In his epic tell all, Kitchen Confidential, my favorite kitchen kermudgeon, Anthony Bourdain, had this to say about garlic.
“Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting. Please treat your garlic with respect. Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas; don’t burn it. Smash it, with the flat of your knife blade if you like, but don’t put it through a press. I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic. And try roasting garlic. It gets mellower and sweeter if you roast it whole, still on the clove, to be squeezed out later when it’s soft and brown. Nothing will permeate your food more irrevocably and irreparably than burnt or rancid garlic. Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”
Ah Tony Bourdain, never at a loss for words…
Is he over the top?
Is he correct?
I’d say 90% yes, but let’s just break down his specific contentions to be sure, shall we?
First off, we have the implied divinity of garlic: Is he right?
In a word, yup.
Allium Sativum, of the Family Rosacea, (why it’s sometimes called ‘the stinking rose), is indeed magic, and its broad, utilitarian beauty is admirable. No other veggie has that ethereal combination of bite, heat, and sweet that garlic packs. What the author doesn’t note is that all garlic is not created equal. There are hundreds of cultivated garlic varieties worldwide, which is great if you’re a gardener or know a generous one. If you have a green thumb and your cultivation zone can handle it, by all means grow it. Just Google ‘Heirloom garlic starts’ and you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of options. Otherwise, hit up your local farmers market or CSA and load up when the magic is in season.
Great garlic is usually not available year round to the vast majority of us. As such, some plan for preservation is in order. Drying is your best bet; while there is a certain loss of flavor, it’s a given that great garlic dried will be better than OK garlic fresh, so it’s worth the effort. You should peel the cloves, and at the least, cut ’em in half, though you can chop or mince if you like; process in a dehydrator or warm oven until they’re light and dry to the feel.
Please know that garlic in oil is not a safe methodology; garlic is a low acid food, and you’re begging for botulism here. Making garlic oil in small batches and freezing it is A-OK. Puree your garlic, mix it with good olive oil, strain it through cheese cloth or a fine, double sieve. This is another perfect ice cube tray application – freeze it that way and pop a cube out for use.
You can and should pickle garlic, it’s delightful and has a complexity like no other. Finally, garlic salt or pepper are nice options as well. Kosher or sea salt both work fine, though the uniform grain of kosher probably works best; for garlic pepper, use whole black tellicherry berries. 1/4 cup of garlic for each cup of salt or pepper will do the trick. Preheat your oven to warm, or 180° F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel the garlic cloves, then add them straight away with the salt or pepper to a food processor. Process for about 30 seconds, until you’ve got a uniform texture. Spread the results into an even, thin layer on your baking sheet. Bake for about an hour, until the results are crisp and dry. You do not want them to brown, so keep an eye on things. Transfer the salt or pepper back to the processor using the parchment. Pulse a few times to break things up to an even consistency. Stored in airtight glass jars, your housemade lovelies are good to go for 3 or 4 months.
If the grocery is your only option, then what you’re likely to find will break down into three varieties; Softneck, Hardneck, and Elephant.
Softneck Garlic is the most common variety you’ll find; this is the fat, white head of multiple cloves with several layers of papery, thin skin surrounding that you can score for roughly .50¢ a pop. It’s also the easiest variety to grow in a backyard garden. Softneck garlic has a fairly strong garlic bite and a sweet, pungent odor. Most garlic heads that have been braided together are softneck varieties. Common Softneck varieties include California Early, California Late and Creole.
Hardneck Garlic is a bit less common, but still can be found in grocery stores. Hardneck features lovely shades of purple through brown, with thin skins and larger and fewer cloves than the softneck stuff. These varieties are generally somewhat stronger in flavor and scent than the soft stuff, and they generally don’t store as well, so it’s prudent to use them quickly after you buy. Commonly found Hardneck varieties include German Extra Hearty and Roja.
Elephant Garlic is the third variant you’re likely to find. It features a big ol’ head of very large cloves that can approach shallots in size. Prized for its subtle, mild flavor and scent, elephant garlic is great for folks who don’t like their garlic too assertive.
Onward! Bourdain’s next claim is that garlic “can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly,” and that “misuse of garlic is a crime;” he is spot on here, though there are a couple of critical points left unstated.
First off, what the artist formerly known as Chef doesn’t say is this; more than how you prep it, the most important caveat for “correct” is how much garlic to use. Garlic is by nature potent, and this is why so many cooks over-season with it. Too much can bring out the negative aspects of its character every bit as much as improper cooking can. My simple rule is this: If the dish you’re making has garlic in the title, then you should use enough to bring it to the forefront of the flavor profile. When this is the case, do consider what form you’re going to use the garlic in. Let’s say you’re making garlic lamb or chicken; whole, peeled cloves added to a brine or marinade, or braised or roasted with the protein will deliver a lot of garlic flavor without blowing your socks off. Fewer cloves minced, diced, or crushed can be every bit as potent or more so than whole peeled cloves.
If garlic is not in a lead role, err to the side of caution and use less than you think you should. Let’s take chili for example – Garlic belongs here, but not as a dominant note. You’re after the subtle, sweet mouth feel a little garlic adds to a dish like this, so a moderate sized clove, one clove, will do for a whole pot of chili. That’s what I mean by subtle use; folks won’t even necessarily know garlic is there, but it will add that certain je ne sais quoi nonetheless. Consider adding peeled, whole cloves to soups, stews, and low and slow braised or roasted dishes; that’ll impart a nice, subtle background flavor, and some lucky diner gets to find a treat as well.
Next comes old garlic, and that is indeed a crime of epic proportion. Add to this, sub-par garlic. Since in large part we’re talking about gathering here, (AKA, shopping), then with whichever variety you’re hunting, do your due diligence. Choose firm, uniform heads with no soft spots, off colors, or smells. You should squeeze and scrutinize garlic as you would any other veggie you pay good money for.
Then there’s the storage thing. I’ll just tell ya straight up that garlic does not belong in the fridge, ’cause that will encourage sprouting, which leads pretty quickly to off flavors. Keep your garlic in a well ventilated, dry container, out of strong, direct sunlight. Garlic will last a month or two so stored, but as cheap as it is, you’re best served to buy a small head at a time and use it promptly.
When you’re ready to use the stuff, fresh garlic cloves should be firm and creamy white in color; if they’re yellowish, have brown spots, and/or are starting to sprout, toss it. That stuff will have a hot, bitter taste that is quite off-putting.
Burnt garlic comes next, and should we even have to say no to that? Actually, we do, because it happens far too often. Burnt garlic brings out the worst in this heavenly stuff, turning complex, sweet and pungent to bitter, sour, and overpowering. It will overwhelm everything else in a dish in a New York minute. Understanding how and why garlic burns is the key to avoiding this mess. Throwing garlic into a dish too soon often leads to burning: In a little oil in a saucepan over medium high heat, any form of processed garlic can and will burn within a minute or two at most; that’s why it should always be the last thing you add. Longer cooking under any kind of high heat will make garlic taste bitter, even if you don’t burn it. Smashing, pressing, mincing, dicing, and slicing garlic releases more flavor than cooking with whole cloves, but it also makes for a bunch more surface area that can potentially burn.
This ties into Anthony’s next assertion, castigating “garlic cut too long ago and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press.”
For the former, he’s right on the money. The longer garlic sits after being cut, the more the essential oils and compounds that make it great begin to break down into other, much less desirable constituents. Ideally, it should be prepped 5 to 10 minutes prior to cooking with it; this little rest helps stabilizes the garlic, making it more resistant to heat.
As to the latter, I respectfully disagree. Pressed garlic is no more a crime than puréed, smashed, or minced.
Furthermore, there not only is a place for all these variants in cooking, they may actually be good for us.
Garlic contains a sulfoxide derivative of the amino acid cysteine, called Alliin, as well as a catalyzing enzyme, Alliinase. In a whole clove, these constituents remain separated within the cell structure. Slicing, chopping, mincing or pressing garlic ruptures the cells, releasing these elements to combine and form a new compound, Alliicin, the primary biologically active compound within garlic. Alliisin is garlic’s defense mechanism, released to ward of pests in the natural world. It is responsible for the pungent aroma, as well as the bite/heat/power of the stuff. Alliicin has known anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, and may aid in the reduction of atherosclerosis, decrease blood pressure, and provide anti-inflammatory properties as well.
In short, sorry Tony, but chopping, mashing and yes, even pressing garlic finely, produces more Alliisin, and coincidentally, provides the strongest garlic bang for the buck.
He goes on to vilify any form of processed garlic sold in a jar, and for the most part, he’s right. That stuff is far from fresh, and whatever methods are used to shelf stabilize it aren’t anything you should be hankering for.
Next, Bourdain encourages us all to enjoy roast garlic, and upon this there can be nothing negative said.
Roast garlic is indeed food of the gods, and here’s how you do it.
Preheat your oven to 400° F and place a rack dead in the middle.
Prep whole heads of garlic by removing the thicker outer papery layers.
Leave the skins on the individual cloves and carefully remove about the top 1/4″ of each, exposing the cloves.
Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil in each clove, then loosely cover them with aluminum foil.
Roast for about 30 minutes until the tops of each clove is golden brown and they’re soft to the touch.
Allow the cloves to cool until handleable. Use a small fork or knife to extract the soft garlic and spread it onto fresh, crusty bread. Welcome to Heaven.
If roasted garlic is heaven, confit garlic is Valhalla.
Peel a few heads of garlic down to whole cloves.
In a small sauce pan over medium low heat, heat extra virgin olive oil through, then add the garlic, making sure all the cloves are fully submerged. Heat slowly but thoroughly for about an hour, until the cloves are soft. Keep the heat low so that the garlic doesn’t brown. Serve spread onto fresh, crusty bread with a nice glass of red.
Lastly, Le Tony notes, “Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”
And on that final note, we disagree completely.
As I mentioned before, great garlic dried is really good garlic, especially if you made it at home.