How many times have you sautéed garlic and onions to make a flavor base, only to find that the garlic has burned by the time the onions have softened?
There’s a simple fix that we routinely build into our recipes: Wait until the onions or other vegetables are almost completely softened—and then stir the garlic into the mix. Allow the garlic to cook for just 30 to 60 seconds before adding liquid or other ingredients to the pot.
A minute, tops, is all it takes for the garlic to turn fragrant and for its raw bite and crunch to soften a little. If it goes much longer without the addition of liquid or other ingredients, there’s a good chance it will burn and turn acrid and bitter.
Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter
The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.
Why Garlic Burns More Readily Than Onions Do
One obvious reason you need to take more care when sautéing garlic is that if you’ve minced it, the smaller bits will burn more easily than bigger pieces of chopped onions. Garlic also contains much less water than onions, which must release their water before they can break down into sugars. And garlic contains more sugar, which starts to brown and then scorches as soon as it gets hot.
How Cutting Garlic Impacts Its Flavor
Garlic’s characteristic flavor comes from a compound called allicin, which is produced when the walls of garlic are broken down. The more you slice, chop, or crush garlic, the more allicin is produced and the more pungent the garlic will be.
Why Sautéing Garlic Makes It Taste More Complex
Heat softens that pungency by converting garlic’s raw-tasting compounds into mellower ones called polysulphides. And even just a minute’s exposure to the heat of a pan allows its sugars and amino acids to undergo the Maillard reaction, turning the garlic flavor complex and sweet. If you add raw garlic directly to a bubbling pot of stew or soup, it wouldn’t impart the same complexity to your dish.
Two Tips for Cooking with Minced Garlic
If you’re preparing a dish that includes sautéing both garlic and onions (or other vegetables that require softening), make sure to:
- Wait to add the garlic until the last 30 to 60 seconds of cooking these components
- Keep the heat moderate or low to avoid burning the garlic
A bonus perk to waiting: If you let cut garlic sit, more and more allicin will be produced and evolve into other compounds, making it taste more complex as well as stronger. Even a 10-minute rest before cooking will increase garlic’s complexity.