful methods:

What about those tube-like garlic peelers that are sold in kitchenware stores?

I'm generally gadget-phobic and in my experience with these devices, they add no time saving and create a mess. The principle is logical -- to use the sock-like tube to rub off the papery skin. But a version by Oxo is made from silicone and includes its own ventilated little box to hold the tube when it's not in use, preventing all the bits of papery skin from littering your drawer -- this one works brilliantly with far less of the mess.  But with a little practice, the knife method can be almost as fast, eliminating the need for one more gadget.

What about a garlic press?

This is a bit of a controversy. A garlic press does is as its name suggests: it pushes the pulp of the garlic clove through tiny holes so to make a paste. In doing so it also releases the oils in the clove. Someone who really knows her garlic -- Italian culinary queen Marcella Hazan -- refuses to use a garlic press saying that it mushes the garlic, leaving it without any surfaces to cook. She prefers to slice or mince a garlic because by cutting it (instead of crushing it), each piece continues to have a surface that can take heat, and thus cook better and add more flavor. She also says that releasing the oil when you crush it disturbs the flavor.

I've experimented with both methods and find that sliced or minced garlic indeed adds better flavor (nuttier and less bitter) than one put through a press. Yes, it takes longer to mince but for a couple of minutes extra effort, the result is usually worth it. 

A third way to add garlic to a recipe is to grate it on a Microplane rasper.  The result is similar to what you get from a garlic press but it's faster to do and faster to clean.  You have to peel the clove first and watch out for the tips of your fingers.

Tip: If you want garlic paste, here's a technique I learned in culinary school: Peel 3 or 4 garlic cloves, and using a chef's knife, repeatedly mince until you can't make the pieces any smaller. Still on your cutting board, gather up the pieces of finely minced garlic into a small pile and add a large pinch of kosher or sea salt. This will add traction and surface. Using the side of your chef's knife, pass the knife over the pile of salted garlic bits, crushing them as you slide the body of the knife's blade over the garlic. Repeat until you produce a paste-like result.

Is it true that garlic keeps vampires away?

I've been cooking with garlic for as long as I've had a kitchen and I haven't seen a vampire yet so maybe it's true.






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