Things Every Garlic Lover Should Know

You’ve already fallen for garlic’s intense flavor, now find out just how versatile those small, fragrant cloves can be with this guide to prepping and cooking with garlic.

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Photo by: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Garlic is so beloved that there are entire festivals devoted to the most famous of the allium family (sorry, shallots). With a spectrum of flavors that span from spicy to sweet, it’s as versatile as it is popular. From the best peeling techniques to curing garlic breath, here's a primer for the true enthusiast. 

Not All Garlic is Equal

Garlic comes in as many unique varieties as apples do. The softneck variety--found near the onions in supermarkets — have that familiar fragrantly pungent garlic flavor, and yield up to 40 cloves. Look for heads that are heavy and dense, and store them in a cool, dry place for 1 to 2 months. Hardneck garlic — usually found at the farmers’ market — has a telling long, woody stem in the center and only about 12 cloves per head. It doesn’t store as long, but connoisseurs say the flavor is more complex. It's also responsible for garlic scapes--the slender, curly green stalks that shoot up out from bulbs in the ground. They make their appearance in the spring and are great sliced and tossed into a salad or pickled.

Whole Heads vs. Peeled Cloves

Cloves from whole heads of garlic have the best flavor. But there's no shame in buying the pre-peeled kind if you eat garlic like candy (they only last a few weeks and be sure to keep them refrigerated). Skip other convenience products like garlic paste and the pre-minced stuff: the time saved on prep isn’t worth the loss of flavor. Granulated and powdered garlic are better suited for rubs and should never be substituted for fresh — the flavor isn't even close.

Peeling 101

There's more than one way to peel a clove of garlic. If working slowly soothes you, then slice off the root end of each clove and peel away the papery skin. Seek out a silicon garlic peeler (a flexible, hollow tube) to pick up the prepping pace or microwave a whole head for 20 seconds and the peels will slip right off. If your tolerance for peeling is zilch, then try this hack: Break your garlic head apart by pressing down on it with the bottom of a stainless-steel bowl. Put the cloves in the bowl and seal, rim-to-rim, with another stainless seal bowl the same size. Hold the bowls together and shake vigorously for about 30 seconds--peeled cloves in an instant.  

That Green Thing

Odds are that you've sliced into a garlic clove and a bright green stem was waiting for you in the center. This signals that the garlic is sprouting and older, which means it also has less flavor (fresher garlic will have a pale-cream colored center). Some cooks think it has a bitter unpleasant flavor and pluck it out, while others don’t bother. We always opt to remove it in Food Network Kitchen.

How You Slice Matters

It's always best to let the cooking method be your guide for how to prep garlic cloves. For quick, high heat cooking like a stir fry, slice your garlic. The pale golden brown slices lose their hard edge but retain some of the pungency, even becoming a little nutty as you cook them. If you're planning to slow roast or braise, coax the sweetness out of your cloves by giving them a quick pound with the flat side of a knife before adding to the pot. For a vinaigrette or pesto, you'll want all that spicy pungency, so finely chopped or minced garlic is best. You can mince by hand with a sharp knife or use a garlic press or a food-safe fine rasp to finish the job quickly.

A Little Garlic Goes a long Way

Sometimes all you need is a hint of garlic. A piece of toasted bread or cooked steak is transformed by a quick rub with the cut-side of a halved garlic clove. Do the same thing to the inside of a bowl before making salad dressing or the pot for fondue. The fresh oils from the clove will leave behind the essence of garlic without its harshness.

Have a Garlic Adventure

Garlic is incredibly versatile. So think beyond just sauces and marinades and play with its myriad of distinct flavors and textures. Roast whole heads slowly in the oven for a sweet spread (drizzle a head with a little oil, wrap in foil and roast at 400 degrees F for about 45 minutes until the cloves are soft and caramelized. Then spread on a slice of crusty bread.) You can also pickle garlic and eat the cloves as a snack, or chop them up to add to sautéed vegetables. Or make garlic oil for drizzling by combining peeled cloves and olive oil in a saucepan, bringing it to a simmer and cooking until the garlic is tender. Cool, refrigerate and use within a few days (it's not safe to store at room temperature because of the risk of botulism). And if you're truly adventurous, hunt down black garlic at a specialty food store. Relatively new to Western markets, this fermented form of garlic is prized in Asian cuisine. Whole heads are slowly heated in a humid environment until the cloves are soft and black with an acidic molasses flavor. They add a pleasant funk to aiolis and vinaigrettes. 

Get Rid of Garlic Smell

After all that peeling, your kitchen should smell like garlic…not your hands. There are a few tricks for washing away volatile garlic compounds: clean your hands with soap and water and then work something stainless steel (like a spoon) between them. You can also try a good dousing with vinegar, followed by soap and water (take care if you have any cuts on your hands). And researchers at Ohio University conducted a study where participants freshened their garlic breath by chewing on apple slices, iceberg lettuce or fresh mint leaves. Garlic breath be gone!

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