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Mastering Garlic in the Kitchen
Learn how to control the strong flavor of garlic in your cooking with these helpful, professional tips.
It’s a key element in old and new recipes. Whether it’s Asian-inspired recipes or Moroccan tagines... Tex-Mex or traditional Italian sauces...classic French or modernist interpretations of just about anything, garlic often shows up near the top of ingredient lists.
But garlic can be controversial, and some people avoid it as it may cause digestive discomfort. Moreover, it is common for people to avoid consuming garlic in social settings because of its...well...pungent side effects that hover in the air.
Fortunately, there are ways to tame garlic’s assertive behavior...and it’s not that difficult.
The first step in mastering garlic in the kitchen is understanding how garlic changes and intensifies during the year. Once you get over that hurdle, making cooking and preparation choices in recipes becomes easier.
Commercial garlic is generally planted during the early fall months. It is harvested and dried about 8-9 months later, making late spring or early summer the optimal time to enjoy abundant amounts of mild-flavored garlic. Fresh garlic bulbs are often sold without being dried - an especially mild variation during the spring or early summer. Green garlic resembles a small leek – green stalks and small bulbous root ends. It is highly aromatic and mild tasting.
Summer is the season when mature heads of garlic are the tastiest – it’s a great time to use garlic generously – even excessively. By autumn, garlic begins to transform and develop harsher characteristics. This is when those little green sprouts form in the center of each clove, and the heads start to shrink and dry. The sprouting green bit is not so biting, but it does tell a story – sprouting garlic is a sign of bitter and pungent notes in the clove – use these cloves, with or without the green bit, in moderation. The cold winter months are not garlic-friendly; garlic is often slightly bitter and highly pungent – almost aggressive. It’s best to cut back on the amounts of garlic called for in recipes during the colder winter months.
Did You Know?
Imported garlic is often up to 4-5 times cheaper than locally grown garlic and can be subjected to questionable handling. They can include some or all of these practices:
Garlic can be soaked in bleach to produce an unnatural, clean look. The bleach often includes dioxin, a class one carcinogen.
Premature sprouting is controlled by soaking the garlic in maleic acid, which extends shelf life but poses an unnecessary health risk.
Irradiation extends shelf life but neutralizes healthy enzymes in garlic.
Some places soak imported garlic in methyl bromide to kill off unwanted intruders. This practice is commonly used in Australia and New Zealand, even though it is considered highly toxic and harmful to the ozone layer.
Garlic should be stored in a cool, dry location where air can circulate freely around the heads. Fresh garlic and green garlic should be refrigerated in the same way leeks or spring onions are kept.
Keep storage times to a minimum. Dried garlic can be kept for a month or two, but more extended storage could spark sprouting, drying and more aggressive flavors. Refrigerated fresh or green garlic should be limited to 2 weeks.
Garlic cloves can be peeled and frozen, but the flavor will change to something resembling an onion.
Never store raw or cooked garlic in oil for more than a day or two.
Cooking with Garlic
Recipes can unravel quickly in the kitchen, often due to using substandard products. But cooking techniques and preparation may also lead to strange and unwanted results...and garlic might be one of the most significant contributors to recipe failure by completely overwhelming the balance of flavors.
Once cut into, garlic begins to lose volatile compounds...and those compounds react with air. That interaction is called oxidation, and it causes rapid changes in flavor. Just 10-15 minutes of oxidation can cause a dramatic increase in bitter and acrid notes. Furthermore, the oxidation process intensifies the more the cell walls are crushed. And this is precisely why it is best to avoid using tools like a garlic press to squish cloves. Slicing cloves with a sharp knife or using a grater to slice cloves into smaller pieces creates less interaction between volatile enzymes and air...and a milder garlic presence in the food.
Here's how I break it down whenever I use garlic in recipes:
Whole Garlic Cloves: I’m often using garlic to perfume my food. One way I achieve this result is by leaving the peeled cloves of garlic whole – or mildly squished. I add the whole cloves to a soup, stew, pan full of vegetables, a pot of boiling peeled potatoes, and even a rice pilaf dish. The garlic becomes soft during the cooking process, and I leave it in the food instead of discarding it as many recipe instructions direct – I consider the cooked garlic clove a food bonus!
Slice or Grate Garlic: Slicing or grating garlic imparts more garlic flavor to the food, but it won’t overwhelm the dish. Using a garlic press to crush the garlic creates harsh reactions with air and strong flavors. Sliced or grated garlic burns fast in a hot pan, so be sure to add it toward the end of the cooking process or just before adding a liquid component that tempers the heat.
Use a cooked garlic purée: Create a garlic purée or roast garlic to soften the flavors and add some sweet notes (instructions for both methods are below).
Consider Garlic Alternatives: Many members of the allium family can be used to replace some or all of the garlic called for in recipes. Use sweet onions, shallots, leeks, chives, wild garlic, or green garlic.
Black Garlic – the new darling in the kitchen!
Black garlic is made by allowing the garlic heads to sit in a warm, moist, and controlled environment over several weeks. The process produces a deep brownish-black color with distinctive flavor notes of licorice, tamarind and caramel. The fresh garlic flavor disappears during the process. Black garlic has many culinary uses, including as a spread, to flavor sauces, to accompany chocolate, and to make black mayo.
My Accidental Aioli
This method for making a garlic purée was the most important cooking technique I learned while working in Italy.
I learned this method of cooking garlic while working in a fabulous Michelin-star-rated Ligurian restaurant called Locanda Miranda.
I began each day in the kitchen with a cup of espresso and a large pile of garlic bulbs. Sitting opposite the grandmother of this family-run restaurant and inn and working together, we separated the cloves from the dozen or so heads on the table, then carefully removed their peel. It was a painstaking task that consumed my first 30 minutes in the kitchen.
Once peeled, I would gather the garlic cloves and place them in a pot of cold water. I allowed the water to boil, then strained the cloves and repeated the process five times. I popped the cooked cloves into a blender and added a bit of extra virgin olive oil (always an oil from Verona) and a good pinch of salt. We used the blended purée as a base for many of the fresh sauces we made a la minute during service.
Angelo, the Chef and one of my mentors, explained that Italians didn’t like a harsh-tasting garlic flavor in their food. That revelation was surprising as I always equated garlic with good Italian food. But as I learned from Angelo, who also spent many years working in the Provence, most diners find too much garlic hard to digest, creating an uncomfortable imbalance in life.
It was the first lesson I learned while working in Angelo’s kitchen – and the method and philosophy remain with me to this day.
I like using this purée in the same way as aioli in the Provence because it is essentially identical to a classic aioli preparation of pounded garlic, olive oil and salt…only milder. As I learned from Angelo, my accidental aioli works great as a base for many sauces. But I also use it to make dips by combining it with vegetable purées or in making soy sour cream or mayonnaise. And I must admit…my favorite way to use this garlic purée is to spread a bit of it on toast while it’s still a bit warm – and that’s getting very close to kitchen nirvana.
Yield: 240 ml (about one cup)
3 heads of garlic
30 ml. (2 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil
60 ml. (1/4-cup) water
Separate all the cloves and peel them. Place the peeled cloves in a shallow pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook for 1 minute. Strain and repeat the process five or six times (the sixth time will yield a softer and milder puree). Puree together with sea salt, olive oil and water. Store refrigerated for up to 5 days in a glass jar (top off with a layer of olive oil).
Tips and Variations
I use a high-powered blender (Vitamix) to make this puree. I think it makes a velvety smooth purée that cannot be achieved in a food processor or mini blender.
Mix the cooked garlic with water and salt to make this puree without oil. The flavor will be a bit bitter and flat-tasting, but you can always add the fat you want (if you wish) when finishing the puree in a sauce or making a dip.
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Whole Roasted Garlic
Roasting garlic works best in spring and summer – long before garlic cloves sprout.
Roasting garlic produces soft cloves that are simple to squeeze out of their skin. The flavor is much sweeter than raw garlic because the natural sugars are slightly caramelized. But don’t be fooled. Despite the deliciousness, roasted garlic imparts an aftertaste that remains for a day or two.
I like to use roasted garlic to spread on grilled bread, mix into puréed potatoes, or boost the flavor of quick meals made in a pan – something like beans and vegetables.
Yield: makes enough for 4-6 appetizer servings
2-3 heads of garlic
2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2-3 fresh bay leaves or sprigs of fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).
Peel the loose outer skin from each head, leaving the cloves intact and attached to the root of the garlic head. Slice off the top 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) from the upper portion of each head. Arrange the heads, with the root end facing down, in an oven-proof baking dish, just large enough to contain the heads snugly in a single layer.
Add enough water to reach about 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) up the sides of the dish. Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil over each head and sprinkle with the salt. Place the bay leaves or thyme sprigs under each head of garlic. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for 10 minutes, ensuring the liquid doesn’t completely dry. The garlic is done when soft, squishy and slightly golden on top.
Tips and Variations
Replace the water with white wine or vegetable broth to impart more flavor to the cloves. This is best when using roasted garlic in soups or stews.
Add a bit of salt to the roasted garlic cloves to balance any bitter notes that may be present.
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