Sometimes you want garlic to add a little firepower to a dish, and sometimes you want it to slip in some savory depth or even nutty sweetness. The fact that it can offer such a spectrum of flavor is what makes garlic so invaluable—but also such a liability, since it can easily overwhelm hummus or pesto, or fall flat in a pasta sauce or saute. The trick is knowing how to treat and cook it so that you coax out just the results you want.
How to Shop for Garlic
Choose loose garlic heads, not those sold in cellophane-wrapped boxes, so you can examine them closely. Pick heads without spots, mold, or sprouting. Squeeze them to make sure they're not rubbery and that there aren't any soft spots or missing cloves. The garlic shouldn't smell like garlic at all; if it does, that means its cells have been damaged, which increases the risk of spoilage.
Different Types of Garlic
The majority of the garlic you’ll find at the supermarket year-round is a variety of softneck, since it stores well and is heat tolerant. Softneck garlics feature a circle of large cloves surrounding a small cluster at the center.
Distinguished by a stiff center staff surrounded by one layer of large, uniform cloves, hardneck garlic varieties have a more intense, complex flavor. But since hardneck garlics easily damaged and doesn't store as well, wait to buy it at the farmers' market when in season (usually late June through August).
Despite the name, elephant garlic is not actually garlic. Both aromatics are part of the allium genus, but elephant garlic belongs to the species ampeloprasum (the same species as leeks) while garlic is from the species sativum. Conventional garlic heads can boast as many as 20 cloves, but elephant garlic never has more than about six, and its cloves have a yellowish cast. Elephant garlic is not a substitute for true garlic. If you want milder garlic flavor, use less of the real stuff.
Aged “black” garlic is fermented in a temperature- and humidity-controlled machine for 30 days, followed by 10 days of air-drying. The resulting bulbs have loose-fitting, gray-purple skin and opaque black cloves. Straight out of the skins, the cloves have a sticky, chewy texture and a concentrated, notably sweet flavor reminiscent of molasses or reduced balsamic vinegar, with a mild garlic aftertaste. The one-of-a-kind taste of black garlic disappears when the allium is minced and added to a dish. Slice or roughly chop instead. Still, while black garlic might be worth trying, it’s no substitute for the potent taste of ordinary garlic.
How to Store Garlic
With proper storage, whole heads of garlic should last at least a few weeks.
DO store heads in a cool, dark place with plenty of air circulation to prevent spoiling and sprouting.
DON’T store cut garlic in oil for more than 24 hours. This may seem like an easy way to preserve leftovers, but since the bacteria that cause botulism grow in exactly this kind of oxygen-free environment, it's actually a health hazard.
Can You Freeze Garlic?
Yes. In fact, frozen garlic will keep for up to a month with no loss in flavor. Here’s how to freeze it:
Peel the cloves, mince or press them through a garlic press, and place the mince in a bowl. Add enough neutral-flavored oil (not extra-virgin olive oil, in case the dish you need it for calls for something else) to coat (about ½ teaspoon per clove), then spoon heaping teaspoons of the mixture onto a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the freezer until the garlic is firm, then transfer the frozen portions to a freezer-safe bag or container.
Note: Do not let the oil and garlic mixture spend much time at room temperature either before or after freezing. Botulinum bacteria won't be able to grow in the freezer, but the freezer won't be able to kill already-existing spores, either: They'll start growing again as soon as they warm up.
Four Ways to Peel Garlic
METHOD 1: CRUSH
Press against the garlic firmly with the flat side of a chef's knife to loosen the skin.
METHOD 2: ROLL
The E-Z-Rol Garlic Peeler relies on hand friction to quickly and efficiently remove the skin from cloves placed inside it.
Garlic PeelersWhen you need to peel garlic, you can whack the clove with the side of a knife blade, or you can use a garlic peeler. Which does a better job?
METHOD 3: MICROWAVE
Place the garlic on a microwave-safe plate and cook on high power 10 to 20 seconds; cool and peel.
METHOD 4: SHAKE
Remove the outer papery skin of a garlic head, place the head in a 2-cup wide‑mouth Mason jar, screw on the lid, and shake the jar for 30 seconds. Pour out the cloves and inspect them. If any still have skins, put them back in the jar and repeat.
Don't Bother Removing the Sprout
We've long recommended removing any green sprouts from garlic cloves before cooking with them, since we've found that sprouted garlic can make food taste more sharp or even slightly harsh. But when we recently revisited the topic, we discovered that it's not the sprouts that taste bitter, it's the cloves.
Sampled on their own, raw sprouts tasted herbal and grassy, while the cloves they came from tasted fiery and sharp compared to raw cloves that hadn't sprouted. If your garlic has sprouts, don't bother taking them out. And for more mellow, well-rounded garlic flavor in dishes that are garlic-forward, try to use cloves that haven't yet sprouted.
How to Manipulate Garlic’s Flavor
Garlic's pungency emerges only after its cell walls are ruptured, triggering the creation of a compound called allicin. The more a clove is broken down, the more allicin—and the more flavor (and aroma)—are produced. Thus you can control the amount of bite garlic contributes to a recipe by how fine (or coarse) you cut it.
Cooking also affects flavor intensity. Garlic is sharpest when raw. When it's heated above 140 degrees, its enzymes are destroyed and no new flavor is produced; only flavor created up to the inactivation temperature remains. This is why toasted or roasted garlic has a mellow, slightly sweet flavor. Alternatively, garlic browned (or overbrowned) at very high temperatures (300 to 350 degrees) results in a bitter flavor. (Garlic chips are the exception, since they are mellowed first, then crisped, which creates a sweet flavor with only hints of bitterness.)
Garlic Confit (e.g. cooked gently in oil)
Roasted Whole Head
Very mild, sweet, caramel-like
Toasted Whole Clove
Mellow and nutty
Slivered and Sauteed
Minced and Sauteed
Full and rounded
Pressed and Sauteed
Very robust, harsh
Sharp and fiery
How to Mince Garlic
Using a two‐handed chopping motion, run a knife over the garlic repeatedly to mince it. Keep one hand on the top of the blade and make sure to rock the blade back and forth as you move it across pile of garlic.
DO pay attention to how fine you chop garlic. The finer the mince, the stronger the flavor.
DON’T chop garlic in advance. In tests, we've found that since garlic flavor comes from the compound allicin—which is released and starts to build only when the cloves are ruptured—the longer cut garlic sits, the harsher its flavor.
Two Ways to Make Garlic Paste
In sauces such as garlic aïoli and pesto, a garlic paste adds the most robust flavor and keeps the garlic's texture unobtrusive. Here are two ways to make it.
METHOD 1: SALT AND DRAG
Sprinkle a mound of minced garlic with a coarse salt such as kosher. Repeatedly drag the side of a chef's knife over the mixture until it turns into a smooth puree.
METHOD 2: GRATE
Rub cloves against the sharp, fine holes of a rasp-style grater to reduce garlic to a paste.
How to Remove Garlic Odor from Cutting Boards
When we read about a study in the online magazine Science World Report that found that garlic breath can be eliminated by eating foods that brown, like apples and potatoes, we wondered if we could apply the concept to remove the odor from our boards.
When we tested three cutting boards rubbed with garlic paste—two treated with grated apple or potato and one with a baking soda paste—the boards treated with apple and potato had no trace of garlicky smell, winning the contest hands down. To learn more, read about our experiment.
Best Garlic PressesSure, you can mince garlic with a knife, but a good garlic press makes the job faster and easier.
In Defense of Garlic Powder
Garlic powder is simply dehydrated garlic ground into a fine dust that can be perceived as tasting flat. So why use it over fresh garlic?
Incorporating garlic powder into dry spice rubs introduces garlic flavor without adding moisture. Using garlic powder instead of fresh garlic to flavor grilled meats and vegetables also prevents the garlic from burning and becoming bitter.
We also employ garlic powder in our Really Good Garlic Bread to impart just enough roasty flavor on the bread without having to cook a whole head of garlic.
To bring out the fullest flavor in garlic powder, we found that you need to hydrate it in an equal amount of water first. Here’s why: Garlic powder producers are careful to dry garlic at temperatures low enough to remove water without destroying alliinase, which will happen at temperatures higher than 140 degrees. Once the water has been removed, the enzyme exists in an inactive state. Only with the reintroduction of water does alliinase “wake up” and begin producing allicin, which is responsible for garlic flavor.
Three Tips for Cooking with Garlic
DO wait to add garlic to the pan until other aromatics or ingredients have softened (push these to the perimeter) to avoid browning and the creation of bitter compounds.
DON’T cook garlic over high heat for much longer than 30 seconds; you want to cook it until it turns fragrant. And make sure to stir constantly.
DO add garlic to a cold pan when it is the only flavoring and cook it over low to medium heat to give it time to release its flavors and keep it from burning.
Roasted Garlic vs. Garlic Confit
Roasted garlic and garlic confit both offer creamy cloves that taste mellow and savory-sweet. But roasting has a couple of drawbacks.
Time: It takes hours of low heat to produce evenly nutty, spreadably soft garlic (air doesn’t transfer heat as efficiently as oil does). When roasted at hotter temperatures, the cloves cook unevenly, and sometimes the inner ones don’t color at all.
Yield: Some of the roasted garlic can get left behind when you squeeze out the cloves.