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Make the Most of Garlic’s Two Personalities

Depending on how you cook it, garlic can be mellow and delicate or punchy and assertive

by Jennifer McLagan

fromFine Cooking
Issue 92

If I had to catalog the ingredients always on hand in my kitchen, garlic would be near the top of the list. I can’t imagine cooking without it. In fact, I’m here to defend garlic from its infamous reputation for being too strong a flavor, leaving bad breath in its wake. The truth is that when cooked correctly, garlic can be mild and sweet or assertive and pungent—whichever way you like it. If you keep a few key principles in mind, it’s easy to control garlic’s intense flavor, with delicious results.

Garlic’s wild side flares up when it’s broken down. Pick up a head of garlic and take a good sniff: There is no smell. It’s not until you cut into garlic that it begins to give off its heady aroma. The more you chop it, the stronger the flavor and scent become, as sulfuric compounds and essential oils are released into the air—and into your cooking. So if you want to show off garlic’s robust side in your recipes, use minced, puréed, or mashed raw garlic. My rich garlic-rosemary butter is a good example. I mash coarse salt and raw garlic into a paste so it breaks down completely and intensely flavors the butter. It’s perfect if you’re a true garlic lover like me.

Cooking garlic for a short time tames some of its fire but keeps lots of good taste in your finished dish. Quickly sautéeing or infusing garlic will add lots of piquant garlic notes to your food without the characteristic sharpness. If this is how you like your garlic—punchy and aromatic—then the garlicky shrimp appetizer I’ve included here is for you. I like to treat shrimp to a double dose of garlic with an infused oil and gently cooked garlic slices. Then I temper the dish with fresh basil, wine, and lemon zest. Crusty bread is essential for mopping up the tangy sauce.

Garlic basics

Buying: Choose firm heads of garlic with tight, unblemished skin. Avoid heads that have sprouted or that have soft or shriveled cloves. They’re past their prime. Also, stay away from peeled cloves. They won’t last long without the protection of their papery skins.

Storing: Keep whole heads of garlic in a dark, cool, dry place for up to two months. Once broken into individual cloves, the garlic will last about two weeks. Don’t store your garlic in the refrigerator, as the moist air encourages mold.

Get Rid of the Germ: The sprout in the center of each garlic clove is known as the germ. When the garlic is fresh, the germ is tiny and pale in color. As garlic ages, the germ grows and turns green, becoming bitter and hard to digest. So always remove the germ (see photo above right), especially in recipes that call for raw or quickly cooked garlic.

Braise or roast whole garlic cloves, and their flavor mellows and sweetens. The longer and slower you cook garlic, the milder its flavor becomes as the sulfuric compounds dissipate. If you want to highlight garlic’s sweet side, this is the way to do it. I love slow-roasting whole heads of garlic with a touch of olive oil. The cloves soften and are easy to squeeze from their skins to add gentle caramelized garlic flavor to any dish you like. Braising garlic cloves yields similar sweet results, as you’ll see if you try my chicken recipe (pictured at the top of the page). Using 40 cloves of garlic sounds like a lot, but the finished dish is mellow because the braised garlic perfumes the meat and infuses the sauce without overwhelming it. As a bonus, you can squeeze the butter-soft garlic onto slices of toasted baguette as an accompaniment to the meal. For another take on garlic’s mild side, try making mellow garlic mashed potatoes by boiling the garlic cloves with the potatoes. Then mash them together with butter for subtle, creamy garlic flavor.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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