Countless recipes begin by sautéing a little garlic because the cloves of this edible bulb (a member of the lily family) are so very flavorful. Depending on how you cook it, garlic can be mild and sweet or assertive and pungent—whichever way you like it. Garlic is also used raw, often finely chopped or mashed to a paste, in bruschetta, Caesar salad dressing, and in flavored butters for making garlic bread.
2 large cloves = about 1 Tbs. finely chopped
A shallot can sometimes take the place of garlic in a marinade, vinaigrette, or in the sauté pan, but its flavor will be a little more onion-y.
Buy firm, plump, heavy heads with tight, unbroken papery skins. The heavier the garlic, the fresher, juicier, and better tasting it is. Avoid bulbs that are dried out or have soft spots or mold. Green shoots in a bulb are a sign of internal growth in the clove, which is an indication of old garlic. And as with other produce, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. Varieties vary in size, and many people find that a smaller bulb of garlic has more flavor than a larger one. Resist the convenience of prechopped garlic. It doesn't taste nearly as good as fresh garlic and won't keep as long.
To peel a clove of garlic, first break the skin. Set the clove on a cutting board and cover it with a flat side of a chef's knife. With the heel of your hand, apply light pressure to the knife blade—enough to split the skin, but not so much to crush the clove (unless, of course, you want it smashed). Remove the germ (the sprout in the center of the clove), especially if it's pronounced and especially for recipes that call for raw or quickly cooked garlic. For quick-cooking, chunky dishes, like pasta sauces and sautéed vegetables, finely mince or thinly slice garlic to get the best release of flavor. For long-cooking braises and stews, roughly chop or thickly slice garlic so it slowly melds with the other ingredients.
Store garlic in a cool, dry place. For just a few heads, a ventilated ceramic container or garlic keeper is perfect. If you buy a large amount of garlic, hang it in a mesh sack in your basement or garage—as long as it's cool and dry there. Never store garlic in a plastic bag, and keep it out of the fridge, unless you have a low-humidity drawer.