Do you love garlic? We, at Lust for Cooking, loooooooove garlic – often to the detriment of those standing near us. So why not take a closer look at this absolute kitchen must-have? Here is everything you’ve ever wanted to know about garlic – and then some.
- Garlic is a member of the allium family, which includes onions, shallots and leeks.
The use of garlic goes all the way back in recorded history and was considered medicinal in ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Babylon and India. Over the centuries it has been considered a cure for infections, wounds, cancer, leprosy, colds, flu, coughs, bronchitis, fever, ringworm and intestinal worms, liver and gallbladder problems, heart problems, and digestive disorders – basically everything – and is still used to treat many of these issues today.
- We do know that garlic is an effective antimicrobial, can help reduce cholesterol levels, and is effective in helping to prevent cancer and heart disease.
- While good for humans, everything in the allium family is very bad for dogs. Never feed your dogs anything with onion or garlic, including stock that may have been flavored with onion or garlic.
- In the past, garlic has been thought to ward off tigers, the plague, evils spirits, werewolves, and vampires. Turned out not to be so effective against the first two, but the jury is still out on the rest.
- Garlic’s potent odor and flavor come from a chemical reaction that occurs when a clove is sliced into or crushed. Within the cells lies an odorless, sulfur-containing amino acid that only comes into contact with an enzyme in the cell walls, called alliinase, when the cell is disturbed. When these two mix, the reaction creates a new enzyme called allicin. This is what causes garlic’s pungent flavor. (A similar reaction occurs in onions when they’re sliced and that’s the reason they make you cry.) Cooking garlic then softens the flavor by converting the enzyme yet again. Science!
- Because of the nature of this chemical reaction, the way you prep garlic will affect its potency. Slicing is less disturbing to the cells than crushing, so slicing garlic will produce a milder effect. (We at Lust for Cooking say crush the crap out of it.)
Does peeling garlic piss you off? There’s a trick to it. If you crush a clove of garlic with the flat of a knife, the skin will then peel right off. If you need a lot of garlic, say a whole bulb, crush the entire bulb with a frying pan. This will separate the cloves and start loosening the skins. Then place all of the cloves in hard lidded container and shake the crap out of it. That should finish the job. If you want to peel your garlic without crushing it, soak the cloves in hot water for five minutes. That should loosen the skins right up.
Garlic plants have different cooking applications throughout their life cycle. You can harvest the leaves and use them like chives. You can eat the scapes, which are the flower buds before they bloom. Scapes are milder in flavor, like a shallot, but can be used to flavor just like garlic. For more on scapes, check out Bon Appétit’s guide. And the bulbs themselves are delicious both young and green and at full maturity.
You can grow garlic by planting a clove in well-drained soil. The clove then produces more cloves and eventually become a bulb. Plant in late fall and they will start to shoot up in early spring. Hardneck varieties grow best in cold climates and softneck are better for warm climates.
There are many varieties of garlic. The varieties are divided into two categories “softneck” and “hardneck.”
- Hardneck varieties have a very tough woody stem that grows up the middle and which is not present in softneck varieties. Hardneck varieties include: Porcelain, Rocambole, and Purple Stripe (considered the best for roasting), and they are generally considered more robust in flavor. If you see some, buy it.
- Softneck garlic is typically what you see in a grocery store because they have a longer shelf life. Softneck varieties include Artichoke and Silverskin. They have a milder, grassy flavor, but are still delicious. Other notable incarnations include:
- Elephant Garlic so named because it’s, well, HUGE. It’s actually a misnomer as it’s more closely related to onions than to garlic. The flavor will be more like a shallot or leek, mild and onion-y.
- The elusive and highly coveted Black Garlic is actually not it’s own variety, but really regular garlic that has been fermented. Its flavor is supposed to be almost indescribable, though many have tried. Descriptions tend to come out something like, “delicious in a garlicy/vinagary/carmely/plummy/chewy/chocalately/bitter/sweet/umami-y kind of way.” You either love it or hate it.
- Creole Garlic is actually in a category by itself as it has both softneck and hardneck characteristics. It has a rosy hue and a spicy bite but is rare and can be rather difficult to find.
When shopping for garlic, be sure the bulbs are dry and firm. Garlic, especially softneck garlic has a long shelf life, so don’t worry about it going bad. Avoid garlic that’s starting to sprout green shoots, as it’s past its flavor prime (though it won’t make you sick or anything). Once that happens you may just want to plant it.
And finally, what to make with garlic? EVERYTHING. There is no way to narrow this down. But if you want a treat in it’s purest form, then roast it whole. Cut off the top quarter of the bulb, drizzle liberally with olive oil so that it gets into the crevices, wrap it in tin foil, and toss it on the oven for 30-35 minutes, or until soft, at 400 degrees (Fahrenheit). Then spread it on whatever you like: bread, vegetables, ice cream – just not the dog.