Few plants attract such polarizing opinions as garlic. Whether you consider it a delectable flavor or a rambunctious stink bomb, garlic is used almost universally in the world’s cuisines. Garlic is the most pungent member of the large Allium family, which gives us such kitchen favorites as onions, leeks,
shallots, and chives.
Garlic, as most of us know, is actually the plant’s mature bulb, which consists of numerous cloves clustered around a central stem. The very young, tender shoots, stems, and flower buds that emerge from sprouting cloves in early spring are sold as “green garlic,” “scapes,” or “whistles.” They are a fleeting favorite in farmers markets in early spring.
Garlic is classified as either hardneck or softneck, and literally hundreds of heirloom varieties exist, with bulbs whose personalities range from soft and mellow to very spicy and pungent. Hardnecks produce flower spikes, tend to be mild in flavor, grow well in northern climates, contain 6 to 11 cloves per bulb, and can be stored for 3 to 6 months. Softneck varieties (sometimes known as braiding garlic) usually lack flower spikes, have a spicier taste, thrive in warmer climates, contain 12 to 20 cloves per bulb, and can be stored up to a year. The papery white garlic bulbs you see at your grocery store are usually softnecks.
One thing is certain, however: Over the ages, garlic has been both adored and shunned, and whether you were a garlic lover or hater often depended on your socioeconomic standing and geographical location. Southern Europeans, especially in Italy and France, practically lived on it, whereas northern Europeans found it quite distasteful. The Greeks treated it as an important vegetable in its own right, and Egyptian pyramid builders ate it as part of their food rations. Garlic was probably brought to America from the Old World by the Spaniards, but Native Americans likely had been consuming their own native wild garlic for centuries.
Garlic is legendary for its nutritional and medicinal benefits, which humans have been employing for hundreds of years. The sulfurous compounds that give garlic its characteristic odor also have healthful benefits, especially allicin, which is released in greater amounts when the garlic is chopped or mashed rather than left whole. Regular garlic consumption may lower blood pressure and reduce the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques and the incidence of certain cancers. Both garlic and onions contain significant anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, even against antibiotic-resistant strains. Garlic is also a good source of manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin C, tryptophan, and selenium. A single teaspoon contains 4 calories.
Commercially, garlic is widely grown and in season year-round. But it is typically at its best from late July through early winter. Cured garlic (garlic that is partially dried for long-term storage) is often a significant part of many winter CSAs.
Choose bulbs that are fresh, dry, and plump, with unbroken skins. Squeeze the bulbs lightly to check that they are firm, with no large gaps beneath the skin, which could mean shriveled, dehydrated garlic well past its prime. Garlic that is beginning to sprout green shoots is still edible, but it is not the most ideal for culinary purposes. If you have kids, try planting it in the backyard or in a large pot—a fun exercise in gardening!
Keep garlic in the refrigerator or continue to cure it by storing it in a dry, dark, well-ventilated place. Moisture and light will trigger the bulb to sprout. Although sprouting garlic is still edible, it tends to be bitter and less digestible. Whole garlic bulbs can keep from 2 weeks to several months, depending on the variety and storage conditions. They will also keep quite well in a basement, root cellar, or other place with the proper cool temperature and lack of humidity.
Trimming and Cleaning
Before you can use garlic, you must first separate and peel the cloves from the bulb, unless you plan to roast the bulbs whole. To peel, place the clove flat side down on a hard surface, then firmly press or rock the blade of a wide knife against the clove to split the skin. Then you can use either your fingers or a smaller knife to peel it off. Sometimes peeling the cloves is easier if the very tips from both ends are sliced off.
Allicin Lives Here After All
The compound that gives garlic its pungency (and many of its health benefits) is allicin, which whole garlic does not actually contain. What forms it is alliin and the enzyme allinase, which garlic stores in different cells. When the garlic clove is crushed, these compounds combine to form allicin. Waiting a few minutes after chopping, mashing, or crushing garlic before cooking with it increases the allicin production, and also its characteristic flavor.
If at all possible, avoid using garlic powder or dried garlic granules. These forms of garlic often have an unpleasantly acrid, metallic taste, and they can also worsen digestion and bad breath. Stick to using fresh garlic whenever possible!
A word about garlic presses and gadgets: Some work very well, and others are a waste of money. If you regularly prepare garlic in large quantities, investing in a good-quality press or peeler can be worth it. One major caveat: You can’t press garlic and then let it sit in the air, waiting for cooking to happen. If you do so, its sulfurous gases will go to town and the whole kitchen gets stinky. What does work is to press your cloves directly into your sauté pan or other cooking vessel (thus into the warming oil), so the pureed garlic doesn’t come into as much contact with the air. Likewise, you can press it directly into, say, the vinaigrette you’re making, or into hot pasta.
Steaming and Boiling
Peeled garlic cloves can be dropped either whole or sliced into soups, stews, or other cooked dishes. The degree of garlic flavor you want dictates the cooking time and how finely sliced the cloves are; the longer garlic cooks, the more mellow and less pungent it will be in the finished dish. Finely chopped or mashed garlic will taste much stronger than unbroken cloves. Whole garlic cloves require about 20 to 25 minutes of rapid boiling to become a mild, sweet vegetable.
Stir-Frying and Sautéing
Garlic is delicious stir-fried and sautéed, but care must be taken so it does not burn, or it turns unpleasantly bitter. Always use plenty of cooking oil or butter when stir-frying or sautéing garlic; chicken broth can also be used when the pan becomes too dry or if you are watching calories. Warm up a wok or frying pan over medium-high heat, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of oil, add the chopped fresh garlic, and stir-fry for about 1 minute, or until it becomes fragrant, before adding the rest of your ingredients.
Baking and Roasting
Garlic responds wonderfully to slow-roasting in the oven, losing its ornery pungency to become a sweet and mellow creature. You can easily prepare a whole bulb by cutting off its top (the pointed end) to expose the cloves and then placing the head in a baking dish or wrapping it in aluminum foil. Sprinkle with olive oil or butter, if desired, then bake at 350°F for about an hour. When it’s done, gently squeeze the soft, roasted garlic directly onto toasted French bread, or scoop out the flesh with a knife and spread over the food of your choice. Delicious!
Passable roasted garlic can be prepared in the microwave: Just cut off the tips from whole garlic heads and put the heads, along with 1⁄3 cup of chicken broth and 3 tablespoons of olive oil, into a microwave-safe dish (glass absorbs fewer odors than plastic). Cover tightly with microwave-approved plastic wrap and cook on high power for 6 to 8 minutes. Let stand, covered, for 10 minutes, and peel the cloves after they have cooled.
To microwave peeled garlic, place cloves in a microwave-safe glass dish with enough chicken broth or water to submerge them. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and microwave on high power for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the garlic is soft.
Fun Fact: Restaurants in Korea serve raw garlic cloves in bowls for munching, like peanuts. This habit may partly account for why Koreans have the highest garlic consumption per capita in the world (a whopping 22 pounds annually, compared with the US average of about 2.5 pounds).
Blanching and Freezing
Garlic can be frozen, although this method can affect its flavor. Since garlic is almost always available raw and its taste is far superior fresh, freezing garlic is not recommended. Still, if you want to preserve an abundant harvest or a specialty type that spoils easily, you can freeze unpeeled whole cloves in a zipper-lock freezer or vacuum food sealer-type bags. Squeeze out any excess air. Garlic frozen this way will keep for up to 3 months at 0°F. You can then simply prepare the number of cloves you need by peeling them, then pureeing or chopping them in a food processor with a bit of oil. Use this garlic immediately; do not store it at room temperature because of the possibility of botulism contamination.
Equivalents, Measures, and Servings
1 small clove = 1⁄2 teaspoon minced = 1⁄8 teaspoon garlic powder
1 large clove = 11⁄2 teaspoons minced = 1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 head = 8 to 15 cloves
Complementary Herbs, Seasonings, and Foods
Beans, beef, beets, bread, butter, cabbage, chicken, eggplant, eggs, fish, ginger, greens, hot pepper, lamb, lentils, mayonnaise, mushrooms, olive oil, onions, pasta, pesto, pork, potatoes, poultry, rice, rosemary, sesame, shellfish, soy sauce, spinach, tomatoes, veal, vegetables, zucchini.
Puree fresh garlic, canned garbanzo beans (chickpeas), tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice to make hummus, that classic Middle Eastern dip. Serve with pita bread, naan, or fresh raw vegetables such as baby carrots, celery, radishes, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Sauté thinly sliced or chopped garlic cloves with steamed spinach and sprinkle with red pepper flakes.
Roast garlic in a fragrant nut oil, then add to your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. It might sound horrid, but garlic after it has been roasted loses its pungency; it gives the cookies a savor that is noticeable but not garlicky. Don’t tell anyone—see if they can guess the secret ingredient.
Add garlic to sauces, soups, stews, and casseroles.
Insert thin slivers of garlic and sprigs of fresh herbs directly into meat or under the skin of poultry to be roasted.
Top your favorite pizza with very thin slices of garlic. A must for garlic lovers, not so for garlic haters!
Add garlic to your favorite pesto, marinade, and salsa recipes.
Pickle whole garlic cloves in soy sauce or vinegar.
Add finely chopped garlic and fresh herbs to ground beef for out-of-this-world hamburgers, meat loaf, and meatballs.
Roast whole garlic bulbs, then squeeze them and spread the resulting paste onto slices of thick-cut French or sourdough bread instead of butter.
Sprinkle vegetables that will be oven-roasted, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, onions, and carrots, with a combination of olive oil, chopped garlic, fresh herbs, and salt and pepper.
Stage a garlic-themed dinner. If you’re going to wreck your breath, you
might as well go all out. Invite like-minded friends and family.
Make garlic bread! Toast slices of French baguette or Italian bread in an oven broiler, toaster oven, or regular oven, then rub cut cloves of garlic over the bread. The rough surface of the bread acts like a grater on the garlic.
Caesar salad is one of the best things that ever happened to lettuce, anchovies, and garlic.
In Spain, a very popular soup is made from just water, garlic cloves, and bread—the venerable sopa de ajo.
Make aïoli, the classic garlic mayonnaise. It is delicious with vegetables, salads, meats, or anywhere a light, creamy garlic flavor is desired.
From Bounty from the Box: The CSA Farm Cookbook, by Mi Ae Lipe
Highland Orchards Farm Market, is a small, family-owned and operated farm in northern Delaware, established 1832. We grow fruits and vegetables without synthetic chemicals or pesticides. We sell our produce through our farm market located on the farm, through our CSA program, and at two farmers’ markets in Philadelphia. Real food, a real farm, for people who really like to eat!