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How-To

Mellow Garlic without Roasting

Cooking garlic slowly in olive oil gives it a gentle flavor and smooth, rich texture without the sticky, gooey mess

Fine Cooking Issue 49
Photos: Scott Phillips
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As good as most things with garlic taste, it’s the after-effect that I often remember most. Like the annoying Energizer bunny, garlic can keep on beating long after a meal is done. It’s not that I could ever live without garlic—flecked across roasting chicken or puréed in gazpacho, its sharp bite sparks a dish to life. But in preparations with more subtle intentions, I look for a kinder, gentler flavor.  

Roasting garlic seems the obvious solution. And I was content with this until restaurant work introduced me to the merits of cooking garlic slowly in oil. This produces the same desirable results as roasting—mellow flavor and a smooth, rich texture—but in a more efficient manner. You peel a bulb’s worth of garlic and then gently simmer it in oil on the stovetop. In about half an hour, you have soft, spreadable cloves and an almost nutty infused oil.  

I keep oil-cooked garlic handy to liven up even the most mundane of weeknight meals, using the slow-cooked cloves as other cooks might butter, to add a slight kick of body or richness. Their smooth texture makes them a flexible accompaniment; you can mash the cloves with a spoon and add them to a vegetable purée, stir them into a quick pan sauce, or spread them thinly on slices of warm, crusty bread. Unlike its loud raw counterpart, slow-cooked garlic revels in such treatment, mildly acquiescing to its surroundings.  

The infused garlic oil is just as adaptable; it’s perfect for marinating meats. You can also toss the oil with pasta and Parmesan, or serve it before a meal on its own with good, crusty bread (see below for more ideas).    

Peeling a bulb’s worth of garlic cloves is not the most enviable of tasks, but it’s not as tedious as it may seem. I put the individual cloves in a bowl, pour very hot water (tap water will do) over them, and agitate the mixture with a metal whisk. The hot water and movement both soften and loosen the skins. I drain off the water and then easily remove the skins with a paring knife. I’ve found that extra-virgin olive oil produces the most intensely flavored result. Grapeseed and canola oils also work well, as their light consistencies and flavors highlight the garlic.  

The garlic must be completely enveloped in the oil. Consequently, the amount of oil in the recipe varies according to the size of your smallest saucepan (the smaller the pot, the less oil you’ll need). It takes a little over a cup of oil to cover a bulb’s worth of garlic in the worn six-inch pot I favor in my kitchen. With the garlic submerged in oil, I set my small trusty pot over a low flame, the lowest on my stovetop. I leave the oil to simmer for 30 minutes, checking every so often to make sure that the oil doesn’t get too hot. It’s best to have the oil’s temperature hover around 210°F, hot enough to cook the garlic, but not to brown or fry it.  

As the water in the garlic cooks off, a steady stream of small bubbles rises to the oil’s surface. If the bubbling turns into more of a boil and the oil appears to be getting too hot, I remove the pot from the flame for a minute or two before returning it to the heat. After about 20 minutes, the garlic will begin to turn translucent as it cooks. After about a total of 35 minutes of cooking, the cloves will begin to dull again to an opaque, solid color. They should be soft enough to split with a metal spoon, and the oil will be deeply aromatic.  

I let the oil and the garlic cloves cool together so the flavors continue to develop before I separate them into jars and store them in the refrigerator, where they’ll keep for at least a week.

Using the garlic

• Spread cloves across crisped baguette rounds, along with roasted red peppers, black olives, and fresh thyme for crostini.
• Purée cloves with parsley, lemon zest, and garlic oil and spread across cod fillets before broiling.
• Substitute for fresh garlic in meatloaf.
• Wilt spinach in garlic oil; toss with a smashed clove at the end of cooking.
• Spread two cloves under the skin of a chicken, along with orange zest and fresh thyme, before roasting.
• Purée cloves with goat cheese, roasted eggplant, and fresh basil for a cool summertime dip.

Mashed potatoes: Whip slow-cooked garlic with potatoes, cream, and seasonings.

Using the oil

The oil is as multi-useful as the garlic, so experiment. Just don’t use the oil for high-heat cooking, like sautéing; low-heat use is fine.

• Vinaigrettes: Emulsify the oil with grainy mustard, sherry vinegar, and fresh tarragon.
• Chicken marinade: Cover chicken with the oil and fresh thyme and let sit overnight, refrigerated.
• Basting sauce: Mix the oil with balsamic vinegar and then brush on grilled vegetables or meats.
• A finishing touch: Drizzle the oil on grilled lamb or sautéed vegetables before serving.

Quick pasta: Pair garlic oil with basil, grape tomatoes, and Parmesan and toss with pasta.

Using slow-cooked garlic instead of raw

An easier way to peel a lot of garlic

Using slow-cooked garlic instead of raw

On some occasions and with some foods, the subtler influences of slow-cooked garlic is preferable to the sharp flavor and potentially badgering effects of its raw form (see the examples that follow). When substituting slow-cooked garlic for raw garlic, the proportions vary according to personal taste; I use about twice as much as I would raw.

• hummus
• guacamole
• garlic butter
• garlic bread
• pesto
• Caesar salad
• ranch dressing
• stuffed mushrooms

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