Garlic — How to tame it

If you cook from scratch much, I suspect you have used garlic in something within the last week or so. It is just one of those ingredients that is a “must have” for your pantry and is used in many different savory applications. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to discuss garlic, what it is and how to use it.

Garlic is a member of the lily family and is a cousin to onions, leeks, shallots & chives. The part we eat is actually the bulb (termed a head) made up of multiple cloves. What we do with those cloves can greatly affect the resulting flavor of the garlic.

First, let’s start with the germ of the clove, that small inner part of the clove. Should you remove it? The answer is “perhaps”. If your garlic is young, there is probably no need to remove the germ. If the garlic head is older, then the germ may give your dish an unpleasant and pungent flavor. In that case, it is best to remove. The problem comes in knowing whether your garlic is old or not. Even though you can buy garlic year-round, it is seasonal with harvests occurring from late summer to late fall. If you grow your own garlic or if you buy from a farmer’s market where you can ask the grower, it is simple to tell how old the garlic is. If you get your garlic from the supermarket, you do not know but you can be pretty assured that it is old if you are buying it in the winter or spring. You can also do a visual inspection but you have to open a clove. If the germ is barely visible, it is on the younger side. As the garlic matures, that germ also grows and becomes very visible. If in doubt and you are concerned about an overpowering and harsh garlic flavor, remove the germ.

Something else that affects garlic’s flavor is how you cut it. As you cut a garlic clove, cells are damaged causing a chemical reaction that produces compounds that we associate with the odor & taste of garlic. The more cell damage that occurs, the more intense the odor and flavor. Therefore, the smaller you cut up garlic, the more intense it will be. Grating it produces the most intense product. As one culinary expert puts it, “a single whole clove will deliver less intensity than a crushed one, a crushed clove will be milder than a sliced clove, and a sliced one isn’t as pungent as a chopped or pureed one—the more cells we rupture when cutting garlic, the more potent it is.”

Cooking the garlic will help tame its pungency. However, this does depend on how long it is cooked. If you cook it briefly, you will probably still notice the flavor differences that result from your cutting method. The longer the dish is cooked, the less noticeable the differences in cutting techniques will be. Roasting whole heads in the oven produce a tender and even sweet product. Experts also say that cooking the garlic in butter will lead to a milder flavor than cooking it in vegetable oil.

Using acid will also produce milder garlic flavors. For example, pureeing the garlic with lemon juice produces garlic with good flavor but it will be fairly mellow. Or, allowing the garlic to soak in vinegar for a minute and then proceeding to add it to your vinaigrette will result in a milder garlic flavor than just throwing the garlic in without this step.

Another chef recommends just washing your garlic in a bowl of lukewarm water after slicing or chopping it. After removing it from the water, dry it and then continue with your recipe. A further step is blanching it in boiling water or milk before shocking it in ice water before using it. Cooks Illustrated says that just microwaving for 2-3 minutes or until warm to the touch is another effective method. For these methods to work, the garlic’s temperature must rise to or above 140°F.

What about those bottles of garlic? Sure, they are convenient but are they worth it? Health experts say that any supposed health benefits are greatly reduced in the bottled versions. As far as flavor, fresh will taste – well, fresher. How you are using the garlic may help you decide whether to use fresh or bottled. If it is in an uncooked or lightly cooked dish, opt for raw. If you are making something that is going to cook or simmer for a while, the bottled will probably suffice.

Not everyone likes the taste of garlic. It is an essential ingredient, though, for many dishes. I trust that the above information will help you adjust the intensity of the aroma and flavor to your liking.